Consumer Safety: Antifreeze in Toothpaste

We’re ever thankful when our students come to school with freshly brushed teeth, but could there be a circumstance under which you would suggest your students not use toothpaste? In May of 2007, BBC News reported that the Chinese government was investigating charges that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze, had been exported to other countries.

In the following months the New York Times, Fox News, and others identified the tainted brands of toothpaste and locations where they were sold. Some brands were found to contain the compound even though it wasn’t listed as an ingredient. Unfortunately for China, the tainted toothpaste adds to a growing list of product-safety breaches, including a similar incident with cough syrup in 2006 and, more recently, the use of lead-based paints in children’s toys.

In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission provides information and issues safety alerts on consumer products. In the wake of the incidents involving lead-based paint on toys, the Commission reached an agreement with China, requiring imported toys and some other products to meet U.S. safety standards. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration got involved with the tainted toothpaste issue, developing a web page devoted to the problem.

To what extent should individuals rely solely on government agencies to look out for their personal safety? How much scientific literacy do consumers need to be able to read labels and make informed decisions regarding their own health and safety? These questions are addressed in an October 1, 2007, article in the New York Times, The Everyman Who Exposed Tainted Toothpaste. This article tells the story of how one person, Eduardo Arias, brought the issue of tainted toothpaste to the attention of the world.

Arias is a Panamanian government employee responsible for reviewing environmental reports, but that’s not the reason he recognized the compound in the list of toothpaste ingredients as toxic. Rather, he was made aware of diethylene glycol’s toxic effects when, in 2006, almost 100 people died after consuming tainted cough syrup from China, another story reported by the New York Times. Bringing the danger of the tainted toothpaste to the attention of the proper authorities required Arias to cut through the government bureaucracy at three levels and cost him a considerable amount of personal time. His story exemplifies the human side of safety in society and personalizes an issue that could easily be perceived as something the government is solely responsible for. His story should inspire others to do the right thing, despite the probable inconvenience doing so brings.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

What’s so dangerous about diethylene glycol? Why would it be used in toothpaste? How can average citizens be proactive in maintaining their own and others’ safety when it comes to consumer products? These are questions for inquiry that align with several of the National Science Education Standards in the areas of Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

The intention here is not to scare middle school students, but to show them there are mechanisms in place to maintain our safety, and these mechanisms require active, informed, scientifically literate citizens. We all have a responsibility to stay informed. Teachers have a responsibility to assist students in learning where and how to access the needed information as well as how to evaluate it for its authenticity, validity, and usefulness. This approach provides opportunities to integrate skills and knowledge in language arts, social studies, and science.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published October 3, 2007 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

 

Polar Bears and PCs: Technology’s Unintended Consequences

How Does an iPod Affect a Polar Bear?

Photo courtesy of Amanda Graham (Yukon White Light) via Flickr.

When we talk about the problems of global climate change, we tend to focus on cars and coal-burning power plants as major contributors. Yet there are other significant players, including consumer electronics. The number of cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, and flat-screen TVs is increasing rapidly, and not just in wealthier nations. It is estimated that one in nine people in Africa has a cell phone – and those numbers are expected to continue growing.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that new devices such as MP3 players, cell phones, and flat-screen TVs will triple energy consumption. Two hundred new nuclear power plants would be needed just to power all the TVs, iPods, PCs, and other devices expected to be used by 2030.

For example, consider televisions. The IEA estimates that 2 billion TVs will soon be in use across the world (an average of 1.3 TVs for every household with electricity). TVs are also getting bigger and being left on for longer periods of time. IEA predicts a 5 percent annual increase in energy consumption between 1990 and 2030 from televisions alone.

While consumer electronics is the fastest growing area, it is also the area with the least amount of policies to control energy efficiency. Total greenhouse gas emissions for electronic gadgets is currently at about 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If nothing is done, the IEA estimates that the figure will double to about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. However, the agency says that existing technologies could reduce this figure by 30-50 percent at little cost. Allowing consumers to regulate energy consumption based on the features they actually use, minimum-performance standards, and easy-to-read energy labels can help consumers make smarter energy choices about their personal electronics.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

This story connects to two National Science Education Standards domains: Science and Technology and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives. The Science and Technology content standard states:

Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

The Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard includes resource use and depletion, human-induced and naturally occurring hazards, and science and technology in society.

Ask students to consider electronic gadgets – cell phones, digital cameras and video cameras, MP3 players, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and so forth. Have students brainstorm the benefits of these devices. Easier communication, access to data, entertainment, and mobility will probably come up. Then ask students to brainstorm “costs” or negative characteristics. Expense will certainly be mentioned, but will the energy cost?

If you have access to an electric power monitor such as a Kill-a-Watt, you can have students plug in different gadgets and compare power consumption. This simple activity can give rise to a number of inquiry-based investigations, such as: What’s the most energy-efficient MP3 player?; Do laptops and desktops consume the same amount of power?; Does screen size (on an MP3, cell phone, laptop, or TV) affect power consumption?; and so on.

Share some of the figures from the IEA report with students. Discuss the idea that making technology (cell phones, laptops and Internet access) available to more people is a good thing, but there are intended and unintended consequences. Greater access to technology enables widespread communication and promotes education, but also requires more energy – most of which comes from fossil fuels. Burning those fossil fuels releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and causing Arctic sea ice decline. So all those iPods do impact polar bears after all.

Rather than leave students discouraged, present them with a challenge. Remind them of the many benefits of technology and acknowledge that electronic gadget use will continue to grow rapidly. How can science and technology address the unintended environmental consequences of these tools? Assign small groups of students a particular piece of technology and have them brainstorm ideas that would promote energy efficiency – either on the part of the consumer or the manufacturer, or both. Have groups present their solutions to the class and discuss them. What common solutions were raised? What can students and their families do now to use their electronic devices in a responsible manner?

Here are some related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Energy Sources, The Power of Electricity,  What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence. The October 2008 issue of the free online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears included articles about natural resources, the NEED project, and energy efficiency activities for home and school.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published June 1, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Crop Failures and Food Riots

In the spring of 2008, many news outlets reported that rice crop failures in East Asia could have been avoided. An infestation of the brown plant hopper is the cause for the crop failure. The science knowledge and biotechnology needed to breed resistant rice plants have been in existence for several years. However, funds were not available to mass produce these rice strains and get them into the hands of rice growers. This is one example of crop failure that, when combined with other agricultural woes, fueled food riots around the world, but especially among the poorest people in the least developed nations.

The New York Times published an article that comprehensively describes how this preventable tragedy happened – World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut. As with most sociopolitical issues, a combination of circumstances over a long period of time must be considered if one is to accurately account for the current crisis. The article conveys the history of agriculture research, including the Green Revolution of the 1960s and the great advances that emerged then. Ironically that successful movement contributed to the current lack of available funding; as agriculture problems were solved and world food supplies outpaced demand, research money was directed elsewhere.

The article, part of a series on the world’s food production, includes a nice depth and breadth of information concerning agricultural research. Several photos and related links are included.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The issues described in the news article connect to the History and Nature of Science, Life Science, Science and Technology, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards. Here, we narrow our focus to the first two standards. However, this topic – world food supplies as related to agriculture and biotechnology – could easily serve as basis for an interdisciplinary unit in the middle grades.

Do any of the students have experience in growing vegetables? Ask students, what are some of the problems gardeners have to deal with in order to maintain their vegetables? What are some ways to deal with those problems? Help students to include the problem of insect pests in the discussion. Is it reasonable to assume that growers of crops on a large scale also have the same or similar problems? Can growers use the same approaches to deal with their problems that the gardener uses? Why or why not?

Ask students if they can identify one food plant, or crop, that is probably the world’s most common source of food. Consider keeping a list of all ideas and then asking the class to think carefully and critically when they answer these questions: What crop could probably be eliminated from the list, compared to the rest of the list? Why do they believe the food they are choosing to eliminate is probably not the world’s top food crop? You will hope that rice remains on the list!

Ask students to imagine that an insect has infested a large part of the world’s most important food crop. Consider putting the students in small groups in which they predict the consequences of an infestation. You might stipulate that they must have a clear prediction with logical justification for each domain: economy, culture, public health, government, military, and education. Next, ask them to articulate one or two questions that science could investigate in the hope of avoiding the consequences their group identified. For example, Which varieties of rice are most insect resistant? What other food crops can be grown in the areas where rice is currently grown? What nutritional substitutes should/could be distributed to areas where rice is in short supply? Students’ questions will vary widely and all are correct, as long as the questions can be subjected to scientific investigation and seem to point toward a solution to the stated problem.

Share with students the New York Times article, showing that such an event – insect infestation of an important crop – actually happened. Show them the pictures at the story’s web site. Inform them that the knowledge and technology necessary to prevent this disaster already exist. Ask students to speculate then on how this could have happened if people already know how to combat it. Lead them to understand the complexity of the history, funding, cultural values, and competition for funding as contributors to the situation. Finally, confirm and affirm the students’ predictions. They may have heard about food riots for example, in Africa and elsewhere. Ask them what direction they think governments and researchers should go next? Why?

As an extension, you could elaborate on the evolution aspect of the story: the way the bug has evolved through natural selection made possible by use of insecticides.

Here are additional resources from the National Science Digital Library Middle School Portal related to gardening, agriculture and natural selection: Thinking Green? Grow Your Own!; What Are Seed Banks and How Do They Work? and Dr. Saul’s Biology in Motion.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 21, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/19/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Influenza: History, Science, Strains, Detection, and Protection

Every middle school student has heard of the flu. They may even have had it, or more likely, they have had some other virus described as the flu. Most students would consider the flu unpleasant, but probably not potentially fatal. Now is a good time to help students learn more about influenza. But where do you start? I have put together some highly regarded resources on the web, designed to provide you with 1) solid background knowledge and 2) a variety of teaching resources.

A study of influenza aligns well with the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives,  Science as Inquiry, and Life Science standards of the National Science Education Standards as well as the notion of systems thinking. Perhaps the best pedagogical approach would be to start with personal and social perspectives. That way we start with the somewhat familiar and then bridge to the unfamiliar, more abstract notions of virus and epidemiology.

What Is the Flu?

Open this question up to the class and record all student responses on the board or, better yet, chart paper that can be saved and revisited later. The responses can serve as a pre-assessment or benchmark. Do not pass any judgment or offer any corrective feedback at this point. When students have run out of ideas, tell them it’s time to do a little research to find out whether what they know is accurate and complete.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?
Begin with this concise PDF from the National Institutes of Health. Page 2 is a Spanish translation. Most students will be able to relate to the listed symptoms. While both colds and the flu are caused by a virus, they are distinctly different. Is vomiting or nausea on the list? Are antibiotics listed as a treatment? Do students want to revise their chart paper list?

History and Society: What Is a Pandemic?

Below are three articles, all published up to four years before the recent swine flu outbreak, that will familiarize you with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. You may choose to use one of these, in perhaps a modified form, to help students get a concept of pandemic, its impact on society, and what was learned from it.

1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics

Spanish Flu of 1918: Could It Happen Again?

The 1918 Flu Killed Millions. Does It Hold Clues for Today?

The Science of Influenza

These resources will familiarize you with the more technical aspects of a virus, how the body responds, and how antiviral drugs work. You will recognize the puzzle-solving aspect of science. Observations inspire hypotheses, which are tested and tweaked as more observations are gathered.

Epidemic!
This simple simulation illustrates how quickly a virus spreads and how scientists use observations to track its origin.

The Big Picture Book of Viruses
This site contains more information than almost anyone would want. However, scroll down to see several electron micrographs of various influenza strains.

Image of bacteria cell covered in viruses
Although this is not an image of a flu virus attacking a human cell, it does give the viewer the sense of scale — that viruses are much smaller than bacteria. Be mindful that bacteria are, in turn, much smaller than our body cells.

Antibodies Neutralize Multiple Flu Strains
This March 2009 page from the National Institutes of Health reports:

Two separate scientific teams have discovered antibodies that attach to a vulnerable region in a broad range of influenza A viruses, including the H5N1 avian virus, the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, and seasonal H1N1 flu viruses. The finding could potentially help scientists develop tools to prevent or treat the flu during an outbreak or pandemic.

Antiviral Drugs and H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu)
We know that antibiotics don’t work against viruses, and up until recently we were told there was nothing we could do about viral infections but wait them out. In April of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the benefits of some antiviral drugs: “There are four influenza antiviral drugs approved for use in the United States (oseltamivir, zanamivir, amantadine and rimantadine). The swine influenza A (H1N1) viruses that have been detected in humans in the United States and Mexico are resistant to amantadine and rimantadine . . .”

What Is the Swine Flu?

These resources focus on the current H1N1 strain.

Q&A: Why Is Swine Flu Such a Big Deal?
This article points out that this particular strain is killing young, otherwise healthy people. Contrast that with the fact that older people and very young children are more often victims of the flu, most dying of pneumonia. That is cause for concern.

H1N1 (Swine Flu)
The official page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with updated confirmed cases and their locations. A discussion with students of the science of epidemiology would be appropriate here.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 4, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/9/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence

Looking for a way to incorporate real data into your science class? Or maybe you want to work on evidence-based claims and reasoning. Perhaps you need an engaging way to tackle the subject of climate change. This lesson uses polar bears and sea ice data to promote critical thinking within the context of an important current event.

Lesson Objectives

  1. Students will be able to visually represent data by creating meaningful graphs.
  2. Students will make claims based on graphical evidence and support those claims with evidence-based reasoning.

National Science Education Standards

This lesson closely aligns with three of the Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards (NSES): Science as Inquiry, Life Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

Science as Inquiry: Abilities Necessary to do Scientific Inquiry (Grades 5-8)

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Life Science: Populations and Ecosystems (Grades 5-8)

  • Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Natural Hazards (Grades 5-8)

  • Human activities also can induce hazards…Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.

Engage

Begin the lesson by showing footage of polar bears in Hudson Bay with wildlifeHD’s Polar Bear Cam. Conduct a brief class discussion to elicit prior knowledge about the bears. Next, share some facts about polar bears with students, such as:

  • So far this fall, tour operators and scientists have reported at least four and perhaps up to eight cases of mature males eating cubs and other bears in the population around Churchill, Manitoba. (From Hungry polar bears resorting to cannibalism, December 3, 2009)
  • There are increased bear-human interactions, increased numbers of bears on shore, and bears staying on shore for longer periods of time in the Canadian Arctic. (From Can You Bear It? Churchill a Polar Pioneer, November 18, 2009)
  • The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has listed eight of 19 polar bear subpopulations as currently decreasing, three as stable, and one as increasing. For seven, data were insufficient to assign a trend. (From Polar Bear Status Report, July 6, 2009)

You may wish to share the facts orally, list them on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, or create mock headlines for students to read. Ask students to discuss the facts in small groups, and come up with explanations for the facts (or headlines). Conduct a class discussion to share students’ explanations, and record and post them in a central location.

Explore

Next, group students into teams of 4 or 5 for an Idea Circle about polar bears. In an idea circle, each student reads a nonfiction (informational) text of their own choosing on a particular subject (in this case, polar bears). As each student selects his own text, a variety of reading levels and formats are represented within each small group and within the class. Ideally, no two students read the same text. Idea circles are an excellent strategy for differentiated instruction and a wonderful opportunity to incorporate children’s literature into a middle school classroom.

For an idea circle on polar bears, we’ve suggested titles from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears virtual bookshelves, including:

  • Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear. Nicola Davies. 2005.
  • Life Cycle of a Polar Bear. Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman. 2006.
  • Baby Polar Bear. Aubrey Lang. 2008.
  • Why Don’t Polar Bears Have Stripes? Katherine Smith. 2004.
  • A Polar Bear Journey. Debbie S. Miller. 2005.
  • Polar Bears: Arctic Hunters. Norman Pearl. 2009.
  • Ice Bears. Brenda Z. Guiberson. 2008.
  • Polar Bear Alert! Debora Pearson. 2007.
  • Polar Bears. Amazing Animals Series. Gail Gibbons. 2009.
  • 101 Facts About Polar Bears. Julia Barnes. 2004.

Your librarian or media specialist will be able to recommend other nonfiction titles as well.

After students read their individual texts, they share what they’ve learned with their small group, completing a graphic organizer in the process. Next, conduct another whole-class discussion and record information on a large chart displayed in a central location. Ask students to revisit their explanations from the “Engage” phase, clarifying and revising as needed.

Explain

In this phase of the lesson, students will work with real data to better understand the role of sea ice loss in changing polar bear populations. The Windows to the Universe lesson Graphing Sea Ice Extent in the Arctic and Antarctic provides up-to-date sea ice data and clear procedures for the lesson. You may wish to deal only with the Arctic data if your focus is on polar bear populations.

Graphing Sea Ice Extent in the Arctic and Antarctic
Students graph sea ice extent (area) in both polar regions (Arctic and Antarctica) over a three-year period to learn about seasonal variations and over a 25-year period to learn about longer-term trends.

Once students have completed their graphs, they will analyze the data and make evidence-based claims that explain why polar bear populations are changing. You may wish to use a graphic organizer to scaffold students’ work with claims, evidence, and reasoning. You may also wish to model this process if students are unfamiliar or unpracticed with these concepts.

At this time, you may choose to conduct another whole-class discussion to share claims, evidence, and reasoning. Student graphs and claims/evidence/reasoning graphic organizers serve as assessment for this lesson (see “Assess,” below).

Assess (Evaluate)

Class discussion during the “Engage” phase of the lesson can serve as a source of formative assessment. Additionally, observation of student behavior during the lessons’ activities can be used as an assessment tool.

Formal (summative) assessment for this lesson includes evaluating student graphs and claims, evidence, and reasoning using rubrics. In addition, you may also choose to assess student understanding of polar bear characteristics and populations.

Expand

Extend this lesson by introducing global climate change and albedo. The following resources may be helpful as you plan extension activities.

Graphing Thermal Expansion of Water and Greenhouse Gases
Two activities have students create graphs of concentrations of greenhouse gases and observe the thermal expansion of water. You may choose to have students also plot global temperatures as well as greenhouse gas concentrations to help them see the correlation between the two.

The Shiniest Moon
This nonfiction article is written for use with students in grades 4 and up. Students learn about two of Saturn’s moons, albedo, the relationship between heat absorption and temperature, and how decreasing sea ice in the Arctic actually contributes to further melting. The article is offered in various formats and reading levels, and related activities are suggested.

Other Related Resources

Create a Graph
Students will learn how to create area, bar, pie, and line graphs. They are provided with information about what each type of graph shows and what it can be used for. Students are given an example of each type of graph, but they can create graphs using their own data in the interactive tool.

WWF-Canon Polar Bear Tracker
For the last 5 years or so, the WWF-Canon Polar Bear Tracker has followed polar bears in the Arctic. Their positions are beamed from collars on the bears’ necks, via satellite to scientists, and then to this website. It allows us to get regular updates about how the polar bears behave in their arctic environment and how they may be affected by climate change. The site also includes multimedia and a kid’s zone.

Dot Earth
Follow climate-related news (including the latest from the climate talks in Copenhagen) with this New York Times blog.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published December 16, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/27/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.