New discovery could lead to better memory

A new discovery by researchers at Hewlett-Packard Co. has important implications for educators, students, and others who regularly use computers and electronic devices with memory chips.

For nearly 40 years, scientists have speculated that basic electrical circuits have a natural ability to remember things even when the power is switched off. They just couldn’t find it. Now HP researchers have proven them right, with a discovery they hope will lead to memory chips that store more data but consume far less power than those found in today’s personal computers and other digital devices.

The newly discovered circuit element–called a "memristor," short for memory resistor–could enable cell phones that can go weeks or longer without a charge, PCs that start up instantly, and laptops that retain your session information long after the battery dies.

That could be extremely useful for classroom computing in particular, where educators typically are pressed for time as they try to squeeze lessons into 40- or 50-minute periods–and saving even a few minutes of computer boot-up time could help.

The discovery also could challenge flash memory, which is now widely used in portable electronics because of its ability to retain information even when power is off. Chips incorporating the HP discovery would be faster, suck up less power, and take up far less space than today’s flash.

"It certainly looks promising," said Wolfgang Porod, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame and director of the university’s Center for Nano Science and Technology. "However, if it’s going to be 100 times better or 1,000 times better [than today’s flash], it’s very hard to say at this point."

Scientists have suspected since the 1970s that along with the three well-known elements of a basic circuit–the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor–a fourth fundamental building block is possible.

The memristor built by HP Labs researchers and reported May 1 in the scientific journal Nature is made with a layer of titanium dioxide sandwiched between two metal electrodes. The researchers discovered that the amount of resistance it exerts depends on how much electric charge had previously passed through it.

That characteristic gives the memristor an innate ability to remember the amount of charge that has flowed through it long after the power to it is turned off. That means the circuit itself can be built with a memory function baked in.

Otherwise, data have to be stored in power-hungry transistors configured for storage. That also takes up valuable real estate on microprocessors or requires separate memory chips.

Some outside researchers, however, said more study is required before the memristor upsets the memory business. The HP Labs team said commercial viability is at least "a few years" away.

"These structures are going to be very small. It’s obvious to me one could make very dense memory out of them, but how it could compete against other memory like flash remains to be seen," said Porod, who was not involved in the HP research.

Leon Chua, a professor in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department at the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper in 1971 theorizing that it should be possible to build such a structure.

Over the years, researchers observed behavior that seemed to suggest circuits possessed this ability, but they either dismissed it as a fluke or didn’t realize the significance of the observation.

Stan Williams, a senior fellow at HP Labs and one of the four researchers on the Nature paper, said his team was able to identify the behavior and build a structure to harness its power because the effect is more apparent–and gets stronger–as the wiring in the circuits gets smaller and smaller.

Chua, who wrote the first paper on the topic when he was a new professor at Berkeley, is now 71 years old and says he’s nearing retirement from the university.

"I never thought I’d live long enough to see this happen," Chua said with a laugh. "I’m thrilled, because it’s almost like vindication. Something I did is not just in my imagination, it’s fundamental."


HP Labs

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Multimedia / Video Tools resource center. From data projectors and digital video to interactive whiteboards, educators today have a wide array of multimedia presentation tools at their disposal to enhance visual instruction–allowing them to share ideas, information, charts, images, animations, audio, and video more effectively. Go to: Multimedia / Video Tools


Birmingham-area schools get a big technology infusion

Educators in the Birmingham-Hoover, Ala., area are joining others across the nation in finding that iPods and other MP3 players are more than just a high-tech toy, the Birmingham News reports. Increasingly, students are using the portable devices in classrooms and libraries to listen to books, watch documentaries, and record podcasts, among other educational uses. In Hoover, iPods already are in use in classrooms throughout the district, but they’ll become more widespread in August when a $2.7 million technology plan is implemented in elementary schools. That plan, approved by the school board this month, includes purchasing two new iPods for every elementary classroom. Suzan Brandt, an instructional technology specialist for Hoover City Schools, said teachers were concerned at first that students wouldn’t take care of the iPods, but they have found the opposite to be true. "Students value the technology, and they value the opportunity to have it," she said. Technology also helps bring the outside world into the classroom, Brandt said. For example, students can download a podcast made by kids in Scotland, and they feel they’ve talked to the students, she said, adding that some teachers use portable music players for professional development, too…

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Arizona students protest possible distance-learning cuts

Bringing song, dance, and a burst of color to the state Capitol, hundreds of students, teachers, and parents rallied April 29, urging Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and lawmakers to spare their distance-learning schools from budget cuts, the Arizona Republic reports. The rally typified many Arizonans’ uncertainty over the state’s 2009 budget predicament. Nobody knows the extent of the cuts the schools might face as lawmakers try to offset a $1.9 billion deficit for the coming year. But the students, teachers, and parents weren’t waiting until more facts become known. More than 20,000 students attend distance-learning schools in Arizona. Yet, possible cuts could compound severe reductions to the online schools recently outlined by the state Education Department, said Ron Neil, superintendent of Mesa’s Sequoia Choice Distance Learning. That could threaten to put some of the state’s online schools out of business, hampering their ability to help at-risk students who have been dropping out of traditional public schools at rapid rates, he said…

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SUI professors settle battle with state over online ethics test

Two Southern Illinois University professors have settled a lawsuit they filed after the state said they flunked a mandatory online ethics test because they finished too quickly, reports the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill. Marvin Zeman and Walter Wallis will both get credit for completing the test they took in 2006. The state Office of Inspector General had invalidated their test results, saying the two did not spend enough time on the material. State employees are required to take an annual ethics test that consists of reading material followed by a series of questions. There are 80 to 90 computer-screen pages of material to review. Zeman took the test two years ago and said he received a certificate showing he successfully completed the course. Shortly after that, though, he got another notice that the certificate had been nullified because he did not spend enough time on the test. Zeman said he was told he spent six minutes and 18 seconds on the course. "That’s the number they gave me. They said that was too fast," Zeman said. He wasn’t alone. More than 250 SIU employees in both Carbondale and Edwardsville were notified by the inspector general’s office that their test results were being invalidated. Deputy inspector general Gilbert Jimenez said people were flagged because "the time to completion was so short they could not get through 90 computer screens of material. I took 30 to 40 minutes to do it reasonably"…

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Report: Give schools $20 billion upgrade

Education needs $20 billion for infrastructure, according to a report released April 29. To narrow the digital divide, funding for up-to-date video and voice technology in schools should be a focus of federal and state decision makers from coast to coast.

The report, released by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI), calls for $20 billion in school infrastructure improvements. Much of that money would target long-deferred investments in schools located in low-income areas. The report found that high-income school districts have consistently received more federal and state support over the last decade—a trend that needs to change as low-income schools fall farther behind, said Mary Filardo, author of the report and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that advocates on behalf of urban school systems. 

"The [low-income] schools are unable to support technology still," said Filardo, who added that despite $500 billion in federal spending for school improvements from 1995 to 2004, many urban schools were neglected. "That was the word in 1995, and it’s still the case," she said.

Funding inequities and crumbling school infrastructure have driven many parents and activists to bring the issue to court in recent years. Lawsuits have been filed in 31 states in which plaintiffs have "challenged the adequacy or equity of public education funding in low-income communities and have made facility conditions an element of their lawsuit," according to the report.

The American Society of Civil Engineers—an organization that issues grades for public buildings—has consistently given low marks to public schools. In 2005, public schools received a D, their highest grade since the society began issuing the report a decade ago.
EPI released its latest report at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The half-trillion dollar investment from 1995 to 2004 did not go to waste, Filardo said. School districts in high-income areas reaped the benefits over that time, making building repairs, completing new schools that relieve classroom overcrowding, and updating technology.

"The more affluent districts, they got in better shape over that time," Filardo said. "But we still have a huge backlog, and what we’re hoping is that we can focus federal dollars on some of the neediest school districts."

Classroom technology that has become commonplace in affluent districts has been late arriving in urban classrooms. Those technologies, which include interactive whiteboards, computers, and equipment that enhances audio inside the classroom, "have the potential to help close achievement gaps and improve the basic quality of teaching and the productivity of teachers," according to the EPI report. 

Technology such as voice-recognition software can help some special-needs students communicate with teachers and classmates, bringing those students into the education mainstream, the report says. Educators, students, and school officials across the country have endorsed the use of audio-enhancing devices in classrooms, which project teachers’ voices throughout the room and maintain students’ attention more effectively.

School technology experts said many schools located in low-income, urban areas have purchased the latest in classroom technology with the help of federal funding, but haven’t had the employees or training to use the equipment.

"In some cases, it hasn’t been as much about equipment accessibility as about having a comprehensive vision for how to use those tools," said Ann Flynn, director of technology for the National School Boards Association. "And to have teachers gain a level of comfort, you have to have a robust, dependable infrastructure. You truly need a reliable, dependable environment."

Flynn said school buildings constructed several decades ago were not designed to support technology infrastructure that schools have incorporated over the past decade.

"There is a real need to … upgrade [school buildings]" in some urban areas, she said. "We have to have that level of behind-the-scenes infrastructure to support our teaching staff. Teachers aren’t computer technicians, and we don’t want them to be computer technicians."

The report shows stark differences in federal and state spending on schools in low-income areas. From 1995 to 2004, $9,361 was spent per student on school construction in high-income areas. In areas defined as "very low income"—where more than three-quarters of students receive free or reduced-price lunches—$4,800 was spent per student. The national average was $6,519 per student.

If the federal government spent the suggested $20 billion on bolstering school infrastructure, more than 250,000 skilled maintenance and repair jobs would be created across the country, according to the report. And bringing low-income schools up to par with schools in wealthier suburbs eventually would provide millions more educated, qualified workers for employers.

"Public education—including the built infrastructure to support it—is key to the economic prosperity of our community and nation," Filardo wrote in the EPI report.


Economic Policy Institute

21st Century School Fund