Evolution theory takes a round in Texas

Texas will no longer require educators to teach weaknesses of all scientific theories, including those of evolution.

The change was approved March 27 by the State Board of Education in a 13-2 vote, adopting new state science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade.

But in a compromise plan, teachers will be required to have students scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theories, a move criticized by evolution activists.

The vote capped a week of impassioned debate that had scientists, teachers, and textbook publishers from around the country focused on Texas.

The board tentatively adopted the new curriculum standards on March 26.

The March 26 vote narrowly avoided efforts of state social conservatives to require that "weaknesses" in scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, be taught in science classrooms.  After that vote, regarding whether to restore the long-standing curriculum rule, stalled at 7-7, the tie vote upheld a January board vote to eliminate that rule from new science curriculum standards.  (See "Texas grapples with evolution in new science standards.")

Supporters of evolution theory hailed the initial vote, but were critical of amendments adopted by the board that they said could create new paths to teaching creationism and the similar theory of intelligent design in public schools.

The new standards drop a 20-year-old rule that required both "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories to be taught. Critics say the requirement is used to undermine the theory of evolution in favor of religious teachings.

The new standards govern what appears on standardized tests and material published in textbooks.

As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, Texas has significant influence over the content of books marketed across the country.

"Publishers are waiting to hear what to put in their textbooks," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

In approving a handful of amendments on March 26, the board "slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way," Quinn said that day. "We hope the vote tomorrow will reverse a lot of that."

In one amendment, the board agreed to require high school biology students to "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell."

Board member Don McLeroy said his amendment was intended "to account for that amazing complexity. I think it’s a standard that makes it honest with our children."

Federal courts have ruled against public schools teaching creationism and intelligent design, which holds that life is so complex that it must have come from an intelligent higher power.

Link:

Texas Education Agency

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Giant internet worm set to attack April 1

The fast-moving Conficker computer worm, a scourge of the internet that has infected at least 3 million PCs, is set to spring to life in a new way on April Fools’ Day, security experts say.

That’s when many of the poisoned machines reportedly will get more aggressive about "phoning home" to the worm’s creators over the internet. When that happens, the creators of the worm could begin to trigger the program to send spam, spread more infections, clog networks with traffic, or try and bring down web sites.

Technically, this could cause havoc, from massive network outages to the creation of a cyber-weapon of mass destruction that attacks government computers. But researchers who have been tracking Conficker say the date will probably come and go quietly.

More likely, these researchers say, the programming change that goes into effect April 1 is partly symbolic–an April Fools’ Day tweaking of Conficker’s pursuers, who for now have been able to prevent the worm from doing significant damage.

"I don’t think there will be a cataclysmic network event," said Richard Wang, manager of the U.S. research division of security firm Sophos PLC. "It doesn’t make sense for the guys behind Conficker to cause a major network problem, because if they’re breaking parts of the internet they can’t make any money."

Still, security experts are advising PC users to have their machines scanned to ensure they aren’t infected by the worm. Someone whose machine is infected might have to reinstall the operating system.

The Conficker outbreak illustrates the importance of keeping current with internet security updates. Conficker moves from PC to PC by exploiting a vulnerability in Windows that Microsoft Corp. fixed in October. But many people haven’t applied the patch or are running pirated copies of Windows that don’t get the updates.

Previous internet threats were designed to cause haphazard destruction. In 2003, a worm known as Slammer saturated the internet’s data pipelines with so much traffic it crippled corporate and government systems, including ATM networks and 911 centers.

Far more often now, internet threats are designed to ring up profits. Control of infected PCs is valuable on the black market, because the machines can be rented out from one group of cyber criminals to another and act as a kind of illicit supercomputer, sending spam, scanning web sites for security holes, or participating in network attacks.

The army of Conficker-infected machines, known as a "botnet," could be one of the greatest cyber-crime tools ever assembled. Conficker’s authors just need to figure out a way to reliably communicate with it.

Infected PCs need commands to come alive. They get those commands by connecting to web sites controlled by the bad guys. Even legitimate sites can be co-opted for this purpose, if hackers break in and use the sites’ servers to send out malicious commands.

So far, Conficker-infected machines have been trying to connect each day to 250 internet domains–the spots on the internet where web sites are parked. The bad guys need to get just one of those sites under their control to send their commands to the botnet. (The name Conficker comes from rearranging letters in the name of one of the original sites the worm was connecting to.)

Conficker has been a victim of its success, however, because its rapid spread across the internet drew the notice of computer security companies. They have been able to work with domain name registrars, which administer web site addresses, to block the botnet from dialing in.

Now, those efforts will get much harder. On April 1, many Conficker-infected machines will generate a list of 50,000 new domains a day that they could try. Of that group, the botnet will randomly select 500 for the machines to actually query.

The bad guys still need to get only one of those up and running to connect to their botnet. And the bigger list of possibilities increases the odds they’ll slip something by the security community.

Researchers already know which domains the infected machines will check, but pre-emptively registering them all, or persuading the registrars to neutralize all of them, is a bigger hurdle.

"We expect something will happen, but we don’t quite know what it will look like," said Jose Nazario, manager of security research for Arbor Networks, a member of the "Conficker Cabal," an alliance trying to hunt down the worm’s authors.

"With every move that they make, there’s the potential to identify who they are, where they’re located, and what we can do about them," he added. "The real challenge right now is doing all that work around the world. That’s not a technical challenge, but it is a logistical challenge."

Conficker’s authors also have updated the worm so infected machines have new ways to talk to each other. They can share malicious commands rather than having to contact a hacked web site for instructions.

That variation is important, because it shows that even as security researchers have neutralized much of what the botnet might do, the worm’s authors "didn’t lose control of their botnet," said Michael La Pilla, manager of the malicious code operations team at VeriSign Inc.’s iDefense division.

Unlike other internet threats that trick people into downloading a malicious program, Conficker is so good at spreading because it finds vulnerable PCs on its own and doesn’t need human involvement to infect a machine.

Once inside, it does nasty things. The worm tries to crack administrators’ passwords, disables security software, blocks access to antivirus vendors’ web sites to prevent updating, and opens the machines to further infections by Conficker’s authors.

Links:

Sophos PLC

Arbor Networks

VeriSign’s iDefense division

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‘Virtual reality’ learning to debut in Baltimore Co.

"Virtual instruction" is set to become a regular part of learning this fall in a Baltimore County school, reports The Baltimore Sun. The school district has teamed up with universities, defense contractors and a video game developer for help with a high-tech program designed to breathe life into textbook lessons and challenge students with the kind of problem-solving that employers might expect.
The initiative, for which nearly $1 million is requested in the next fiscal year, is part of the school system’s effort to equip students with 21st-century skills. Teachers can use simulations of real-life situations and problems to help students apply what they learn. The planned classroom of computer work stations and a wall of large screens for group lessons is believed to be a first in the area…

Click here for the full story

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Fort Collins students find a voice through Internet radio

While other kids his age were playing football or performing with the drama club, Jake Wood was busy starting his own radio station. The idea first came to him in 2007 when he learned that the Federal Communications Commission was opening the application window for noncommercial radio stations, reports Fort Collins Now.
"At the time, I was still trying to figure out how to hook my iPod into my car," he said. "I was still listening to regular radio, which was kind of redundant and played too many commercials. I started thinking what would it be like if high school students ran a radio station."
He filed for a station in Red Feather, where he lives, but he wasn’t the only one. He gave up the idea of an FM station, and re-examined his options. The more he thought about it, he realized that regular radio stations didn’t make the most sense.
"Most high school kids listen to iPods and get their music from the Internet," he said. "Regular radio is slowly disappearing from this particular demographic."
And so, Klik Radio, an Internet ratio station at www.klikradio.org, was born. With some technical experience from running the sound system at school dances, Wood began recruiting friends to volunteer at the station. His parents gave him money to apply for non-profit status, and he has also received funding from the Bohemian Foundation and other donations. The station, which plays an eclectic mix of music, draws 400 listeners a month and has about 35 volunteers from Poudre High School, Fort Collins High School and some from Loveland…

Click here for the full story

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Google to students: Flip bits, not burgers

Google Inc. is accepting applications for its "Summer of Code 2009" program, which offers stipends to student software developers to write code for various open-source software projects during their summer breaks.

Now in its fifth year, the program has brought together more than 2,400 students from nearly 100 countries worldwide to work on 230 open-source projects and create millions of lines of code, Google says.

Google identifies the program’s goals this way: getting more open-source code created and released for the benefit of everyone; inspiring young developers to begin participating in open-source development; helping open-source projects identify and bring in new developers; providing students the chance to advance their skills during the summer; and giving students more exposure to real-world software development.

According to Google, college students preparing for summer should "think ‘flip bits, not burgers.’"

Students who are accepted into the program are paired with a mentor or mentors from the participating open-source projects, thus gaining exposure to real-world software development scenarios and the opportunity for employment in areas related to their academic pursuits, Google says.

Applicants must be college or university students who are at least 18 years of age by April 20. Google will award up to 1,000 stipends worth $4,500 each. The deadline to apply is Friday, April 3.

Links:

Summer of Code 2009

List of Mentoring Organizations

Summer of Code 2009 Frequently Asked Questions

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Microsoft offers free tools for high schoolers

High school students are now able to access and download professional Microsoft Corp. software such as Visual Studio and XNA Game Studio for free, a service that has been offered to higher-education students for the past year through DreamSpark.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced the expansion to high school students March 26 at the Government Leaders Forum – Americas, which took place in Leesburg, Va.

DreamSpark provides the most advanced programming and development tools that students can use, Gates said, offering all of the capabilities that professionals have. Having access to these tools is intended to inspire students to eventually create companies that could become the next Microsoft, he said.

"Even at a young age, students want to push the limits," Gates said. "It harkens back to when I was a student and wanted to push the limits. The earlier you get going, the more likely you are to get super, super good at it."

Some might ask why Microsoft would offer its software to students for free.

"As the technology leader, we have an obligation to provide the tools worldwide to help [people] join the digital revolution," said Andy Zupsic, vice president of sales, marketing, and services for Microsoft Latin America.

Joe Wilson, senior director of academic initiatives with Microsoft, added that in tough economic times, the company hopes to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in their future careers.

"We have the ability to unlock the door so that students have a head start in college or in high school," he said.

He said it made sense for Microsoft to expand the program because there are so many more students in K-12 schools than at colleges and universities.

"Only 10 percent of students make it to university, [so] 90 percent of all students are in K-12," he said. "There are 170 million university students [worldwide]; there are 500 to 600 million high school students."

Giving students free access to these tools also makes good business sense for Microsoft, because it encourages a generation of future programmers to learn Microsoft software.

The DreamSpark program allows students to download professional-level software tools free of charge. The program began at the university level about a year ago, and there have been nearly 2 million downloads by students in 110 countries.

For high school students to have access to these software downloads, a school representative need only sign up his or her school online. Once approved, the school representative will receive pass codes that will allow students to go online and download the available software free of charge.

Sina Chenari, a computer science student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said access to the free software through DreamSpark has helped him succeed academically.

"The experience and skills that I’ve developed using … professional technology tools have helped me secure valuable internships and will give me a tremendous head start for a career after graduation," he said.

The Government Leaders Forum, now in its 12th year, brings together leaders in government, business, and education to discuss issues and exchange experiences related to governance, education, health care, and economic development.

The forum included discussions on improving economic development through innovation and education, reinventing health care, and dealing with crises. Keynote presentations including speeches by former President Bill Clinton and Gates.

"Education is key to economic growth," Gates said. "Education is [a top priority], because as the chairman of Microsoft, I’m looking to hire the most talented people worldwide."

Links:

DreamSpark

Government Leaders Forum – Americas

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology

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