U.S. adults lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills

U.S. adults lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills

Policymakers and politicians who wring their hands about the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international math and reading tests have another worry: The nation’s grown-ups aren’t doing much better.

A first-ever comparison of adults in the United States and those in other democracies found that Americans were below average when it comes to skills needed to compete in the global economy.

The survey, released Tuesday, measured the literacy, math and computer skills of about 5,000 U.S. adults between ages 16 and 65, and compared them with similar samples of adults from 21 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The Americans are “decidedly weaker in numeracy and problem-solving skills than in literacy, and average U.S. scores for all three are below the international average and far behind the scores of top performers like Japan or Finland,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

When it comes to literacy, adults in the U.S. trailed those in 12 countries and only outperformed adults in five others. The top five countries in literacy were Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden.

U.S. adults did worse in mathematics, where they trailed 18 countries and beat just two — Italy and Spain.

And in the category of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or digital skills, U.S. adults lagged behind their counterparts in 14 countries.

Among the most educated test-takers — those with graduate or professional degrees — U.S. citizens scored higher than average in literacy, but lower than average in math and digital skills.

The achievement gap between white test takers and black and Hispanic test takers, a stubborn problem in U.S. K-12 public education, showed up in the adult survey. There were significant differences in test scores between whites and minorities.

“These findings should concern us all,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. “They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”

Duncan said the study highlights a group that has been “overlooked and underserved: the large number of adults with very low basic skills, most of whom are working.”

“Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them,” Duncan said. “We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills.”


Wall Street Panel Brings Top Business Alumni Back to Campus

Wall Street Panel Brings Top Business Alumni Back to Campus

Students in the School of Business Administration will get the opportunity to interact with top executives from Wall Street who will be returning to their alma mater for a series of informational and networking events at the Dudley H. Davis Center Sept. 12-13.

The Wall Street Program starts Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with an opening reception for business school students, faculty, panelists and alumni in the Kalkin Hall Lobby. The featured Wall Street Panel, scheduled for Friday at 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Thomas Chittenden Room, is open to all UVM students interested in listening to alumni talk about their careers after UVM and to answer any questions.

Featured panelists include James Flicker ’87, managing director and partner, Greenhill & Co, LLC; James Rourke ’92, director and head of Middle Market M&A, Investment Banking, Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Kim Wieland ‘85, managing director and CFO, Allen & Company LLC; Peter Salvatori ’05, director, Alternative Asset Advisory, Duff & Phelps; and Laura Polidor ’09, assistant vice president, Iinvestment Banking, Credit Suisse.

“All of the panelists are successful alumni with diverse career paths on Wall Street,” says Sanjay Sharma, dean of the business school. “They will not only talk about their careers after UVM, but will also conduct mock interviews to prepare students for the high bar that the industry sets for recruiting college grads. These are all very busy people who are giving generously of their time because they want to see our students succeed.”

“Wall Street 101,” an introduction to Wall Street for juniors and seniors interested in a career in finance and investment, is designed to bring the capital markets cycle to life, from start-up to IPO, including venture capital, investment banking, private equity, asset management, sales and trading and hedge funds. Rourke, who worked for eight years at Bear Stearns as an M&A specialist and at Fox Entertainment Group/News Corporation and Arthur Andersen prior to joining Bank of America, will serve as presenter for the session, scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m. in 110 Kalkin Hall.

Flicker, a Wall Street veteran of more than 25 years at Lehman Brothers and UBS, will serve as presenter for “Wall Street 102,” a more advanced look at the finance industry for seniors pursuing positions in finance. The program, which runs concurrently with Wall Street 101 in 225 Kalkin, incorporates a series of real-life mergers and acquisitions case studies, including a company under hostile attack from an activist shareholder; a company that has grown aggressively through acquisition; and a company bought out by a private equity investor.

The program finishes on Friday at 1 p.m. in the Davis Center’s Silver Maple Ballroom with a networking event for students interested in exchanging contact information, creating professional relationships and asking more in-depth questions of panelists.


UGA President Jere Morehead institutes new need-based scholarship


President Jere Morehead

University of Georgia President Jere Morehead is establishing a new need-based scholarship fund in honor of his parents.

The Wade and Virginia Morehead Scholarship Fund is designed to help undergraduate students study in the nation’s capital as participants in the UGA Washington Semester Program. The program sends students to Washington to intern with legislators, government agencies, and different businesses.

According to a press release, with more than 7,000 UGA students qualifying for the Pell Grant, a U.S. Department of Education aid given to low-income students, Morehead said one of his priorities is to raise support for need-based scholarships.

The first gift of $25,000 funded the scholarship, and other gifts will help the this scholarship fund reach $100,000 within the next five years.

Students will be selected for the scholarship based on financial need at the discretion of the program coordinator. Scholarship awards will vary from $1,000 to $2,000, and students chosen will be known as Morehead Scholars.


Essential Mechanism of Symbiosis Found in Hawaiian Squid

Hawaiian bobtail squid

Experiments at UW-Madison with a small squid that glows in the dark have uncovered a complex conversation that allows the newly hatched squid to attract the glowing, symbiotic bacteria that disguises it against predators.

Increasingly, scientists recognize that such symbiosis plays a critical role in many biological processes associated with human health and disease, says senior author Margaret McFall-Ngai, a professor of medical microbiology and immunology at UW-Madison.

The dialogue begins when fewer than five bacterial cells latch onto the squid. After the animal senses the bacteria, the squid responds in two ways: increasing breakdown of a sugar that eventually guides the bacteria toward their home in the squid’s light-emitting organ, and producing antimicrobial compounds that deter other types of bacteria.

The squid are native to the ocean around Hawaii. During the day, they burrow into the ocean floor for protection. At night, while they forage, they appear as shadows to predators looking up against the bright ocean surface. But when the bacteria light up, the squid are camouflaged.

During decades of study, has been impressed by the specificity of the relationship: The squid are born sterile, but within hours, in water containing thousands of types of bacteria, they select only the one they need, then give it a home, in return for that protective light.

The question of how the animal chooses among those thousands of other bacterial cells has great significance, McFall-Ngai says, as a much more complicated version of this same selection occurs after a human birth. “It’s remarkable, when humans are born, they are not associated with a random bacterial sample of their environment. We have to choose the correct microbes.”

In a study published today in Cell Host & Microbe, McFall-Ngai and first author Natacha Kremer, an honorary associate fellow in medical microbiology at the University of Lyon, France, report that the first few bacteria, after attaching to the squid, signal broad changes in the squid’s gene expression. “We were interested in how the squid responds specifically to the correct bacteria, and how this happens very early in the initial contact,” says Caitlin Brennan, a co-author who is a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Ned Ruby, a professor of medical microbiology at UW-Madison.

After signaling to the squid, the bacteria wait a few hours before moving into niches in the squid’s light organ, where they will multiply and glow at night, protecting the animal against predators. During this wait, the squid releases an enzyme to convert chitin, a component of its mucus, into a sugar that serves as an attractant for the bacteria. After this initial chemical conversation, the bacteria become responsive to the squid’s “come-hither” signal, and they move inside the squid. At the same time, a second widespread change in gene activity causes the squid to make that antimicrobial agent.

“We find that the bacteria require priming; they won’t swim toward the chemical signal unless they have seen it beforehand, while first attached to the squid. The bacteria are responding to their environment, which the host is changing after sensing the bacteria. We’re watching a real conversation between the host and the symbiont,” says Brennan.

Virtually all higher organisms coexist with bacteria, and after hatching or birth most or all of them need to be “infected” with the microbes they need for normal functioning. People, for example, “have very specific microbiota at each region of the gut,” McFall-Ngai says. “We can have about 700 types in the mouth, 100 in the stomach, and 1,000 in the large intestine.”

For a century, scientists have used simple organisms — fruit flies, yeast, and nematodes — to learn the rules of the biological road. The squid offers an ultra-simple version for studies of symbiosis, McFall-Ngai says, “where you have a hope of figuring out the dialogue between partners because there are only two species.”

All animals descended from aquatic ancestors, McFall-Ngai points out, and so we all share many systems for chemical communication with our microbial companions. “While animals evolved in the marine environment, they were under tremendous selection pressure from the microbes in the seawater. If you look at one element of that association, how bacteria talk to animal cells, you’ll see that conserved all the way through the animals.”

And as scientists find a growing role — both helpful and harmful — for these microbes in areas like immunity, cancer and obesity, it all starts with a conversation, McFall-Ngai says. “When biologists are trying to understand a conversation between a microbe and a human host, it’s like walking into biggest cocktail party and trying to figure out what is going on in all the conversations. With the squid, it’s like “My Dinner With André.” You can understand it; it’s a give and take that can be deciphered.”


UT Austin Research Will Help Cities Rebuild After Earthquakes

UT Austin Research Will Help Cities Rebuild After Earthquakes

AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin are conducting a study that will help a city rebuild after a string of earthquakes, thanks to a boost from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the government of New Zealand. The knowledge gained could one day help set building codes in earthquake-prone areas in the United States and abroad.

This summer, two faculty members and two graduate students from the Cockrell School of Engineering conducted field research in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, where six powerful earthquakes hit in 2011.

Since then, as many as 7,500 homes have been abandoned because of earthquake damage, and approximately 2,400 out of 3,000 structures in the central business district have been demolished. During the earthquakes, different parts of Christchurch were affected by liquefaction — the process by which water-saturated sediments, or soil, temporarily become liquid-like.

The government of New Zealand supported the earthquake-related research with $2.2 million to fund the construction of 16 ground improvement sites in different soils around Christchurch. The government provided UT Austin researchers free access to the testing sites. In addition to New Zealand’s support, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the project through a grant worth approximately $200,000.

The research will help address a critical problem facing Christchurch and the Canterbury region: rebuilding on land that remains at risk of liquefaction in future earthquakes. The research team, which arrived in New Zealand in mid-June, completed the field project in mid-July.

“This liquefaction field work has never been done before and represents critical, basic research as well as important practical knowledge for Christchurch to move forward in its developments,” said Kenneth Stokoe, principal investigator on the project and professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “The study will impact the future Christchurch society through the development of more robust seismic designs of residential structures for more than 15,000 homes.”

Currently, little information exists on the types of ground improvement methods that can be used to improve the resiliency of residential structures and low-rise buildings in future earthquakes. Researchers conducted full-scale field tests of shallow ground improvement methods, evaluating which soil improvements will perform best in future earthquakes.

The grant, which is part of NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, will be used to fund expenses and salaries associated with the project, which is called “RAPID: Field Investigation of Shallow Ground Improvement Methods for Inhibiting Liquefaction Triggering.” The project’s goal is to determine whether various ground improvement methods help inhibit liquefaction, and which of the methods tested would be most cost-effective. Civil engineering assistant professor Brady Cox is also a lead on the project.

The liquefaction testing was conducted using a large mobile shaker truck, called T-Rex, that is operated by NEES@UTexas at UT Austin, which is part of The George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). The 64,000-pound T-Rex is used to simulate a wide range of earthquake shaking levels. The shaker truck was transported to New Zealand earlier this year for use in another NSF-funded (NEES) project involving deep seismic profiling.

Stokoe and his team have worked closely with their colleagues from the University of Canterbury and geotechnical engineer Sjoerd van Ballegooy of Tonkin & Taylor Ltd. — who have been working hard to help Christchurch recover from the aftermath of the earthquakes.

This research will have applications for earthquake-prone cities in the United States, as well as numerous other parts of the world. The first phase of testing should be complete by August.

“We will work for another year to dig deeper into the basic research findings,” Stokoe said. “This stage mainly determines which ground improvement methods are best suited for Christchurch and will allow them to move forward in rebuilding a resilient city.”


Law graduates honor Prof. Saul Levmore with teaching award

Saul LevmoreStudents describe Prof. Saul Levmore as inquisitive, charismatic, confident, engaging and downright funny, with a bit of an edge that keeps them on their toes.

For those reasons and others, students in the graduating Class of 2013 honored Levmore at the Graduating Students annual dinner. Levmore was presented with the Teaching Award for excellence in educating this year’s class of law graduates.

Levmore, dean of the Law School from 2001 to 2009, said that as a teacher his goal is to provide added value to what the students can learn from law books. He works to develop “predictive theories of law” with his students, which will help them think in broader ways, not just about the particulars of a certain case. Before joining the UChicago law faculty in 1998, Levmore taught at Virginia, Harvard, Yale, Michigan and Northwestern.

“I love teaching. I like challenging students. I’m learning when I’m teaching,” he said. In fact, he estimates up to half of the themes in his scholarly writing come to him in the classroom. Levmore also appreciates that teaching allows him to see firsthand how students and technology change over the years. For instance, this year, for the first time, he utilized i>clicker remotes, which allow him to electronically poll the entire classroom on questions both concrete and theoretical. It’s been a great tool to assess the progress of the class as a whole, he said.

But no technology will replace his central teaching strategy, which is to challenge and question and provoke thought in his students.

“I was very bored as a student,” he said. “I’m so desperate not to bore them.”

Levmore is well aware that he’s known for his “strong personality,” which includes a dry and sometimes sarcastic wit. Most students respond well to it, he said, but he acknowledged he would never be the professor every student loves.

Clearly, plenty of them are fans. In fact, Alex Hartzler, ’12, said Levmore is the reason he came to the Law School. He was convinced by the then dean’s description of the school’s commitment to “intellectual rigor, expanding one’s mind and challenging one’s positions.”

As a professor, Levmore “weaves so many skill sets together: the Socratic law professor, the earnestly curious thinker, the scathing comedian, the master orator. His Public Choice Theory class is legendary, and any current student should consider it a ‘must’—if nothing else, just to have the opportunity to spend a term engaging with a master law professor at his best,” said Hartzler.


Corina Sandu Honored With International Forest R. McFarland Award

Corina SanduBLACKSBURG, Va., – Corina Sandu, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Virginia Tech, has received the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s Forest R. McFarland Award.

Established in 1979, this award recognizes individuals for their outstanding contributions toward the work of the automotive society’s Engineering Meetings Board in the planning, development, and dissemination of technical information through technical meetings, conferences, and professional development programs or outstanding contributions to its operations in facilitating or enhancing the interchanges of technical information.

Sandu, who is also the director of the Advanced Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory at Virginia Tech, focuses her research on multibody dynamics modeling, uncertainty quantification and propagation, parameter estimation, soil and terrain modeling, on-road and off-road vehicle dynamics, tire and track modeling, and terramechanics. Sandu is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the elected secretary of the its Design Engineering Division Executive Committee. She has served as the chair of its Vehicle Design Committee for three years, and is the Vice-Chair of the SAE Chassis and Suspension Committee.  She is also an active member of the International Society for Terrain-Vehicle Systems.

Sandu is the editor-in-chief of the SAE International Journal of Commercial Vehicles, editor-in-chief of the Journal for Automotive and Transport Engineering, editor of the Journal of Terramechanics, associate editor of the ASME Journal of Vibration and Acoustics, and editorial board member of the International Journal of Vehicle Systems Modeling and Testing. Sandu is a member of the SAE Ground Vehicle Reliability Committee’s Terrain Modeling and Characterization group, the Women Engineers Committee, and the Vehicle Dynamics Committee’s Tire Modeling group.

SAE International is a global association of more than 138,000 engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle industries.  SAE International’s core competences are life-long learning and voluntary consensus standards development.  SAE International’s charitable arm is the SAE Foundation, which supports many programs, including A World in Motion® and the Collegiate Design Series™.

The McFarland award is administered by the board and honors the late Forest R. McFarland, who was himself an outstanding session organizer, a chairman of the Passenger Car Activity and a member of the board.  Funding for this award is through a bequest by McFarland to the society.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college’s 6,000 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a “hands-on, minds-on” approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.


NASA fellowship will help KU student develop better polar ice radar

NASA fellowship will help KU student develop better polar ice radar

LAWRENCE — A three-year, $90,000 NASA fellowship will allow a University of Kansas School of Engineering graduate student to design tools that will help more precisely predict future sea level rise based on the impact of climate change on the polar ice sheets.

Theresa Stumpf, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at KU’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) from Wentzville, Mo., was awarded a fellowship to NASA’s Earth and Space Science Program to conduct research on a new type of ice penetrating radar designed to gather data from a much wider area and provide a much clearer picture of the conditions where the ice meets bedrock. Much of the data used by the scientific community, particularly Greenland data, are gathered with radars developed by CReSIS at KU and flown on aircraft over the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. These data represent images and information from the surface of the ice sheet to the bedrock.

The formal name of Stumpf’s NASA fellowship application is “Ultra-Wideband, Wide-Swath Radar Imaging of the Ice-Bed Interface for Generating Fine Resolution Bed Topography and Quantifying Basal Conditions.”

“That essentially means that the ice sheets are mapped out over a very wide swath, providing more accurate and abundant data about the conditions at the bedrock. Current information on that is very sparse,” Stumpf said. The conditions where the ice meets rock at the bottom of the ice sheet – whether it’s solid ice, melting ice or water – have a major influence on the speed of the ice flow to the oceans. The faster the ice flows, the more it affects sea level rise.

“Another important aspect of wide-swath imaging is that you can collect this data in a single pass from the aircraft,” Stumpf said. “You don’t have to fly multiple lines over the same area and then piece the data together to get fine resolution. You’re getting it in just one pass and that’s the objective.”

Data used by CReSIS have traditionally been gathered solely from the area directly beneath the aircraft. Stumpf’s research will analyze data from three separate antennas that gather information from a much wider patch of ground. While it can be more challenging to filter out interference and convert data to an accurate map, once Stumpf interprets all the information, the result can provide a more thorough and revealing picture of the conditions beneath the surface.

“Detailed descriptions of hydrological channels below the ice allow scientists to make more accurate predictions about future sea levels,” Stumpf said.

She says the outstanding work done on ice sheet research at KU over the years certainly helped earn her the NASA fellowship.

“They recognize the University of Kansas, here in the heart of the country, as a true leader in ice sheet research, and our track record and reputation definitely put me in a position to do research that I think a lot of other graduate students wouldn’t have the opportunity to do. I’m excited to see what we can do,” Stumpf said.

KU serves as the lead institution for the National Science Foundation-funded CReSIS, which incorporates the strengths of six additional partner institutions: Elizabeth City State University, Indiana University, University of Washington, The Pennsylvania State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Association of Computer and Information Science Engineering Departments at Minority Institutions. In addition to this core group, CReSIS collaborates with several international institutions and industry partners.


UB Student Wins Award for Thesis on Neural Stem Cells and MS

UB student wins award for thesis on neural stem cells and MS

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS), awarded University at Buffalo student, Alexandra Keller, the NAGS Master’s Thesis Award for 2012 – 2013.

Keller, who received her master’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology from the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences this past February, recently accepted the $1,000 award at the annual member’s award luncheon in New Brunswick, NJ.

Each year, NAGS recognizes an outstanding master’s thesis among students whose schools are members of the organization.

Keller’s thesis, titled “Direct Reprogramming of Neural Stem Cells into Oligodendrocyte Progenitors by Defined Factors,” was submitted by the council which reviews and selects UB’s nomination for NAGS. Only one nomination from each school is allowed.

“I was very flattered and honored just to be chosen as UB’s nomination. I was even more surprised and awed to have been chosen as the best thesis in the northeast region,” said Keller.

NAGS gives its award in science once every three years.

Keller worked closely with Fraser J. Sim, PhD, assistant professor in the UB Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, to understand oligodendrocyte cell development in the human brain and how transcriptional regulation contributes to diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS).

In his letter of recommendation for Keller’s thesis award, Sim said, “It was a pleasure to have Alexa in my lab as both an undergraduate researcher and subsequently as a BS/MS student from 2010-2012. Alexa’s thesis work was an ambitious project.”

Sim also said that Keller’s thesis forms part of a manuscript which he intends to submit to a top-tier journal later this year.

“This research could impact not just people and their families suffering from MS, but a whole host of neurodegenerative diseases and pave the way for therapy to a presently incurable disease,” said Keller.

Keller explained that in MS, which is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, a protective nerve covering called the myelin sheath is composed of oligodendrocytes that surround the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. When oligodendrocytes become damaged, demyelination or scarring can occur. As a result of demyelination, messages from the brain and spinal cord are blocked, leading to reduced or lost bodily function.

“The process of this degradation is poorly understood. In Dr. Sim’s lab, I was provided an opportunity to be able to experiment with primary neural stem cells—which are very precious and rare,” said Keller.

“By manipulating and studying these neural stem cells and their cell lineages we were able to pinpoint which genes control oligodendrocyte development in the human central nervous system and we hope that this will lead to novel approaches to induce oligodendrocyte repair in the brains of patients with MS.”

Keller has been accepted into the PharmD program in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences but she won’t forget what she has learned in Sim’s lab.

“Dr. Sim has taught me how to think like a researcher and to ponder the scientific world around me. His direction, advice, and patience throughout my thesis project were invaluable to my success. With high expectations to meet, it motivated me to do a better job and work harder to earn his respect and because of that I have a thesis project that I am proud of.”


Chevron Corp. Invests $800,000 in The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — Chevron Corp. has made a donation of $800,000 to The University of Texas at Austin. The gift represents the company’s investment in the university for the coming academic year. Among the things the gift will support are undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships, student organizations and activities, and laboratory renovations.

“Chevron has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with The University of Texas and is proud to support the university through our University Partnership Program,” said Paul Siegele, Chevron’s Energy Technology Company president. “Our gift will help deserving students, support student organizations and build labs to further enhance the great education students get at UT.”

The majority of the funding was allocated to support students in the McCombs School of Business, Cockrell School of Engineering and Jackson School of Geosciences, the primary areas from which Chevron recruits employees.

“Longhorn students have the reputation of being incredibly creative and well prepared to enter the workplace,” Siegele said. “Our partnership with Texas is a key part of Chevron’s efforts to hire top-quality graduates to help us meet energy demands around the world.”

Including its latest contribution, Chevron’s cumulative philanthropic giving to the university stands at more than $51.1 million.