Weekend reads: Software for soft skills, cleaning up Harvey's mess, the queen bee diet

Kristin Tyndall's reads

Writing instruction is in a state of emergency. Writing skills rank high on employers' lists of critical skill gaps, but just 1 in 4 students are proficient writers and teachers say they feel underprepared to teach it. One startup aims to solve the problem with writing instruction software called "Quill," which uses machine learning to read students' sentences and respond appropriately to them. The founder says one thing that gets in the way of teaching writing is that we don't have an accepted curriculum for it, the same way we do for math and science. I'm excited about anything that gets kids writing, but I can't help but feel that that deeper problem, What's the best way to teach writing?, is one we still need to solve.

In another sign that real life is turning into a sci-fi novel, the Colorado School of Mines has announced a new graduate program in space mining. This article in local newsletter Denverite explains that the program is part of a new trend in space travel: find a way for spacecraft to responsibly harvest necessary resources like fuel and water from locations in space, ultimately allowing them to travel lighter and farther.

Seren Snow's reads

Even after catastrophic damage is caused by a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, environmental considerations still have to be taken into account, according to Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. What many may not consider is that aside from loss of life and injuries caused by a storm, figuring out what to do with all of the debris is often the most difficult part, according to Enck. This includes sorting appliances for recycling, turning damaged trees into mulch, and generally avoiding sending everything to a landfill, which can pollute groundwater. Many Texas-based environmental leaders opposed a decision by Governor Greg Abbott to suspend about 20 environmental rules that he said would prevent, hinder, or delay disaster relief efforts.

A cognitive psychologist offers some guidance on what educators and parents should be teaching young children. I love the lessons. Not only are they all very practical, but also they would all be useful throughout a child's entire life. My two personal favorites include creating a snowball and meeting deadlines. Creating a snowball isn't about snow; it means accumulating gains in order to reach a final, and greater, reward. This includes putting money in a savings account with an interest rate, for example. And meeting deadlines is of course important no matter where you are in life's journey, in my opinion.  

Kathleen Escarcha's reads

Is there a natural, safe, low-calorie alternative to sugar? Coca-Cola wants to know—and is crowd-sourcing to find the answer. But tricking the taste buds to soothe a craving that pre-dates the human species will be an uphill battle, says Paul Breslin, professor at Rutgers University. People have until next October to find an answer and the lucky winner will be awarded a sweet prize of one million dollars.

Lorde knew it best, many of us will never be royals—and neither will most bees. Scientists have long puzzled over how the social fate of bees is decided. But a recent study reports that bees who begin life eating a plant heavy diet of “beebread” become workers, whereas those who subsist on royal jelly grow into queens. While the amount of plant RNA may be a major player in gene development, scientists say more research is needed to understand this amazing process.

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