Friday, January 30, 2009

Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis?

Studies shed light on multi-tasking, video games and learning

As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, while our visual skills have improved, according to research by Patricia Greenfield, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children's Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

Learners have changed as a result of their exposure to technology, says Greenfield, who analyzed more than 50 studies on learning and technology, including research on multi-tasking and the use of computers, the Internet and video games. Her research was published this month in the journal Science.

Reading for pleasure, which has declined among young people in recent decades, enhances thinking and engages the imagination in a way that visual media such as video games and television do not, Greenfield said.

How much should schools use new media, versus older techniques such as reading and classroom discussion?

"No one medium is good for everything," Greenfield said. "If we want to develop a variety of skills, we need a balanced media diet. Each medium has costs and benefits in terms of what skills each develops."

Schools should make more effort to test students using visual media, she said, by asking them to prepare PowerPoint presentations, for example.

"As students spend more time with visual media and less time with print, evaluation methods that include visual media will give a better picture of what they actually know," said Greenfield, who has been using films in her classes since the 1970s.

"By using more visual media, students will process information better," she said. "However, most visual media are real-time media that do not allow time for reflection, analysis or imagination — those do not get developed by real-time media such as television or video games. Technology is not a panacea in education, because of the skills that are being lost.

"Studies show that reading develops imagination, induction, reflection and critical thinking, as well as vocabulary," Greenfield said. "Reading for pleasure is the key to developing these skills. Students today have more visual literacy and less print literacy. Many students do not read for pleasure and have not for decades."

Parents should encourage their children to read and should read to their young children, she said.

Among the studies Greenfield analyzed was a classroom study showing that students who were given access to the Internet during class and were encouraged to use it during lectures did not process what the speaker said as well as students who did not have Internet access. When students were tested after class lectures, those who did not have Internet access performed better than those who did.

"Wiring classrooms for Internet access does not enhance learning," Greenfield said.

Another study Greenfield analyzed found that college students who watched "CNN Headline News" with just the news anchor on screen and without the "news crawl" across the bottom of the screen remembered significantly more facts from the televised broadcast than those who watched it with the distraction of the crawling text and with additional stock market and weather information on the screen.

These and other studies show that multi-tasking "prevents people from getting a deeper understanding of information," Greenfield said.

Yet, for certain tasks, divided attention is important, she added.

"If you're a pilot, you need to be able to monitor multiple instruments at the same time. If you're a cab driver, you need to pay attention to multiple events at the same time. If you're in the military, you need to multi-task too," she said. "On the other hand, if you're trying to solve a complex problem, you need sustained concentration. If you are doing a task that requires deep and sustained thought, multi-tasking is detrimental."

Do video games strengthen skill in multi-tasking?

New Zealand researcher Paul Kearney measured multi-tasking and found that people who played a realistic video game before engaging in a military computer simulation showed a significant improvement in their ability to multi-task, compared with people in a control group who did not play the video game. In the simulation, the player operates a weapons console, locates targets and reacts quickly to events.

Greenfield wonders, however, whether the tasks in the simulation could have been performed better if done alone.

More than 85 percent of video games contain violence, one study found, and multiple studies of violent media games have shown that they can produce many negative effects, including aggressive behavior and desensitization to real-life violence, Greenfield said in summarizing the findings.

In another study, video game skills were a better predictor of surgeons' success in performing laparoscopic surgery than actual laparoscopic surgery experience. In laparoscopic surgery, a surgeon makes a small incision in a patient and inserts a viewing tube with a small camera. The surgeon examines internal organs on a video monitor connected to the tube and can use the viewing tube to guide the surgery.

"Video game skill predicted laparoscopic surgery skills," Greenfield said. "The best video game players made 47 percent fewer errors and performed 39 percent faster in laparoscopic tasks than the worst video game players."

Visual intelligence has been rising globally for 50 years, Greenfield said. In 1942, people's visual performance, as measured by a visual intelligence test known as Raven's Progressive Matrices, went steadily down with age and declined substantially from age 25 to 65. By 1992, there was a much less significant age-related disparity in visual intelligence, Greenfield said.

"In a 1992 study, visual IQ stayed almost flat from age 25 to 65," she said.

Greenfield believes much of this change is related to our increased use of technology, as well as other factors, including increased levels of formal education, improved nutrition, smaller families and increased societal complexity.

What I Think:

I think we may benefit more as a society from research done on whether what is being taught in schools today is even relevant in the technology-based society that we live in, rather than asking whether technology is "producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis." Whether people like it or not, technology is here to stay. We live in a society built on the use of technology. Information and the web are the furture, yet most of the schools in this country's education system are still opporating under the 1950's model of preparing children for a workforce based on factories and labor jobs (even though many of these jobs have been sent overseas to be filled by cheaper labor.)

Ask children whether they like to learn. They will undoubtedly say yes. The quest for knowledge is hard-wired into humans. Ask children whether they like school, and they will likely say no. When are our school systems going to catch up to our rapidly changing economy and society? When are researchers going to understand that children are bored in schools where they are not taught subjects relevant to the world in which they live, where they are much more advanced and skilled than their teachers when it comes to technology and its uses?

Technology provides us with more opportunities for critical thinking and analysis than ever before as the amount of information available at one's fingertips is larger than any other time in recorded history. Maybe it is not that critical thinking and analysis skills have decline, just that they have shifted as society has shifted.

"Wiring classrooms for Internet access does not enhance learning," Greenfield said.

What kind of learning, I ask. Does teaching out of decades old text books enhance learning? Do we even learn the skills we need to survive and function as a productive member of society in school? Why was I never taught any history that occurred after World War II? (Many events relevant to the formation of today's society and political culture were not taught.) Why was I only taught American and European history when India and China have incredibly rich histories full of scientific, mathematical, and medical discoveries? (We now participate in a global economy in which India and China also participate.) Why was I never taught how to manage money or anything about loans, interest rates, or even balancing a checkbook? (All applications of mathematics relevant to everyday life.)

Wireless classrooms provide educators with the wealth of resources available on the internet to enhance and supplement lessons in a way more suited to today's students. Videos on any subject imaginable can be viewed for free on many sites, most notably, YouTube. Wireless classroooms also provide educators with the chance to interact with other educators across the country, to exchange ideas and teaching methods, and even conduct telelectures. Imagine a sixth grade science classroom watching live streaming video shot inside a greenhouse or on a farm, teaching them about organic farming methods and environmental sustainability. Virtual fieldtrips are just one example of how Internet access in classrooms can and DOES enhance learning. What experience is more memorable in the mind of a child - watching an exciting video in which they actually get to see what they are learning about in action, or listening to a teacher talk for 45 minutes about what is in a dusty text book that was written before the child was born? I'm not saying that we should rid our schools of books and replace them with laptops, but we must be prepared to ask what is more relevant to the society in which we live? The point of establishing an education system is to prepare today's youth to be tomorrow's leaders, is it not? How can we expect children to lead us into the future when our country's education system is stuck in the past? Our children are not failing us with poor test scores and declining critical thinking skills. We are failing them by not properly preparing them for the sometimes harsh and cruel world which they will inheriet from us. By applying technology in the classroom, and by utilising the internet we can ensure that children are better prepared for adulthood.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Greenhouse Hamburger

How Meat Contributes to Global Warming

Most of us are aware that our cars, our coal-generated electric power and even our cement factories adversely affect the environment. Until recently, however, the foods we eat had gotten a pass in the discussion. Yet according to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), our diets and, specifically, the meat in them cause more greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and the like to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry. (Greenhouse gases trap solar energy, thereby warming the earth's surface. Because gases vary in greenhouse potency, every greenhouse gas is usually expressed as an amount of CO2 with the same global-warming potential.)

The FAO report found that current production levels of meat contribute between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of "CO2-equivalent" greenhouse gases the world produces every year. It turns out that producing half a pound of hamburger for someone's lunch a patty of meat the size of two decks of cards releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.

In truth, every food we consume, vegetables and fruits included, incurs hidden environmental costs: transportation, refrigeration and fuel for farming, as well as methane emissions from plants and animals, all lead to a buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Take asparagus: in a report prepared for the city of Seattle, Daniel J. Morgan of the University of Washington and his co-workers found that growing just half a pound of the vegetable in Peru emits greenhouse gases equivalent to 1.2 ounces of CO2 as a result of applying insecticide and fertilizer, pumping water and running heavy, gas-guzzling farm equipment. To refrigerate and transport the vegetable to an American dinner table generates another two ounces of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases, for a total CO2 equivalent of 3.2 ounces.

But that is nothing compared to beef. In 1999 Susan Subak, an ecological economist then at the University of East Anglia in England, found that, depending on the production method, cows emit between 2.5 and 4.7 ounces of methane for each pound of beef they produce. Because methane has roughly 23 times the global-warming potential of CO2, those emissions are the equivalent of releasing between 3.6 and 6.8 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere for each pound of beef produced.

Raising animals also requires a large amount of feed per unit of body weight. In 2003 Lucas Reijnders of the University of Amsterdam and Sam Soret of Loma Linda University estimated that producing a pound of beef protein for the table requires more than 10 pounds of plant protein with all the emissions of greenhouse gases that grain farming entails. Finally, farms for raising animals produce numerous wastes that give rise to greenhouse gases.

Taking such factors into account, Subak calculated that producing a pound of beef in a feedlot, or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) system, generates the equivalent of 14.8 pounds of CO2 pound for pound, more than 36 times the CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emitted by producing asparagus. Even other common meats cannot match the impact of beef; I estimate that producing a pound of pork generates the equivalent of 3.8 pounds of CO2; a pound of chicken generates 1.1 pounds of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases. And the economically efficient CAFO system, though certainly not the cleanest production method in terms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse emissions, is far better than most: the FAO data I noted earlier imply that the world average emissions from producing a pound of beef are several times the CAFO amount.

What can be done? Improving waste management and farming practices would certainly reduce the "carbon footprint" of beef production. Methane-capturing systems, for instance, can put cows' waste to use in generating electricity. But those systems remain too costly to be commercially viable.

Individuals, too, can reduce the effects of food production on planetary climate. To some degree, after all, our diets are a choice. By choosing more wisely, we can make a difference. Eating locally produced food, for instance, can reduce the need for transport though food inefficiently shipped in small batches on trucks from nearby farms can turn out to save surprisingly little in greenhouse emissions. And in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, people could eat less meat, particularly beef.

The graphics on the following pages quantify the links between beef production and greenhouse gases in sobering detail. The take-home lesson is clear: we ought to give careful thought to diet and its consequences for the planet if we are serious about limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Nathan Fiala is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on the environmental impact of dietary habits. He also runs evaluations of development projects for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. In his spare time he enjoys independent movies and sailing. His study of the environmental impact of meat production on which this article is based was recently published in the journal Ecological Economics.

Seed bank for the world threatened by financial crisis

By Georgina Cooper

ARDINGLY, England (Reuters) - A seed bank that is trying to collect every type of plant in the world is now under threat from the global financial crisis, its director says.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project aims to house all the 300,000 different plant species known to exist to ensure future biodiversity and protect a vital source of food and medicines, director Paul Smith said.

The project is on track to collect 10 percent of the total by 2010 but the financial crisis is drying up funding, casting serious doubts on future collections, he said.

About half the funding comes from the National Lottery and the rest from corporate donations.

But with businesses tightening their belts in the economic downturn and preparation for the 2012 London Olympics sapping lottery money, the pot is about to run dry.

Smith hopes government money and international groups will come through with the nearly 10 million pounds per year needed to keep the bank going. But if that does not happen, new collections and research will stop, he said.

"We would say that this is an exceptional bank and that the assets within it, the capital that we have built up, is unique and we can't squander this," Smith told Reuters Television during a tour of the facility south of London.

Each seed costs about 2,000 pounds to collect and store.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project is the only project of its kind in the world which aims to collect and conserve all the planet's wild plant diversity, Smith said.

Human activities, such as clearing forests, have put flora and fauna at risk. Because most of the world's food and medicines come from nature, protecting plant species is critical, scientists say.

For example, it was only 30 years ago that Catharanthus roseus, a small pink plant also known as the Madagascan periwinkle, was found to contain compounds used in cancer drugs.

"Thirteen million hectares of forest are cleared every year -- that's an area the size of England -- and of course the plant species which occur there are going the same way," Smith said.

There are 1,400 other seed banks in the world that store about 0.6 percent of the world's plant diversity. The Millennium Project run by Kew Gardens -- one of the world's oldest botanical gardens -- aims to collect the rest, he said.

Managing the deposits involves far more than simply filing them away for safekeeping. Seeds from across the globe arrive at the bank in packets of all sizes, where they are catalogued, tested and experimented on.

They are separated from husks, cleaned and dried again before final storage in an underground vault at minus 20 degrees Celsius, where they can last for up to thousands of years. The vaults are designed to withstand a nuclear accident.

A third of the planet's plants are categorized as threatened with extinction, which could have dramatic effects on human life, trade and the environment, Smith said.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sustainable Urban and Vertical Farming

Urban Agriculture Blooms

Urban Farming Grows Up

DIY Home Gardening Projects

Build a Rain Barrel
Build a Homemade

Hydroponics System

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

100 Foot Diet - Freedom Gardens

Grow what you eat, eat what you grow

With a nod to the 100 mile diet (spearheaded by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon) and other eat local challenges, Freedom Gardens is presenting a challenge to bring food even closer to home. The 100 Foot Diet Challenge reduces the traveling distance from field to table from miles to a few steps—right outside your back or, even, front door.

You don’t even need acreage to be a “farmer.” Use your yard (or balcony or porch steps) not only to grow your diet but also to cultivate a healthier and more fulfilling life.

In the spirit of courage and “we-can-do-it” attitudes of previous generations who planted gardens in their front and back yards to support their countries’ war efforts, today we undertake the challenge to declare independence from corporate food systems and start a living protest right in our own back/front/side yards by planting for freedom!

■The challenge is simple. Begin as soon as you can; prepare a meal at least once a week with only homegrown vegetables, fruit, herbs, eggs, dairy products or meat, using as few store bought ingredients as possible.

■The purpose is plain. The undertaking of an all-out struggle for freedom from the forces that keep you dependent on the system of petroleum fueled food. The degree to which you rely on today’s artificial corporate structure determines the extent of your vulnerability. Resolve to lessen your dependence on outside food sources.

■The result is revolutionary. As you take back responsibility for your food supply, you’ll experience the empowerment and fulfillment that comes from learning the basic skills of providing for yourself and your family.

By planting a Freedom Garden and taking on this challenge, you, your family, and the planet will benefit.

■Eat more nutritious food, which leads to better health
■Reduce your exposure to unwanted, toxic pesticides
■Reduce the number of miles your food travels, lessening your dependence on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions
■Increased food security
■Improved quality of life through living in harmony with nature and eating with the seasons
■Save money; make money (see DerVaes Gardens)
■Reduce excessive packaging
■Combat global warming
■Get involved in your local food community
■Become independent of corporate food systems

Together, let us declare our independence and sow the seeds of freedom. This is a true revolution!

Visit this site to learn more about Freedom Gardens and to join this revolution!

I already attempt to eat as much locally produced food as possible, but even for me, this really is a challenge. Especially in the winter in Kentucky. As I mentioned in my last post, I recently bought a grow light to assist with growing sprouts and wheatgrass indoors, and to have my seedlings ready to plant come spring. I also always have at least one jar of sprouts growing at a time, whether alfalfa, lentil, clover, or some kind of bean or pea or grain. I have some potted herbs, but the lack of sunlight in the winter has been hard on them.

I always buy local first (local honey and apples are available pretty much year round, as are local raw cheeses and butter.) If I cannot find local, then I buy organic. I try not to buy things out of season, but I just love avocados and have a hard time going without. I have been buying winter greens, such as kale, which is actually cheaper than other greens this time of year.

This is my challenge for myself:

1. Grow and eat as many sprouts as possible until I can plant my garden.
2. Buy local/organic first, then organic, and seasonal produce as much as possible.
3. Make my own rather than buying (sauerkraut, kim chee, kombucha, mead, yogurt, etc.)
4. Grow the largest garden I can this spring and summer using heirloom and organic seeds.
5. Plant a fall and winter garden and maintain a passive solar greenhouse over the winter.
6. Set up rain barrels, use ocean water, and minerals on all garden plants.
7. Plant wild flowers because they are pretty and they attract bees to pollenate my garden.

HOMEGROWN REVOLUTION - Radical Change Taking Root

As I watched this video, I suddenly became aware that I had tears running down my face - tears of joy, tears of inspiration. This is my goal - to live self-sufficiently and sustainably. To grow as much of my own food as possible. Since I was very young, I have always felt a calling back to the land, although I was not quite sure until more recent years just what that calling was.

It is radical to grow your own food. To be independent. To put your love and intention into the food you grow and eat. Growing your own food puts you back in control of your life, your health. You control what foods you grow and how they are grown. No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or genetically modified crops. Organic and heirloom variety seeds; seeds which you can save and replant year after year.

I have recently purchased a grow light and will be starting the seedlings for my first large-scale garden as soon as I can. I also grow sprouts indoors year round, and with the light, I will be able to grow pea shoots, sunflower shoots, and wheatgrass in my kitchen. I have plans for building a greenhouse utilising passive solar heating during the cooler months. I have some garden experience (we always had one growing up) and I plan on visiting my grandparents often to learn from them. They have always had a nice sized garden as far back as I can remember. Every year they grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, lettuce, green onions, corn, squashes, cucumbers, and more. And they always have way more than they can eat themselves. I plan on learning the valuable art of canning and jarring from them this year. This is very exciting, but also somewhat overwhelming. I have to build raised beds, till up the soil in my back yard, mix in compost, learn about adding ocean water and minerals, and more. I feel like I am taking on such a challange, but one that will be well worth it in the end.