Researchers at UCSD find working alone won't get you good grades

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Students who work together and interact online are more likely to be successful in their college classes, according to a study by a computer scientist at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Analyzing 80,000 interactions between 290 students in a collaborative learning environment for college courses, the major finding was that a higher number of online interactions was usually an indicator of a higher score in the class. High achievers also were more likely to form strong connections with other students and to exchange information in more complex ways.

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High achievers also tended to form cliques – often within the first days of the course – shutting out low-performing students from their interactions. Students who found themselves shut out were not only more likely to have lower grades; they were also more likely to drop out of the class entirely.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. More information at

http://bit.ly/UGJyTv

FDA approves first bionic eye

The U.S. Department of Energy announced that its decade-long support of revolutionary research has contributed to the creation of the first ever retinal prosthesis – or bionic eye – to be approved in the United States by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for blind individuals with end-stage retinitis pigmentosa.

The artificial retina, dubbed the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, can partially restore the sight of blind individuals after surgical implantation. Clinical trials demonstrated that totally blind individuals could safely use the device to successfully identify the position and approximate size of objects and detect movement of nearby objects and people.

The Argus II operates by using a miniature camera mounted in eyeglasses that captures images and wirelessly sends the information to a microprocessor (worn on a belt) that converts the data to an electronic signal and transmits it to a receiver on the eye.  The pulses travel to the optic nerve and, ultimately, to the brain, which perceives patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to the electrodes stimulated. Blind individuals can learn to interpret these visual patterns.

News release at

http://1.usa.gov/XFK8BS

Students develop coastal monitoring app

A team of engineering students at UCSD has been working to help protect the beaches and waters off the La Jolla coastline by developing a web app that will allow volunteers to monitor the health of marine conservation areas. Volunteers will input information about human activity, pollution, and even poaching, into the app via an interactive form.

The student team is part of Global TIES, a humanitarian engineering program at the Jacobs School of Engineering that allows undergraduates to work on ambitious projects with nonprofit organizations and government agencies throughout the world and locally. In this project students are working in partnership with San Diego Coastkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County. More information at

http://bit.ly/YtI0Kk

Tiny plant yields a big discovery

Conducting research on a plant from the mustard family, Salk Institute scientists have discovered a possible explanation for how organisms, including humans, directly regulate chemical reactions that quickly adjust the growth of organs. These findings overturn conventional views of how different body parts coordinate their growth.

Until now it was believed that each metabolic function involved in events ranging from birth to growth to reproduction to digestion, etc. required an entirely separate enzyme pathway. This led researchers to focus studies almost exclusively on genes switching “on and off” as the means by which each step in the enzyme pathway was regulated.

The Salk study shows that metabolic steps can be much more streamlined and linked. For example, two separate pathways originally thought to be controlled solely by gene switches were unexpectedly found to have enzyme canals between them, allowing them to quickly share hormones manufactured elsewhere in in the body in response to changes in environment and quickly alter growth in other parts of the body.

The findings appear in Nature Chemical Biology.News release at

http://bit.ly/XMpGgq

Urban heat has climate effects

Heat produced in winter months by everyday activities in metropolitan areas is significant enough to influence the jet stream and other major atmospheric systems, thousands of miles away.

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, studied energy consumption – from heating buildings to powering vehicles – that, in turn, releases waste heat. The result is a so-called “urban heat island” effect; an increase in the warmth of cities compared to unpopulated areas.  Because many urban heat islands in the Northern Hemisphere lie directly under major atmospheric troughs and jet streams, the effect can widen the jet stream and strengthen atmospheric flows at mid-latitudes.

The authors contend that the urban heat effect accounts for the discrepancy between observed warming and winter warming simulated in the models used by the climate science community for analysis and prediction of climate. They suggest, therefore, that the influence of energy consumption be added as a variable, along with heat-trapping gases and aerosols, computer models of climate change.

The study appears in the journal Nature Climate Change. News release at

http://bit.ly/112L8mM

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.

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