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Students Compete to Develop Innovative Ways to Feed Future Cities

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Students Compete to Develop Innovative Ways to Feed Future Cities

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs have been extolled in the U.S. in recent years because American students consistently rank lower in math and science than their counterparts in other developed countries. DiscoverE, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the field of engineering, has received national attention for its efforts to encourage U.S. students to pursue engineering.

St. John Lutheran School takes home the grand prize of a trip to U.S. Space Camp and $7,500 for its school’s STEM program. Photo credit: Future City

One of the ways DiscoverE encourages students to pursue engineering is through its annual Future City Competition, in which middle school students from around the U.S. compete to design cities of the future. The winners of the national competition were announced yesterday.

There were 37 regional final competitions which took place in January. First-place winners from each regional competition advanced to the Future City Competition National Finals in Washington, D.C., which took place from Feb. 14-18. Finalists presented their ideas before a panel of judges that included some of the country's top tech leaders, NASA executives and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Every year, the non-profit encourages all students, even those who are not the math and science types, to participate. Forty thousand middle schoolers from 1,350 schools worked on their design projects from September until January. The annual challenge is one of the nation's leading engineering programs, and this year, the competition's theme is Feeding Future Cities.

The winners of South Florida's regional finals meet President Obama. Photo credit: Future City

"Experts predict that by the year 2030 nearly all of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in urban areas," said Future City. "At the same time, the Earth’s arable land may no longer be sufficient to produce enough food for the planet’s growing population." Given how unsustainable industrial-scale agriculture is, the Future City Competition challenged this year's students to find solutions to today's pressing agricultural problems.

This year's theme encouraged students "to explore today’s urban agriculture, from aeroponic systems for roof top farms to recycled gray water to the sustainability-driven farm-to-table movement, and develop a futuristic solution to growing crops within the confines of their city," DiscoverE said.

The students, who formed teams and received help from an educator and an engineer mentor, designed a virtual city using SimCity software. They researched existing urban farms and wrote an essay describing their solution to feeding their city. Students then built "a tabletop scale model of their city using recycled materials on a budget of $100 or less and wrote a brief narrative promoting their city," according to DiscoverE.

The North Dakota team meets Bill Nye. Photo credit: Future City

St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Michigan, placed first for the second year in a row. Second place went to West Ridge Middle School from Austin, Texas. Academy for Science and Foreign Language from Huntsville, Alabama took third place. HEART of Science Cooperative from Rockwall, Texas took fourth, and Queen of Angels Regional Catholic School in Philadelphia took fifth.

The top five winners received scholarship money for their school's STEM program and the first-place team received a trip to the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. There were also winners in two dozen categories, including "Best Use of Renewable Energy," "Most Sustainable Buildings" and "Best Management of Water Resources."

This year, the host at the Future City finals was aerospace engineer and TV personality Deysi Melgar, a young woman who hails from Mexico. She was a contestant in a similar engineering competition when she was in high school and has gone on to be a leader in a field that remains dominated by men.

Future City has been very successful in reaching out to girls and underserved students. Forty-six percent of participants this year were girls and 33 percent of participating schools had 50 percent or more of their students enrolled in the reduced or free lunch program.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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