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6 Intelligence Agency Websites Geared Toward Children

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The United States spends $80 billion annually on its intelligence community. That’s equal to the combined amount spent on the entire Marine Corps, NASA, and the State Department each year, with enough change left over to buy the Legislative Branch. To keep that kind of cash flowing, success isn’t enough—it’s going to take some good marketing. As the tobacco industry taught us, there’s no demographic more lucrative than the youth market. Here are a few websites used by the intelligence community to win the hearts and minds of K-12.

1. National Security Agency CryptoKids®

Crypto Cat, Decipher Dog, and Rosetta Stone are part of a wacky gang of misfits who make up the CryptoKids, our secret weapon in the War on Terror. Take Decipher Dog: He loves playing online multiplayer games, soccer, and paint ball. And illegally intercepting the emails and phone calls of American citizens. Allegedly.

2. The CIA Kids’ Page

The part of the CIA website geared toward children is exactly like the part for adults, except for the terrifying Picassoesque illustration of a woman using a stiletto heel telephone. The best thing about the site—maybe the best thing on the entire Internet—are the quote marks in this sentence from CIA Kids, from the first paragraph on the first page:

The CIA is an independent US government agency that provides national security “intelligence” to key US leaders so they can make important, informed decisions.

3. Defense Intelligence Agency Kids

The beating heart of military intelligence is the Defense Intelligence Agency. Michael Flynn, its newly appointed director, spearheaded the intelligence revolution at the Joint Special Operations Command. If he plans to similarly reinvent DIA, he'll probably have to start at its kids’ page. At present, the site is like a 1997-era Macromedia commercial as designed in hell. There, a static, dead-eyed soldier stands at parade rest and stares at visitors, enlisting children to choose such missions as Hangman and Word Search. Don’t let the moribund Flash design fool you, however. The site promises “More to Come!!”

4. NCTC Kids Zone

Nothing says “childlike whimsy” like the National Counterterrorism Center, and the NCTC Kids Zone aims to capitalize on it. Together with Beaker the Eagle, Geo the Globe, and Chip the Inexplicably Wheel-Chaired Computer, children are invited to games of Word Find and Memory Match. Unlike the Junior Spies at CryptoKids, however, Beaker & Co. have no backstories—making them the perfect spies.

5. NRO Jr.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the National Reconnaissance Office was officially declassified. It was so declassified, in fact, that someone at headquarters fired up FrontPage and wanted to get the whole family involved. Parents, teachers, and grades K-5 all have a role at NRO Jr., but only children in grades 6-12 are designated TEAM RECON. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to Explore... A Career in the NRO; Enjoy... Recon Ringtones; Play... the new Launcher Command Word Find game. The takeaway is that Word Find is hugely popular in the spy community.

6. The FBI Kids Page

J. Edgar Hoover was a master at public relations, and spent his tenure as director of the FBI courting favorable media and press coverage. He would have approved of the FBI Kids Page, which is one 1985 World Almanac away from being a real-world Carmen Sandiego game. In stark contrast with DIA Kids (which only barely qualifies as a Gopher page, let alone an actual website), FBI Kids has more than just games, including facts about the bureau, breakdowns of actual FBI cases, and a mascot named after William Colby.

Bonus!

You’re probably thinking, “But what about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency?” As it turns out, the NGA had a site called Image Ace, where children could stare at satellite imagery and help a character named Orbit find his friend Terry Firma. For reasons unclear, Image Ace presently returns a 404 Not Found. This is either a job for Orbit, or an example of the shameful underrepresentation of youth-oriented GEOINT on the Internet.

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Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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This Russian Kindergarten Looks Just Like a Castle
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A group of lucky kindergarteners in Russia don’t have to wear poufy dresses or plastic crowns to pretend they’re royalty. As Atlas Obscura reports, all they have to do is go to school.

In a rural area of Russia's Leninsky District sits a massive, pastel-colored schoolhouse that was built to resemble Germany's famed Neuschwanstein Castle. It has turrets and gingerbread-like moldings—and instead of a moat, the school offers its 150 students multiple playgrounds, a soccer field, a garden, and playhouses.

Tuition is 21,800 rubles (about $360) a month, but the Russian government subsidizes it to make it less expensive for parents. As for the curriculum: it’s designed to promote social optimism, and each month’s lesson plan is themed. (September, for example, will be career-focused.)

Take a video tour of the school below, or learn more on the school’s website.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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