7 Discoveries That Started as School Assignments

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Some schoolwork is worth more than a good grade. The young students behind these assignments earned recognition from scientists, paleontologists, and mathematicians in the real world. Here are seven class projects where the effects were felt far beyond the classroom.

1. AN INSECTICIDE THAT’S NONTOXIC TO HUMANS

For a middle school science project, Simon Kaschock-Marenda discovered that a sweetener found in most grocery stores doubles as a nontoxic insecticide. With help from his dad, Drexel University biology professor Daniel Marenda, Simon gave artificial sweeteners to fruit flies raised in their home. Of all the groups they studied, the flies fed Truvia had the shortest lifespan (5.8 days compared to 38 to 51 days). Daniel realized the significance of their findings and conducted further experiments at his work lab. Along with his colleagues, he identified the ingredient responsible—erythritol—and published the work in the journal PLOS ONE. The chemical compound won’t be replacing all synthetic pesticides anytime soon, but for small-scale applications it could be a safer alternative.

2. A NEW WAY TO EXTEND THE LIFE OF HEARING AID BATTERIES

Minnesota teenager Ethan Manuell didn’t expect to make a major medical breakthrough when he was asked to make a science fair project. As he told USA Today, his main concern was getting a good grade. After receiving the assignment from his eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Omland, Manuell started tinkering. Using materials he had at home—including old battery-operated toy bugs and the batteries from his hearing aid—he discovered a way to extend the lifespan of zinc hearing aid batteries by 85 percent.

Some hearing aid battery packages instruct users to remove the plastic tab on the back of the battery and let it sit for one minute. Manuell further tested this suggestion, allowing the tab-less batteries to sit for various amounts of time before testing their longevity in his vibrating toy bugs. He found that five minutes was the golden length of time needed to achieve maximum results.

The information is shared in doctor’s offices today. By using Manuell’s trick, hearing aid wearers can save an average of $70 a year on batteries.

3. INSIGHT INTO HOW BUMBLEBEES SELECT FLOWERS

A group of 8- to 10-year-olds from Blackawton Primary School in Blackawton, England may qualify as the youngest authors of a published scientific journal. The students conducted their research on the flower selection habits of bees in a local churchyard. The results, which they wrote up themselves, appeared in the respected Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

With their teacher, Dave Strudwick, and neuroscientist Dr. Beau Lotto as their mentors, the kids set up a color-coded, plexiglass box for bees to navigate. The puzzle contained two types of artificial flowers: one filled with sugar water and one with salt water. They discovered that “bumblebees can use a combination of color and spatial relationships in deciding which color of flower to forage from.” The findings suggest that bumblebees possess a more advanced awareness of their surroundings than some scientists give them credit for. Another takeaway from the study? “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before,” the authors wrote.

4. THE DISCOVERY OF A BABY DINOSAUR FOSSIL

Kevin Terris couldn’t have asked for better luck during a field trip he took as a 17-year-old. While scanning the ground for fossils at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, the student spotted a baby dinosaur skull poking out of the dirt. Once the rest of the remains were uncovered, paleontologists concluded they belonged to the smallest and youngest duck-billed Parasaurolophus dinosaur ever recorded. They nicknamed the specimen “Joe.”

Terris and his classmates visited the dig site as part of a paleontology program at their California high school. The field had already been surveyed by experts when the students arrived, which makes the discovery even more impressive. After receiving his high school diploma, Terris went on to study geology in college. Joe, meanwhile, is on display at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, after providing important insight into the development of duck-billed dinosaurs.

5. A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ANEMONE BIOLOGY

Getting out of the classroom and into nature led to a major discovery by middle school students at the Dedham School in Maine. Under the guidance of Vanderbilt University scientists via Skype, the students conducted an experiment on metridium (a type of sea anemone) they collected from the harbor. Their research revealed the presence of sulfilimine bonds in the creature’s structure, an observation that had never been made before.

While the bond is found in complex animals like mammals, it’s less common in simpler organisms. The students hypothesized that the quality is what prevents some creatures from regrowing limbs, while other animals like starfish are able to. “You see lots of war heroes that come back and they have a severed arm or a severed leg and so we can’t grow it back and we think maybe this has to do with that our cells are too bonded together: Maybe we need to loosen it up,” Dedham student Braedan Ward told WABI. Whether or not their hunch is proven correct, it's clear the budding scientists are asking the right questions.

6. AN ALTERNATIVE TO PASCAL’S TRIANGLE

When solving binomial expansions for his high school math class in 2013, sophomore Brock Brown could have used Pascal’s triangle like the rest of his classmates. Instead, he invented a brand-new theorem that allowed him to get homework done faster. His method eventually caught the attention of Ben Moulton, the math professor teaching Brock’s mother at Utah Valley University at the time. Moulton described the formula, now known as “Brock’s Theorem,” as an “elegant and simple” alternative to more common binomial theorems. The professor offered to develop a proof for Brock and later submitted it to the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. Moulton and Brown presented their work at an Anaheim, California math conference in 2013.

7. A POTENTIAL CANCER TREATMENT

In Dr. Robert Pergolizzi’s class at Bergen's Science and Technology Magnet School in New Jersey, students are given a lot of freedom. "There are no tests in this class, no homework," Pergolizzi told New Jersey News 12. Their only assignment is developing an original research project. Freshman student Joshua Meier took that prompt and ended up discovering a possible treatment for cancer.

Meier began his research by looking into the causes of rapid aging in artificially-generated stem cells. He discovered that synthetic stem cells are missing a third of their DNA, which makes them age faster. By controlling mitochondrial DNA deletion levels, he was able to slow the aging process.

As a junior, Meier used his findings to come up with a potential cancer treatment. Instead of slowing aging in stem cells, he realized he could reverse the process to expedite aging in cancer cells and stop them from growing. The research earned him second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Writing a Term Paper? This Font Is a Sneaky Way to Meet Your Page Count

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Stretching the margins, widening line spaces, making your periods slightly larger than the rest of the text—these tricks should sound familiar to any past or current students who've ever struggled to meet the page requirements of a writing assignment. As more professors get wise to these shortcuts, students are forced to get even sneakier when stretching their essays—and the digital agency MSCHF is here to help them.

As Fast Company reports, MSCHF has released an updated version of Times New Roman, the only difference from the standard font being that theirs takes up more space per character. When developing Times Newer Roman, the designers manipulated one character at a time, stretching them just enough to make a difference in the final page count without making the changes look noticeable. The result is a typeface that covers about 5 to 10 percent more line space than Times New Roman text of the same size, saving writers nearly 1000 words in a 15-page, single-spaced paper in 12-point type.

Getting the look right wasn't the only challenge MSCHF faced when designing the font. Times New Roman is a licensed property, so Times Newer Roman is technically a twist on Nimbus Roman No.9 L (1)—an open-source font that's meant to look indistinguishable from Times New Roman.

If you'd like to test out the font for yourself (for curiosity's sake, of course; definitely not to use on your term paper), you can download Times Newer Roman for free.

[h/t Fast Company]

The Most (and Least) Valuable College Majors, Ranked

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While choosing a college degree shouldn’t be entirely a matter of following the money, most students do want to know that their chosen field of study will eventually lead to a paying job. But the most valuable college major probably isn’t the one you’d think. A new study finds that actuarial science majors make the most money after graduation, according to Forbes.

To determine the most valuable college majors, Bankrate analyzed 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey to see how many people with bachelor’s degrees were employed in a job related to their major. The survey looked at data related to 162 college majors, analyzing unemployment rates, incomes, and the number of people with higher degrees. These factors were weighted to show which jobs pay the most, have the lowest unemployment rates, and require the least schooling.

The data showed that people with actuarial science degrees—who go to on to become risk assessors in the insurance and finance industries, among other jobs—make an average of $108,658 a year, with an unemployment rate of just 2.3 percent. Compare that to people with a degree in something like clinical psychology (No. 160 on the list) who make an average of $51,022 and have to contend with a 4.8 percent unemployment rate. The study also found that actuarial science is a valuable degree because most graduates don’t go on to get advanced degrees, meaning those high wages aren’t going toward paying off grad school debt. Only 22 percent of those actuarial science students went on to get master’s degrees or doctorates.

Below are the 10 most valuable degrees and their average annual incomes. These jobs pay, on average, between $96,000 and $130,000 a year.

1. Actuarial science
2. Zoology
3. Nuclear engineering
4. Health and medical preparatory programs
5. Applied mathematics
6. Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration
7. Molecular biology
8. Mechanical engineering
9. Civil engineering (tie)
9. Finance (tie)

And these are the least valuable, making between $40,000 and $51,000 a year, on average:

1. Miscellaneous fine arts
2. Composition and speech
3. Clinical psychology
4. Cosmetology services and culinary arts
5. Visual and performing arts
6. Human services and community organization
7. Educational psychology
8. Drama and theater arts
9. Interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary studies (general)
10. Library science

If you don’t have an interest in math and engineering, don’t be too dismayed. Plenty of those with liberal arts degrees still manage to make a living after graduation. Even if your drama degree doesn’t lead to a job in Hollywood, it isn’t necessarily a waste. But if you’re debating between mechanical engineering and civil engineering, we recommend going mechanical.

You can view the entire study here.

[h/t Forbes]

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