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Blog posts

The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

How passion (and 3D printers) can save science education

John Rennie

3D printer
A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel, released under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

Back during your days in chemistry class, did you ever have to memorize the order of the elements in Mendeleev's periodic table? Does your one lasting impression of some long ago biology class consist of your efforts to remember long lists of typological classifications or anatomical features? Does the mere thought of physics give you painful flashbacks of math anxiety, boredom, and confusion? If so, your experiences may mirror what's wrong more generally with science education as practiced in the U.S.

But it doesn't have to be that way. A brighter future for science and math education might be possible if schools deemphasize rote learning of abstract principles and do more to help students connect their own natural enthusiasms to the science all around them. And tools like 3D printers might represent a hands-on way to do it.

That was perhaps the major message running through a breakfast panel on improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education that I hosted on June 27 during the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Las Vegas. The panelists were Linda W. Braun, youth services manager of the Seattle Public Library, and Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop and author of the book The Maker Movement Manifesto. Read all about it in my post "Passion and 3D printers can reinvent STEM learning" for PLOS Blogs.

The STEM education panel, with me at left beside Linda W. Braun and Mark Hatch. (Photo: Steve Chapman)

Shooting down future airships

John Rennie


Who among us with even a wisp of steampunk in our soul does not love the idea of an airship renaissance? Airships are beautiful and majestic, and modern hybrid airship designs are extraordinarily capable. They far transcend inappropriate fears of Hindenberg-like disaster. No wonder some enthusiasts foresee a coming day when airships will again fly in great numbers as replacements for some fixed-wing aircraft, as new vehicles for air cargo transport, and as floating luxury liners. Unfortunately, for reasons I explored in a series of posts back in 2011, I'm skeptical of this glorious airship resurgence. Hybrid airships work but to triumph on those terms, they need to make practical, economic sense and be better than the transportation alternatives. I'm not convinced that's true for most of the listed applications. (The important exception is for luxury cruising: any business that's built on rich people's willingness to pay top dollar for great experiences can defy some of the usual constraints.)

Start with my Txchnologist story "Lead Zeppelin: Can Airships Overcome Past Disasters and Rise Again?", then continue with my Gleaming Retort posts "Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?" and "Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes."

Scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere

John Rennie


Everyone who has thought about industrially driven climate change has at some point, however briefly, wondered why we can’t solve the problem by pulling the unwanted carbon dioxide back out of the air. Surely, if burning fossil fuels can blast so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some other act of chemistry on an equally gargantuan scale ought to be able to recapture the gas. That's the possibility I explore in a pair of columns for SmartPlanet. "Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?" reviews several ideas for using innovative materials to recapture carbon dioxide released by industrial processes and then safely cache it where it can't contribute to climate change—in theory. "Throwing rocks at CO2" looks at the related concept of using naturally occurring minerals to accelerate the removal of CO2 from the air.

Cancer and dogs

John Rennie

That was how my wife and I discovered that our pet Newman had a brain tumor, and it marked the beginning of a nearly two year adventure in learning how dogs are treated for cancer—and how, for better or worse, their treatment differs from what humans receive.

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