How hands-on learning fires up your brain

To strengthen your mind, work with your hands, says former astronaut Leland Melvin.

LELAND MELVIN: When I was a kid, my dad drove a $500 bread truck into our driveway and I thought we were going into the bread business. And he said, "No, this is our camper." I said, "I can read – it says Marita Bread and Rolls on the side of the truck." And over that summer we build bunk beds that flipped down, we made a sofa, we plumbed a propane tank into a Coleman stove, we rewired the entire truck. Over that summer I learned how to be an engineer and I was in middle school so it was experimental learning. And it wasn't until we painted the side of the truck that I realized we're going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on vacation in this recreational vehicle. So experiential learning, whether it comes from home, school, wherever you get it, Boys and Girls Club, but we have to give kids meaningful things to do with their hands and give them problems that can help solve problems in their community or in the world and not just do make-work stuff. And I think when we let them build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers because that's what they're doing. They're thinking creatively and they're solving problems. And that's what we do as engineers and scientists. And so get them early building and creating things that are meaningful. Like I built a bread truck that saved the day for us. And we didn't have to spend it $24,000 on a Winnebago when we have a $500 bread truck that serves the same purpose – getting the family, in the cheapest way possible, to a destination so that the family can explore these new surroundings.

The intellectual side of learning and the physical side of learning how are they connected and what is that interplay? And I think Lego has done a really great job of teaching kids to play with these bigger Duplo blocks or the bigger blocks where they're trying to move them from one side of the body to the other side, because if you split the brain, as you're going across the brain, you are now making this physical space connection with both sides of your brain. And their play is intentional to have kids do that at a very early age. And so understanding how my body works, how I turn and twist and jump when I'm catching a pass has the same effect as me working hand controllers on the International Space Station, moving the $2 billion Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of the shuttle and attaching it to the space station. I have to know how to position my body in zero gravity where I'm not floating off and I'm going to put in the wrong hand controller motion that's going to slap the thing into the side of the space station and kill the project and maybe kill us. So body, mind, spatial reasoning, body spatial reasoning are all connected to solving problems. You have these foot straps you put your feet in that keep you from translating around, but still you have to react off the hand controllers just like you do off the foot straps. And I think understanding your body in space as well as on the ground helps you do these technical things that are challenging with your body.

  • Learning is a mental and physical pursuit, says retired astronaut Leland Melvin.
  • Recalling his childhood, Melvin explains how working with his dad to turn a $500 bread truck into a family RV camper ultimately made him a better astronaut, able to maneuver the $2-billion dollar Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay of a shuttle and attach it to the International Space Station.
  • Experiential learning — like hands-on DIY, engineering kits, and Duplo games — wires your brain for problem solving from a young age. It's a leg-up we can all give to the children in our lives.
  • "[W]hen we let [kids] build and create and it's meaningful and it helps them solve a problem, that gets them thinking about how they can be change makers themselves and how they can be scientists and engineers," says Melvin.

Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Android has won the phone world war

A global survey shows the majority of countries favor Android over iPhone.

Credit: Electronics Hub
Strange Maps
  • When Android was launched soon after Apple's own iPhone, Steve Jobs threatened to "destroy" it.
  • Ever since, and across the world, the rivalry between both systems has animated users.
  • Now the results are in: worldwide, consumers clearly prefer one side — and it's not Steve Jobs'.
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UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

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