Technology alters the nature of research

Researchers at a British university say they might have invented themselves out of a job.

A new robotic system they developed can, for the first time, independently design and carry out a genetics experiment, then interpret the results.

No difference was found between the lab bench results generated by the robot scientist and those gathered by graduate students doing similar work, the researchers report in the Jan. 15 issue of the journal Nature.

The system remains in its infancy, but they hope it will someday conduct lab-intensive work, freeing the researchers from drudgery.

“The sort of grunt research can be done this way, and more creative stuff humans will have more time to do,” said study author Stephen Oliver of the University of Manchester.

Other researchers described the robot as a “harbinger of the future,” but said more sophisticated reasoning software had to be developed.

Once that happens, labs would adopt such advanced artificial intelligence systems “pretty rapidly and pervasively,” said Larry Hunter, a computational biology expert at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who was not involved in the experiment.

The robotic system was designed to determine the function of baker’s yeast genes. About 30 percent of the yeast’s 6,000 genes are unknown, but scientists believe they may be shared in the human genome and might someday be medically important.

To determine functions of the genes in question, the experiments used “knockout” varieties in which a specific gene is removed. By determining how the yeast sample grows, the function of the missing gene can be determined.

In the automated experiments, the researchers first developed a mathematical model showing how various genes, proteins, enzymes, and growth mediums interact.

Armed with that knowledge, the robot independently generated hypotheses about the missing genes, then used equipment to grow yeast strains. Later the robot evaluated the growth of each strain against its original hypothesis. The process was repeated over and over as the system developed new hypotheses based on the accumulating data.

“It’s like if you have a machine which is broken, the system can automatically reason to find all the possible ways it can be broken,” said Ross King of the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. “Some philosophers have thought this is impossible for computers, because that’s the imaginative leap.”

The robot scientist uses a type of reasoning called abduction. King said it is the kind of reasoning police use to reconcile clues when investigating a crime.

“If this person committed the crime, all the clues make sense,” King said.

Hunter said the new work marks the first time that experimental design, computer control of instruments, and analysis of the resulting data have been “hooked together in a closed loop.”

“It is now possible to design artificial intelligence systems that are able to reason well enough to be effective partners in scientific research,” Hunter said.

Oliver said the next step is to see whether the robot can make a completely novel discovery rather than simply match the graduate students’ results.



Sidebar: Computer analysis becoming the latest tool for literary research From eSchool News staff and wire service reports

In the mid-1970s, Floyd Horowitz embarked on a long, one-man literary journey: to discover early, uncredited stories by Henry James, stories that had never appeared in book form.

Thirty years later, thanks to tireless research and the emerging field of statistical literary analysis, the former English professor declares his project a success.

“I vowed to continue with this as long as I kept finding interesting material. And I kept finding it,” says Horowitz, editor of The Uncollected Henry James, a new anthology of 24 previously unpublished stories by the author of such classics as “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw.”

Now retired, Horowitz recalls reading James’ “The Story of a Year,” published in 1865 and believed to be the author’s first signed work of fiction. Convinced that the story was beyond the abilities of a novice, Horowitz spent three decades looking for previous works through such 19th-century periodicals as the Newport Mercury and Arthur’s Home Magazine.

Because young authors at the time often published anonymously or under pen names, Horowitz did not simply look for James’ byline. Instead, he sought common themes, phrases, and pen names, including “Mademoiselle Caprice” and “O. Chickweed.” Horowitz then assembled a computer database that compared text he believed was written by James to James’ other works and to material from other contemporary authors.

“I came to the conclusion that these early pieces provided a clear window into … James’ known fiction,” Horowitz, who taught English and computer science at the University of Kansas and at Hunter College, writes in the book’s foreword.

Horowitz is among a growing number of scholars who rely on statistical research, which joins the traditionally alien worlds of literature and computer analysis. Computers have been used to examine authorship of countless ancient texts, including the New Testament gospels and Greek and Roman documents.

“There have been ups and downs, but over the years more and more people have accepted computer analysis,” says Bernard Frischer, a professor of classics at the University of California at Los Angeles who used computers to determine the date of some writings by the Roman poet Horace.

The rise of statistical literary analysis, including a method known as “stylometry,” dates to the 1960s when statisticians Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace resolved the authorship of 12 of the Federalist Papers. With scholars unsure whether the essays in question should be credited to James Madison or Alexander Hamilton, Mosteller and Wallace compared the word usage of each writer and concluded that Madison was the author of all 12, a finding most historians agree with.

But Frischer acknowledges that such studies often do not provide definitive answers and that doubts remain over reliability. A recent case involved a 17th-century text, “A Funeral Elegy,” that Vassar College professor Donald Foster identified in 1995 as a poem by William Shakespeare.

Numerous experts accepted the findings of Foster, who had deciphered that journalist Joe Klein was the “Anonymous” author of “Primary Colors,” and the poem was added to prominent anthologies published by Longman and W.W. Norton.

But a few years later, French scholar Gilles D. Monsarrat released a study that contended the author was actually a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, playwright John Ford. Foster agreed, and acknowledged that he had failed to include Ford in his database as a possible alternative to Shakespeare.

“We’re still at the birth of this field, and we still have a long way to go,” says Richard Abrams, a friend of Foster’s and a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine.

“But as more texts become available online and we have more information to draw conclusions from, the results will become more stable.”

Some observers are already skeptical of the James book. Daniel M. Fogel, founding editor of the Henry James Review, a publication that comes out three times a year, says that “the texts themselves are not compellingly Jamesian.” He also believes that Horowitz’s statistical arguments are not “sufficiently elaborated.”

The Uncollected Henry James is being published by Carroll & Graf, which years ago released a popular compilation, The Great Short Novels of Henry James. Company co-founder Herman Graf, a longtime James reader, says he was impressed by Horowitz’s research and became “excited” about the book.

But Graf acknowledges that he did not read all the stories and that some academics declined to offer blurbs, citing concerns about authenticity. Still, he believed the book worthwhile, if only to start a debate.

“This is not a science, and you can never be sure, but I thought it would be of interest to people who love James and would want to decide whether these stories were really his,” Graf says.


Carroll & Graf Publishers


“Magnetic Storm” explores a jolting theory about the Earth’s atmosphere

This latest online feature from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) poses the question, “Is the magnetic field protecting Earth from deadly radiation about to reverse direction–or even disappear?” Based upon the PBS documentary that shares its name, “Magnetic Storm” explores the wonders of the G5 geomagnetic storm, a weather event strong enough to disrupt power grids from Canada to New York last year. In fact, researchers suggest the most serious power grid failure in American history was caused by a magnetic storm in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, itself triggered by the eruption of a huge flare from the surface of the sun. Unusual as this event might have been, many scientists today are beginning to worry that it could be a harbinger of things to come–and that changes to the planet’s magnetic field could make us ever more vulnerable to deadly radiation from space. The program first aired Nov 18. On its companion web site, students and teachers will find related articles and interactive activities designed to illustrate the significance of this major meteorological event.


‘Bagle’ virus infiltrates ED listserve

A new internet virus spreading rapidly throughout the world may be propagating itself through a popular U.S. Department of Education (ED) listserve, posing a potential security risk to thousands of school systems and other education stakeholders who receive eMail transmissions via the department.

The “Bagle” or “Beagle” worm, which originated over the long holiday weekend, provided an unwelcome surprise for some educators who logged into their eMail in-boxes when school resumed Jan. 20.

The virus, which arrives in the form of an eMail with the subject line “hi” and the words “test, yep” in the body of the message, is packaged as an attachment. When the attachment is executed, it unleashes a nefarious worm that sends itself to every eMail address in the user’s address book. reported that the worm also has the capability to select a name at random from an infected address book, then spoof that name to dupe trusting recipients into opening the infected attachment.

eSchool News first discovered that ED may be propagating the virus early Tuesday morning when several editors received the bogus transmissions. The messages–more than 10 of which had been received by editors at press time–appeared as if they originated from Kirk Winters, a public information officer for the department who is responsible for sending out “ED News,” a weekly internet newsletter delivered every Monday to thousands of subscribers to ED’s eMail listserve.

Though it’s unclear whether someone at ED actually opened the attachment, thereby permitting the spread of the worm, or whether it simply is spoofing Winters’ eMail address in hopes of fooling unsuspecting educators, a department spokesman said he believes the agency’s virus-detection software neutralized the worm automatically by removing it from infected messages before they reached recipients.

“We’ve checked with our information technology people, and our virus protection apparently stripped the virus from the message,” wrote Public Affairs Specialist Jim Bradshaw in an eMail. “In other words, individuals may have gotten a virus message, but no virus.”

eSchool News was unable to verify Bradshaw’s claim before press time. But Bradshaw added that his department is assessing the situation and will contact its eMail subscribers with any information that may be necessary to keep the worm from spreading.

Fortunately for schools, security experts say the worm–which reportedly affects only machines running the Windows operating system–is far less serious than its two most recent predecessors, SoBig and Blaster, which bogged down and, in some cases, crippled internet servers worldwide last year.

Brian King, an internet security analyst for CERT, part of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, said computer users so far have reported only minor disruptions.

One reason is that internet security companies acted quickly to update their virus patches to prevent against the spread of the worm. Also, the worm only takes effect when a user attempts to run the attached executable file. “It really takes a human to actually click on the attachment in order to spread [the virus],” King said, calling it “pretty basic.”

To avoid being infected with the virus, computer users need only heed the warnings of security experts, King said. That includes implementing a good eMail filtering system and taking care not to open attachments in the form of executable files.

But that’s sometimes easier said than done in schools, where computer users–from students to staff members–often vary widely in their degree of high-tech expertise.

“Because schools have a more diverse user community,” King said, “there is certainly some chance that they may be more susceptible to these kinds of attacks.”

To protect against that possibility, King recommends that schools align their internet filters to block messages containing executable files as attachments, “so that users don’t even have the opportunity to open these kinds of attachments,” he said.

The one real danger of the worm, he added, is that it contains a “back-door” function that enables the intruder, or propagator of the original virus, to track exactly who is executing the attachment–but only when the hacker is actually watching the user logs as the worm progresses.

Though CERT could not say how many users have been infected so far or where the virus originated from, the organization has confirmed that “Bagle” is set to expire Jan. 28.

In the meantime, experts recommend that users conduct virus scans on their machines and perform updates to their security software.


U.S. Department of Education



Federal probe turns up $5 million in unused computer equipment

SBC Corp. is refunding more than $8 million for failing to install computer equipment in Chicago schools by deadlines set under the federal eRate program, a company spokesman said Jan. 16.

Congressional investigators looking into possible instances of eRate waste, fraud, and abuse say $5 million worth of computer equipment bought for Chicago schools has languished in a warehouse for years.

Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter Jan. 15 to Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan requesting audit records and other documents related to the district’s participation in the eRate, which was set up to help connect low-income and rural schools and libraries to the internet.

Chicago school officials said the computers and equipment in question never left the possession of SBC, the distributor from which it was purchased with federal eRate funds.

Selim Bingol, an SBC spokesman, said the equipment represented a small percentage of the $159 million contract the company had with Chicago schools. Bingol said the company has wired about 300 Chicago schools as part of the project.

The equipment in question was not installed under the strict timetable–usually about a year–the government requires, Bingol said.

The company will refund the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the eRate, for the full amount of the portion of the project that did not meet the deadline. But because about $3 million of that eventually was installed, the company will seek that amount back, Bingol said.

He said SBC is working with the school district to determine what to do with the unused equipment.

Under the eRate, the government pays up to 90 percent of the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections for eligible schools and libraries. The schools must pay the remaining portion of the cost. eRate funding comes from charges to phone companies, who usually recover the costs by billing customers a line-item for “universal service” on monthly phone bills.

“It is troublesome to us that $5 million of equipment is sitting unused in a warehouse gathering dust,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I’m sure ratepayers would like to have that money back.”

The district is looking into the findings and will cooperate with all the government requests, school officials said.

The school system opened the contract to manage the eRate program for rebidding. A new company, Blackwell Consulting Services of Chicago, will take over the job from SBC in the fall, said Peter Cunningham, the schools’ communication director.

Chicago schools have received $300 million in eRate funds since 1998, Cunningham said.


House Energy and Commerce Committee

Chicago Public Schools

SBC Corp.

Schools and Libraries Division


Nonprofit school consortium forms new kind of cyber school

Public schools that have questioned the cost and quality of Pennsylvania’s online charter schools have begun joining forces to compete with them head-on., a nonprofit consortium of about 70 mostly rural Pennsylvania school districts, was launched July 1 to provide both internet-based courses and two-way videoconferencing to students and schools who want to take advantage of distance learning.

P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District in Franklin County, Pa., and president of the organization’s board of directors, said the idea developed from a conversation he had with three other administrators about cyber school programs. They agreed that although the quality of online high-school programs was good, elementary school offerings needed improvement.

“The issue we were concerned with was the inability of school districts to ensure the quality of the [cyber] education our students were receiving,” Rearick told the state House Education Committee during a presentation Jan. 14.

The end result is a K-8 curriculum developed and taught by state-certified teachers, supplemented with high-school courses available through outside online curriculum providers such as and Keystone National High School., which enrolls about 4,300 students in online courses, plans to offer its own internet-based high school curriculum in the future, Rearick said.

With the introduction of online courses, replaced a distance-learning consortium that was established in 1994 to allow students in schools that lacked teachers in certain subjects, such as Latin, to connect to classrooms in other parts of the state through videoconferencing.

Online instruction in Pennsylvania has occurred most commonly through cyber charter schools, which were initially established through charters approved by local school districts. Cyber school students access their assignments and teachers primarily through their schools’ web sites from their home computers.

Within the past two years, state lawmakers have given the state Education Department greater control over the schools in response to superintendents’ complaints that they amounted to an unregulated form of home schooling.

To belong to the network, school districts must pay a fee of about $10,000 to cover the cost of the online and videoconferencing programs. To encourage greater participation, state Rep. Patrick Fleagle (R-Franklin), an education committee member, is preparing to introduce legislation that would require the state to reimburse school districts for the full cost of such cyber-school memberships.

“Technology is not a panacea for all our problems, but I think that [the online advocates] are on to something good here. Programs like this are what we need to cost-effectively deliver education,” said Fleagle.

For example, the Bedford Area School District has been able to save money on cyber charter-school tuition by recruiting cyber charter school students to enroll in the district through, said Superintendent Patrick Crawford.

“Depending on the cyber school, tuition is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 per student, and $12,000 for a special-education student. We certainly don’t want to lose that [money],” Crawford said.

About half of Bedford’s 22 cyber-school students are enrolled through the consortium, including 16-year-old Cody Spohn. His mother, Marcell, said the program gives him the flexibility to balance online math, English, and science courses, an automotive class at the local vocational school, and his grocery store job.

“I think he really enjoys it. As a matter of fact, my next-oldest son is champing at the bit to enroll next year,” she said.



State computer network drawing complaints, higher costs

A computer network for all North Carolina public school teachers targeted for completion this year will take two more years and probably end up costing more than $150 million, state officials say.

Only six of the state’s 117 school districts are online as part of a trial of the system, which is called NC WISE. Many of the teachers using it say it is difficult to access the network, much less complete basic tasks such as entering daily attendance information. Some call it “NC STUPID.” “If I bought a car that did not work for four years, I would call it a lemon and get another,” said Tito Craige, chairman of the social studies department at East Chapel Hill High School. “Actually, I wouldn’t wait for nearly this long.”

State education officials say the rising costs and delays are related to the scope of building a system with a dozen or more applications that can be used by 80,000 teachers.

“This project has turned out to be harder, more complex, and more expensive than anyone thought,” said Bob Bellamy, associate superintendent for accountability and technology for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

NC WISE is intended to replace a network known as SIMS, or Student Information Management System, that the schools have used since the 1980s.

SIMS took attendance and traced students and their courses, Bellamy said. “There was no capacity for comprehensive data analysis,” he said.

NC WISE is expected to allow teachers to easily review a student’s record, from physical or learning difficulties to test scores and discipline issues, Bellamy said.

NC WISE also will allow more accurate reporting of graduation statistics and improve the state’s capacity to meet the reporting requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, he said.

The project was launched in 1999 with a $54 million contract between the state and the consulting division of PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2002, IBM bought the consulting arm of the accounting giant and took over the job.

DPI renegotiated a $78 million deal with IBM late last year to complete the project by 2009. Added to the $35 million already spent, that makes the cost more than $110 million.

Anticipated costs outside the contract are likely to push the overall bill to $150 million or more, Bellamy said.

State schools Superintendent Mike Ward blamed PricewaterhouseCoopers for some of the added costs and delays. But Bellamy acknowledged that the DPI expanded the scope of the project, largely in response to requests from school districts, and asked for additional applications as work has progressed.

The local school districts also face startup costs connected with the program.

One serious problem encountered by the six districts taking part in the trial has been a lack of wiring capacity to handle all the traffic. Heavy demand on that wiring–from internet use in classrooms to eMail and administrative uses–has prevented teachers from gaining access. The cost of providing enough wiring to handle the load will be borne mostly by the districts, not the state.

Some teachers complain NC WISE is needlessly complex and complicated.

“It’s not user-friendly,” said Bob Brogden, a social studies teacher at East Chapel Hill High. “I use it only to the degree that I have to. I use it to take attendance and enter final-quarter grades.”

Dee Skinner, a veteran social studies teacher at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, spent most of last Monday recalculating fall semester grades for her 85 students because flaws had been discovered in NC WISE’s electronic grade-book application.

“It’s a mess,” she said.

State administrators said they now feel confident that 40 to 50 more school districts can be connected to the system for the 2004-05 academic year. The rest would be added the next year. Bellamy said enhanced software to fix many of the problems teachers have found will be added before the end of the month.

“Will it be perfect? Probably not,” he said. “Will it be dramatically better? Absolutely.”


North Carolina Department of Public Instruction



Teachers using Mars mission to fascinate, educate students

Teacher Steven Dworetzky’s middle-school classroom buzzed with activity–temporarily converted to a miniature version of the Mars mission control center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in nearby Pasadena, Calif.

Teams of teens huddled over computers, downloading the latest images from the red planet, while other students assembled and programmed a model of one of the Mars rovers using Lego blocks and other materials.

Along with dozens of other students at Thomas Starr King Middle School, they’re creating a replica of the Martian landscape with their own miniature, camera-equipped rover to explore it.

“It’s fascinating for them to know we’re on a planet millions of miles away,” said Dworetzky, who also is an educational consultant with NASA. “If I open their eyes to all the possibilities, then it’s a good way to keep them in school.”

It is just one of many Mars-related education programs being offered in schools around the world while the real adventure is unfolding.

High school students in the United States and other countries–including Brazil, India, and Poland–are working with NASA engineers at JPL during the mission.

Such educational outreach has always been a major component of NASA missions. But with the goal of determining if life has ever existed on Mars, the current effort is one of the most fascinating and appealing for kids.

“We really want to communicate to students that science is amazingly fun,” said Michelle Viotti, who does education outreach for NASA. “We want to inspire the next generation of explorers.”

President Bush’s announcement this week of plans for future manned missions to the moon and Mars is expected to create even more interest.

“It’s a great time to be a teen, because we may be the first people to explore Mars,” said Courtney Dressing, one of the high school students who has spent the past week shadowing JPL scientists. “If I were given the chance to go to Mars, I would go in a second.”

Dressing, of Alexandria, Va., is one of 16 young people chosen from 500 applicants around the world for a student-astronaut program sponsored by the nonprofit Planetary Society, co-founded in 1980 by astronomer Carl Sagan.

Each week, a different two-student team gets to work with Mars scientists at JPL. Dressing and Rafael Morozowski of Brazil, both 16, were at the lab last week, attending mission briefings and helping with tasks that included logging readings from the Mars rover Spirit’s sundial.

Since the Martian day differs from days on Earth, both had to work late nights.

“I think the easy part is adjusting to the Martian schedule,” Dressing said. “The hard part will be going back to Earth schedule.”

Elsewhere in the United States, 54 student teams are tracking data from the mission for NASA. At Mountainland Applied Technology College in Orem, Utah, high school students enrolled in special multimedia courses are analyzing data from Mars to predict surface temperatures and atmospheric disturbances that could affect the rovers.

Teacher David Black said his students will develop three-dimensional models and topographical maps of Mars. He also wants to put together a CD with information about the planet that can be distributed to other schools or used by NASA.

“I was excited to have an opportunity like this that is normally reserved for people from NASA,” said Isaac Wilson, 17, of Orem. “This project is getting me to think about going to college to get more experience developing software or animation.”

At Geneva Middle School in Geneva, N.Y., teacher Raymond Finney said his students are eager for more news as they prepare to build replica rovers and Martian landscapes next month.

“As soon as all of this stuff popped up on TV, the kids were really talking about it,” Finney said. “Whatever comes from this mission will be the next chapter in the history of Mars exploration.”


Mars Rover

Planetary Society

Student Astronauts


$25,000 to implement National Youth Service Day projects

The AT&T CARES Youth Service Action Fund supports young people as they improve their communities through service on National Youth Service Day 2004, April 16 to18. Fifty grants worth $500 each will be available to young people (ages 5-25) and organizations to implement service projects for National Youth Service Day. Applications are available for download from the Youth Service America web site. To learn more about National Youth Service Day and access project planning resources, visit the National Youth Service Day web site at


$33,000 to help disabled youth execute service projects

Twenty-five grants up to $1,000 each are available to encourage young people, between the ages of 5 and 22 with developmental disabilities to plan and carry out service projects in the United States for National Youth Service Day 2004. Eight grants of $1,000 are available for youth with disabilities planning projects in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore or South Africa for Global Youth Service Day 2004, to be held on April 16 to 18. Technology-based projects, such as teaching senior citizens how to use computers, are eligible for support. All grant winners will be eligible for an additional grant of $1,000 for the purpose of continuing the project beyond April. Receipt of this follow-up grant will be contingent on the satisfactory completion of a project evaluation and a cash or in-kind match from a local community partner for the award winner. To apply, follow the application guidelines and submit a complete application to Youth Service America.


$500,000 for initiatives related to technology and learning and NCLB

Applicants are invited to submit initial concept papers online for consideration for more than $500,000 in BellSouth Opportunity Grants. Proposals should complement the foundation’s special initiatives or focus-issues. The new issues of interest for the 2004 Opportunity Grants are: technology and learning; No Child Left Behind; and business and education partnerships. Concept papers are due March 1 and full proposals are due April 15.