Tuesday 27 2024

How is snow made? An atmospheric scientist describes the journey of frozen ice crystals from clouds to the ground

Some parts of the U.S. see well over 100 inches (2.5 meters) of snow per year. Edoardo Frola/Moment Open via Getty Images
Alexandria Johnson, Purdue University

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

How is snow made? – Tenley, age 7, Rockford, Michigan

The thought of snow can conjure up images of powdery slopes, days out of school or hours of shoveling. For millions of people, it’s an inevitable part of life – but you may rarely stop to think about what made the snow.

As a professor of atmospheric and planetary sciences, I’ve studied how ice crystals floating in the sky become the snow that coats the ground.

It all starts in the clouds.

Clouds form when air near the Earth’s surface rises. This happens when sunlight warms the ground and the air closest to it, just like the Sun can warm your face on a cold winter day.

As the slightly warmer air rises, it cools – and the water vapor in that rising air condenses to form liquid water or water ice. From that, a cloud is born.

You need just two things for snow to form.

Endless pathways

When temperatures are well below freezing on the ground, the clouds are primarily made of water in the form of ice. Under 32 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s zero degrees Celsius – the frozen water molecules arrange themselves into a hexagonal, or six-sided, crystalline shape. As ice crystals grow and clump together, they become too heavy to stay aloft. With the help of gravity, they begin to fall back down through and eventually out of the cloud.

What these ice crystals look like once they reach land depends on the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere. As the humidity – or the amount of water vapor in the cloud – increases, some of the ice crystals will grow intricate arms at their six corners. That branching process creates what we think of as the characteristic shapes of snowflakes.

No two ice crystals take the same path through a cloud. Instead, every ice crystal experiences different temperatures and humidities as it travels through the cloud, whether going up or down. The ever-changing conditions, combined with the infinite number of paths the crystals could take, result in a unique growth history and crystalline shape for each and every snowflake. This is why you’ve likely heard the saying, “No two snowflakes are exactly alike.”

Many times, these differences are visible to the naked eye; sometimes a microscope is required to tell them apart. Either way, scientists who study clouds and snow can examine a snowflake and ultimately understand the path it took through the cloud to land on your hand.

Snow crystals attached to a window.
It takes approximately one hour for a snowflake to reach the ground. LiLi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Liquid water as glue

When snow falls from the sky, you don’t usually see individual ice crystals, but rather clumps of crystals stuck together. One way ice crystals aggregate is through what’s called mechanical interlocking. When ice crystals bump into each other, crystals with intricate branches and arms intertwine and stick to others.

This mechanism is the main sticking process in cooler, drier conditions – what people call a “dry snow.” The result is a snow perfect for skiing, and easily picked up by the wind, but that won’t hold together when formed into a snowball.

The second way to stick ice crystals together is to warm them up a bit. When ice crystals fall through a region of cloud or atmosphere where the temperature is slightly above freezing, the edges of the crystals start to melt. Just a tiny bit of liquid water allows ice crystals that bump into each other to stick together very efficiently, almost like glue.

The result? Large clumps of ice crystals falling from the sky, what we call a “wet snow” – less than ideal for hitting the slopes but perfect for building a snowman.

Snow formed in clouds typically reaches the ground only in winter. But almost all clouds, no matter the time of year or location, contain some ice. This is true even for clouds in warm tropical regions, because the atmosphere above us is much colder and can reach temperatures below freezing even on the warmest of days. In fact, scientists who study weather discovered that clouds containing ice produce more rain than those that don’t contain any ice at all.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

Alexandria Johnson, Professor of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Higher Education Day at the Capitol

Higher Education Day at the Capitol. Great to visit with students from the University of Montevallo in Montgomery.

Why federal efforts to protect schools from cybersecurity threats fall short

The cost of safeguarding America’s schools from cybercriminals could run as high as $5 billion. boonchai wedmakawand via Getty Images
Nir Kshetri, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

In August 2023, the White House announced a plan to bolster cybersecurity in K-12 schools – and with good reason. Between 2018 and mid-September 2023, there were 386 recorded cyberattacks in the U.S. education sector and cost those schools $35.1 billion. K-12 schools were the primary target.

The new White House initiative includes a collaboration with federal agencies that have cybersecurity expertise, such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the FBI. Technology firms like Amazon, Google, Cloudflare, PowerSchool and D2L have pledged to support the initiative with training and resources.

While the steps taken by the White House are positive, as someone who teaches and conducts research about cybersecurity, I don’t believe the proposed measures are enough to protect schools from cyberthreats. Here are four reasons why:

1. Schools face more cyberthreats than other sectors

Cyberattacks on K-12 schools increased more than eightfold in 2022. Educational institutions draw the interest of cybercriminals due to their weak cybersecurity. This weak cybersecurity provides an opportunity to access networks containing highly sensitive information.

Criminals can exploit students’ information to apply for fraudulent government benefits and open unauthorized bank accounts and credit cards. In testimony to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, a Federal Trade Commission official noted that children’s Social Security numbers are uniquely valuable because they have no credit history and can be paired with any name and date of birth. Over 10% of children enrolled in an identity protection service were discovered to have loans.

Cybercriminals can also use such information to launch ransomware attacks against schools. Ransomware attacks involve locking up a computer or its files and demanding payment for their release. The ransomware victimization rate in the education sector surpasses that of all other surveyed industries, including health care, technology, financial services and manufacturing.

Schools are especially vulnerable to cyberthreats because more and more schools are lending electronic devices to students. Criminals have been found to hide malware within online textbooks and essays to dupe students into downloading it. Should students or teachers inadvertently download malware onto school-owned devices, criminals can launch an attack on the entire school network.

When faced with such an attack, schools can be desperate to comply with criminals’ demands to ensure students’ access to learning.

2. Schools lack cybersecurity personnel

K-12 schools’ poor cybersecurity performance can be attributed, in part, to lack of staff. About two-thirds of school districts lack a full-time cybersecurity position. Those with cybersecurity staff often don’t have the budget for a chief information security officer to oversee and manage the district’s strategy. Often, the IT director takes on this role, but they have a broader responsibility for IT operations without a specific emphasis on security.

3. Schools lack cybersecurity skills

The lack of cybersecurity skills among existing staff hinders the development of strong cybersecurity programs.

Only 10% of educators say that they have a deep understanding of cybersecurity. The majority of students say that they have minimal or no knowledge about cybersecurity. Cybersecurity awareness tends to be even lower in higher-poverty districts, where students have less access to cybersecurity education.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency plans to provide cybersecurity training to an additional 300 K-12 schools, school districts and other organizations involved in K-12 education in the forthcoming school year. With 130,930 K-12 public schools and 13,187 public school districts in the U.S., CISA’s plan serves only a tiny fraction of them.

4. Inadequate funding

The FCC has proposed a pilot program that would allocate $200 million over three years to boost cyberdefenses. With an annual budget of $66.6 million, this falls short of covering the entirety of cybersecurity costs, given that it will cost an estimated $5 billion to adequately secure the nation’s K-12 schools.

The costs encompass hardware and software procurement, consulting, testing, and hiring data protection experts to combat cyberattacks. Frequent training is also needed to respond to evolving threats. As technology advances, cybercriminals adapt their methods to exploit vulnerabilities in digital systems. Teachers must be ready to address such risks.

Costs are sizable

How much should schools and districts be spending on cybersecurity? Other sectors can serve as a model to guide K-12 schools.

One way to determine cybersecurity funding is by the number of employees. In the financial services industry, for example, these costs range from $1,300 to $3,000 per full-time employee. There are over 4 million teachers in the United States. Setting cybersecurity spending at $1,300 per teacher – the low end of what financial firms spend – would require K-12 schools to spend a total of $5 billion.

An alternate approach is to determine cybersecurity funding relative to IT spending. On average, U.S. enterprises are estimated to spend 10% of their IT budgets on cybersecurity. Since K-12 schools were estimated to spend more than $50 billion on IT in the 2020-21 fiscal year, allocating 10% to cybersecurity would also require them to spend $5 billion.

Another approach is to allocate cybersecurity spending as a proportion of the total budget. In 2019, cybersecurity spending represented 0.3% of the federal budget. Federal, state and local governments collectively allocate $810 billion for K-12 education. If schools set cybersecurity spending at 0.3%, following the example of federal agencies, that would require an annual budget of $2.4 billion.

By contrast, a fifth of schools dedicate less than 1% of their IT budgets – not their entire budgets – to cybersecurity. In 12% of school districts, there is no allocation for cybersecurity at all.The Conversation

Nir Kshetri, Professor of Management, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Why probation and parole don’t work as advertised

The current system of supervised release in lieu of imprisonment may do more harm than good, some experts say. How can society do a better job of rehabilitating law-breakers while keeping them from re-offending?

Marcella Soto had four children by the time she was 22 and was on and off welfare during the years they were growing up. By 2018, she was working a government job in California when she was charged with six counts of welfare fraud. Unable to prove that she had not misreported her income many years earlier, she pleaded guilty to a single felony count.

Soto was sentenced to the maximum probation term — five years — and was required to check in with a supervisor every month. Because of the conviction, she lost her job; because of the conditions of her probation, she was unable to travel to Texas to attend the birth of her first grandchild.

Being sentenced to probation put Soto in the largest group of people in America’s criminal justice system. About 1.9 million US residents are behind bars, and 3.7 million are being monitored while they are on probation in lieu of incarceration or on parole after being let out of lockup.

Probation and parole — collectively known as community supervision — were originally conceived as alternatives to incarceration, allowing convicted criminals to be rehabilitated under supervision. But criminal justice leaders say the practices have strayed from that original mission and become so ineffective that, ironically, they contribute to America’s overcrowded prisons. These critics call for an overhaul of community supervision, including shorter terms and more support for rehabilitation. In some states, new laws are making headway.

“Nearly half of the people going into jails and prisons are coming in from a failed and broken probation and parole system,” says Robert Rooks, chief executive officer of Reform Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. “So if you want to address mass incarceration in this country, you have to address the phase of probation and parole.”

Changing goals

Parole and probation were originally intended as opportunities to rehabilitate offenders through support, such as help finding jobs or housing. This focus on rehabilitation began to recede in the 1970s when a tough-on-crime public sentiment emerged. Parole and probation morphed instead into systems of surveillance — intense scrutiny over long periods of time — supposedly in support of public safety.

With this shift, critics say, community supervision became a form of “net-widening,” keeping people in the criminal justice system rather than easing them back into society. “In many people’s minds, this is a good thing you get instead of going to prison,” says Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. “But this is a bad thing. It’s got a lot of bad outcomes for a lot of people.”

For instance, probationers must comply with a growing, often complex list of conditions — which typically number 18 to 20 — that can be difficult to meet, Schiraldi says. Avoiding contact with anyone who has a criminal conviction is hard if an offender’s family or support network includes convicts; returning home by curfew can interfere with keeping a job. In Pennsylvania, where a released prisoner could be on parole for the rest of their life, probationers are prohibited from leaving the state, which means an Uber driver on probation in Philadelphia cannot drive into the suburbs that spill into Delaware.

“That right there shows you that our current policies are arbitrary, unnecessary and hinder people’s ability to do the things they need to do to become stable, get back to work and provide for their families,” Rooks says. “And that’s the opposite of what probation and parole should be doing.”

Indeed, a 1993 survey of people imprisoned in Texas found that 66 percent said they would choose incarceration over a 10-year probation sentence. When Schiraldi was New York City’s probation commissioner in 2010, he saw a woman give up her probation, choosing instead to go to Rikers Island jail, because she was unable to find childcare that she needed for her probation check-ins, where children were not allowed.

All these problems might be acceptable if probation and parole were meeting the goal of reducing incarceration without leading to more crime. Schiraldi and two colleagues examined that proposition in the 2023 Annual Review of Criminology — and concluded that they are not.

Community supervision clearly fails at reducing incarceration. The more people living under probation and parole in one year, the higher the incarceration rate the following year, according to work by Schiraldi and his coauthors. That reflects, in part, the fact that failing to comply with terms of supervision can mean a ticket to jail. In 2017, revocation of parole or probation accounted for 45 percent of prison admissions, and in 20 states, more than half of those revocations were not for new crimes, but for violating the terms of supervision.

The evidence on public safety is more equivocal. If releasing people on parole and probation poses a risk of further crime, then the more people released on supervision in a given year, the higher the crime rate would be in the following year. But that isn’t the case. Overall, a state’s probation, parole and total supervision rate in one year does not predict the state’s rate of index crime — a term that includes violent crime plus several kinds of property crimes — in the following year.

For parole alone, however, the researchers found that the more parolees in a given year, the more violent crime the next year. That implies that parole could be risky.

But looking at the issue in a different way, Urban Institute researchers showed no clear risk, as well as no benefits, from parole. The team reviewed long-term Bureau of Justice Statistics data on 38,624 prisoners from 14 states released from prison in 1994 and found that parole supervision does not substantially affect recidivism or public safety. People simply released from prison without supervision were no more likely to be rearrested than those who were required to complete a term of parole after their sentence, they found — though people paroled before the end of their prison sentences did have lower rearrest rates.

Other evidence also suggests that recidivism may arise early, so long supervision terms may not be helpful in reducing crime. For example, among felony probationers in Oregon who were rearrested within three years of their probation, 69 percent were arrested in the first year, according to data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. That suggests that the early months of probation and parole may be a critical period for helping offenders change their behavior and connecting them with community services.

In addition, making community supervision less punitive has been shown to work. One in-depth study of 283 offenders in an intensive supervision program in Wyoming compared the effect of rewards, such as praise or removal of electronic monitoring, to punishments, such as reprimands or tightened curfew. The offenders were most likely to complete their supervision successfully if they received at least four times as many rewards as sanctions.

Several studies show that employment for people under supervision helps to reduce recidivism. A transitional job program in New York City for people leaving prison led to a 9 percentage-point reduction in any type of recidivism (arrest, conviction or jail) over the three-year follow-up period compared to results with parolees not in the program. That suggests that supporting employment — rather than making it difficult by travel restrictions — is a good idea.

Evidence like this led Schiraldi and Barbara Broderick, former chief probation officer for Maricopa County in Arizona, to launch Exit, a group made up of current and former community supervision leaders, victims, prosecutors and others who want to see probation and parole downsized and returned to their original purpose of rehabilitation.

Among other aims, they want people on probation to be able to earn time off supervision if they maintain good behavior and achieve milestones like graduating from high school or keeping a job. They want the money saved from reduced supervision to be invested in community-based services that support people on probation or parole. They want incarceration for technical violations to be eliminated in favor of more and better supportive services that help people on parole and probation reintegrate into their communities.

A better way

Some of the greatest progress has been in California, where a series of reform laws since 2007 has transformed the incarceration and community supervision landscape, Rooks says. The reforms reduced prison sentences and supervision periods for many offenses and encouraged the use of evidence-based supervision strategies such as needs assessments, tailoring the intensity of supervision to a probationer’s risk of recidivism, and increased referrals to counseling, substance abuse treatment and employment services.

In many people’s minds, [probation] is a good thing you get instead of going to prison. But this is a bad thing.”


Because of these and other reforms, the number of Californians under community supervision fell from 477,733 in 2006 to 306,500 in 2020, a decrease of 42 percent. Meanwhile, reported crime declined by 7.4 percent during those years — and a study found the reforms had no measurable effect on violent crime, suggesting that less-punitive treatment did not increase crime.

Another California reform, passed in 2020, limits most probation sentences for misdemeanors to one year and most probation sentences for felonies to two. The change is projected to reduce the number of people on probation by a third, avert more than 48,000 prison stays because of technical violations and save the state $2.1 billion over five years, according to calculations by Recidiviz, a nonprofit organization that compiles and analyzes data to support criminal justice reform.

The saved money could be used to address the root causes of criminal behavior. For example, in early 2021 the El Dorado County Probation Department opened a house where probationers experiencing or at risk of homelessness can live and receive support services. “It allows you to free up the resources to give people the help that they need, which is what probation really should be about,” Rooks says.

When Soto learned about California’s new probation term limits in 2021, her probation officer did not support reducing her probation sentence, so Soto went to court. “The judge right away said, ‘You know what? I got her report. She’s never been in trouble and she’s working,’” she recalls. “And they let me off three years early.”

Now living in Oklahoma, where she works as a warehouse manager and lives with her daughter and the grandson whose birth she missed, Soto remembers that day. “I could travel and be free, and I didn’t have to worry about the visitation from the officer,” she said. “I was able to get my life back.”

By Lola Butcher

Solve Dinnertime Dilemmas with Speedy, Nutritious Whole Grains

Putting dinner on the table quickly seems to be a goal more often than not, particularly in today’s sped-up world. However, spending less time cooking doesn’t have to mean sacrificing nutrition or taste.

To enjoy better-for-you meals in the blink of an eye, lean into versatile ingredients prepared without the hassle like Minute Brown Rice & Quinoa Cups. In just 1 minute, you can savor a blend of two 100% whole grains with the crunchiness of red quinoa and chewy texture of brown rice that total 55 grams of whole grains and provide a good source of fiber in each serving.

Packed in single-serve portions, you can eat right out of the BPA-free cup or serve the whole grains as the base of this speedy Sweet Chili Shrimp with Quinoa mixed with succulent shrimp, umami-like flavors from sweet chili sauce and the satisfying flavor and crunch of green onions and chopped peanuts. A delicious dish that’s filling without the fuss, this recipe is ready in less than 5 minutes to save time without relying on takeout.

Switch up your family’s stir-fry routine with this savory version of Whole Grain Sesame Chicken Stir-Fry made with rice, quinoa, vegetables, rotisserie chicken and a blend of soy sauce and sesame oil. This simple meal is perfect for those busy weeknights when you need to save time without skimping on taste.

Ready to complement the succulent chicken and sesame-infused veggies, Minute Instant Rice & Quinoa offers a blend of four whole-grain ingredients: brown rice, red rice, wild rice and quinoa. Available in four convenient, pre-portioned, two-serving bags, it cooks in just 10 minutes for light, fluffy and delicious nutty flavor for recipe versatility from breakfast to dessert so you can rely on it as a family favorite for less time cooking and more time enjoying meals and moments together.

To find more quick, nutritious dinner solutions, visit MinuteRice.com.

Sweet Chili Shrimp with Quinoa

Prep time: 2 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Servings: 1

  • 1 Minute Brown Rice & Quinoa Cup
  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 cup frozen Asian-style mixed vegetables, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
  • 1 tablespoon chopped peanuts
  1. Heat rice and quinoa cup according to package directions. In small, microwave-safe bowl, combine shrimp and vegetables. Microwave on high 30 seconds.
  2. Stir in sweet chili sauce. Blend well.
  3. Serve shrimp mixture over rice topped with green onions and peanuts.

Whole Grain Sesame Chicken Stir-Fry

Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
Servings: 3-4

  • 1 bag Minute Instant Rice & Quinoa
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil, divided
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups rotisserie cooked chicken, shredded
  • 2 cups frozen, Asian-style mixed vegetables, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  1. Prepare rice and quinoa according to package directions, substituting broth for water.
  2. In medium wok or skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil. Add eggs and, using spatula, quickly soft scramble. Continue stirring eggs until light and fluffy. Remove from pan and reserve.
  3. Add remaining sesame oil to wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; stir-fry 2 minutes.
  4. Add chicken and vegetables; stir-fry 2 minutes, or until heated through. Fold in rice and quinoa, eggs and soy sauce.


Minute Rice

Eating Disorders: Is Your Institution Doing Enough to Help Prevent Them?

by Leah Jackson

Purple Anvil/ Shutterstock

Starting college is often viewed and portrayed as an exciting, fun-filled time -- a rite of passage for young adults. While this is true in many cases, as Erin Birely, LCPC of The Renfrew Center, reminds us, "this period is really marked by transition" as well.

Birely, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in treating clients struggling with eating disorders, reminds us that transition is a known risk factor for eating disorders, which are common among college students. "A study from the National Eating Disorders Association found that between 10-20% of women and 4-10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder," she says.

Eating disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, are "serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people's eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions."

They can have serious effects on a student's mental and physical health, academic performance, and social engagement.

As colleges and universities grapple with the student mental health crisis, eating disorders are another related concern to watch out for. Let's examine how transitioning into a college environment can be a trigger for eating disorders and how you can aim to prevent and address them among your student population -- on both an institutional and individual level.

The Perfect Storm

"College can create a perfect storm of biological, social, and cultural factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders," Birely explains. "On an individual level, many students have left home for the first time or have made some of the biggest decisions of their lives. There are also new social constructs and 'rules' to get used to."

As students shape identities apart from their families and friends at home and seek social connections with their new peers, they can experience a great deal of stress. There is also pressure from social media to maintain a certain appearance as well as the fear of gaining the 'Freshman 15' -- an idea perpetuated by our culture that most new students gain 15 pounds during their first year in college due to poor eating habits and food management.

"A student's identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, are also risk factors to eating disorders," shares Birely. "In fact, a 2019 study found that gender minority students exhibit a significantly higher prevalence of eating disorder symptoms than their cisgender peers, and another study from 2015 found that transgender college students are four times more likely to develop an eating disorder."

Deborah J. Cohan, Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of "The Big Book of College" (New World Library 2024), says it's also important to recognize that trauma and eating disorders often intersect.

"For example," she says, "a student who has survived sexual and domestic violence, including incest, rape, or assault, may engage in the following: binging and purging as a way to claim control of what goes in and out of one's own body; binge drinking; and using alcohol and other drugs to numb out pain and trauma or to avoid eating and gaining weight."

Helping Students

Cohan emphasizes the importance of tackling these issues early. "Just like with binge drinking on campus, which can set in motion habits that are hard to break after college, so too, disorderly eating can lead people down a path from which it is hard to recover, even years beyond graduation," she shares.

Eating disorders can present in various ways and can be hard to identify. Yet, there are some warning signs that could indicate a student is struggling with one. Birley and Cohan say that faculty members, administrative staff close to the student, and peers can watch for:

  • Increased focus on exercise, specifically prioritizing this above all else (schoolwork, time with friends, etc.).
  • Secretive behaviors specifically around food, going to the bathroom, showering, etc.
  • Markings on fingers and knuckles.
  • Grade fluctuations.
  • Social withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Mood changes, such as increased anxiety or depression.
  • Low energy/motivation.
  • Increased distress about body image, such as consistent negative body talk.
  • Failure to take care of basic daily needs.

These are certainly not the only signs, and they may not be indicative of an eating disorder, but rather another struggle. If you notice these signs, avoid any direct references to the student's weight or appearance. Instead, channel empathy and compassion, Birley recommends.

"Ask questions," she says, "such as, 'I noticed you didn't do as well on this test as some of your others, are you feeling OK?' or 'You seem a bit withdrawn, is something going on?'"

Prevention and Intervention

Colleges and universities can play an instrumental role in not just identifying/treating existing disorders but preventing them among their students. Building awareness is the first step, and education for faculty, staff, and students is critical.

"With students, I've been part of creating wonderfully inspiring campaigns on campuses about body image," Cohan says. "At my last college, we sponsored an 'Every BODY is beautiful' campaign with murals inviting people's contributions, stories, and comments. Several years ago, my sociology of the body class started writing affirmations on Post-it™ notes about body love and self-acceptance and sticking them all around campus, in hallways and classrooms and on bathroom doors, mirrors, and kiosks. Who knew a trip to the bathroom could become so affirming? It really did make people smile and spread good, healthy energy. When kind sentiments about the body radiate outward into the community, it can be a powerful, uplifting experience."

Engaging students, faculty, and staff in a campaign is just one way to build a positive culture around body image and prevent eating disorders on campus. You may also consider:

  • Creating and sharing content online related to healthy eating habits and nourishing our bodies.
  • Hosting a panel discussion, bringing experts to campus to discuss eating disorder signs, symptoms, and how to intervene.
  • Staffing counseling and health centers with professionals trained to treat eating disorders.
  • Partnering with local clinicians or treatment centers to provide additional or more intensive support.
  • Thoughtfully considering and adjusting dining hall factors that could contribute to eating disorders, such as removing displays listing calories and ensuring dining hall hours align with most students' schedules (and ensuring grab-and-go options are in place).


Unfortunately, college-aged students are particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders, which can be life-threatening if not treated. Colleges and universities can do better by their students by evaluating their roles in both prevention and treatment. As we observe Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 28-March 5), it's the perfect time to consider sustained, year-long efforts that can support students in developing healthy eating and exercise habits and positive body image.


This article is republished from HigherEdJobs® under a Creative Commons license. 

Our robot harvests cotton by reaching out and plucking it, like a lizard’s tongue snatching flies

Cotton in bloom in Oklahoma. John Elk/the image Bank via Getty Images
Hussein Gharakhani, Mississippi State University

Cotton is one of the most valuable crops grown in the U.S., with a harvest value of some US$7 billion yearly. It is cultivated across a crescent of 17 states stretching from Virginia to California and is used in virtually every type of clothing, as well as in medical supplies and home goods such as upholstery.

Cotton grows inside a hard, fibrous case called a boll. About 100 days after planting, the bolls mature and split open, revealing thousands of fluffy white fibers inside. Each boll contains 20 to 40 seeds with fibers attached to them, which is why the cotton plant’s fruit is called seed cotton.

Picking cotton manually, as is still done in some major producing countries, is a meticulous task. Workers have to bend to reach the bolls and can hurt their hands on hard, dry parts of the plants. To harvest the seed cotton, they have to grab and twist it to separate it from the boll without leaving fiber behind.

Starting in the 1930s, cotton farmers in the U.S. shifted from manual labor to large, heavy harvesters. Now the industry is entering a new stage that promises to be more efficient and precise.

I am an engineer and have nearly 20 years of research experience working on agricultural machinery. My current focus is on agricultural robotics and automation. During my Ph.D. program at Mississippi State University, I worked with Alex Thomasson, who heads the agricultural and biological engineering department and the Agricultural Autonomy Institute, to develop a robotic cotton harvester that picks cotton with less damage to the product and the soil where it grows.

A man stands in front of a cotton field, next to a wheeled machine with a computer screen on top and wires hanging from it.
Mississippi State University engineering professor Hussein Gharakhani with a prototype robotic cotton harvester. Hussein Gharakhani, CC BY-ND

Why use robotics?

Cotton farmers have economic, environmental and agricultural reasons to want a better option for harvesting. Traditional mechanical harvesters can be up to 14 feet long and weigh more than 30 tons. They remove cotton effectively without damaging the plants but also can cause problems.

One issue is prolonged fiber exposure. Cotton bolls don’t all mature at the same time; the first open bolls in a field may wait for up to 50 days to be picked, until more bolls around them ripen.

Another challenge is that harvesting machines compact the soil as they roll over it. This makes it harder for water and fertilizer to penetrate down to plant roots. And the machines cost roughly US$1 million apiece but are used for only two to three months each year.

Robotics is a potential solution that farmers are already using for other crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Harvesting robots use cameras and sensors to detect when crops are ready to pick and can remove them without damaging the plant.

For cotton, robotics offers more targeted picking of bolls that are ready to harvest. It produces better-quality cotton fiber by picking seed cotton as soon as the bolls open, without leaving it exposed to the weather. The robot targets the seed cotton and avoids touching other parts of the plant.

With robotic picking, cotton farmers don’t need to use defoliants to remove leaves from the plants prior to harvesting, which is a common practice now. And small, nimble robots don’t compress the soil as they move over it, so they help maintain soil health.

A large green machine drives through a cotton field with a man riding on an observation deck. The harvester is more than twice the man's height.
A mechanical harvester picking cotton in Alabama in 2017. Katie Nichols/Alabama Extension/Flickr

A bioinspired ‘picking hand’

Our work focuses on designing an end-effector for robotic cotton harvesting. An end-effector is a robotic hand that enables the robot to interact with other objects. Ours is a three-fingered version designed for delicate and efficient cotton picking. It draws inspiration from nature, mimicking the hunting prowess of a lizard.

Each finger is a 3D-printed structure that contains a moving belt with pins attached to it. The pins help the hand grasp and pull in the seed cotton. Like a lizard snatching prey with its sticky tongue, our end-effector’s three fingers approach the seed cotton delicately. On contact, the cotton fibers stick to the machine’s fingers, much as an insect sticks to a lizard’s tongue.

Next, the hand retracts quickly, like the lizard’s tongue. The end-effector keeps working to “swallow” the seed cotton, transferring it out of the plant. As the harvester picks and transfers seed cotton out of the plant, the end-effector touches parts of the cotton boll with remaining seed cotton multiple times to pick as much as possible.

A robotic harvester picks cotton in a field test.

To pick cotton efficiently, our robot has to do three things: detect bolls that are ready for harvest, determine exactly where they are located in a three-dimensional space and pick the cotton.

The robot uses a deep-learning algorithm that we have trained to recognize open bolls on cotton plants. It uses a stereovision camera to calculate their 3D spatial coordinates, which it transfers to the robotic arm. A control algorithm monitors each cotton boll to ensure that the robot picks as much seed cotton as possible.

Testing and results

So far, we have tested the robotic cotton harvester in the laboratory and in cotton fields. The detection system found 78% of ripe cotton bolls; the localization system calculated 3D coordinates for 70% of the detected bolls; and the picking system successfully harvested 83% of these bolls. Overall, the robot picked about 50% of the cotton bolls that were within its reach.

Our harvester picked cotton at a speed of 8.8 seconds per boll. If we can decrease this required time to 0.3 seconds and increase the robot’s efficiency to pick at least 90% of the cotton bolls it can reach, by optimizing the system and adding more arms on a robot, a fleet of 50 robots could harvest a cotton field as quickly as a mechanical harvester, with a comparable yield.

To improve the robot’s overall performance, we plan to adopt better artificial intelligence algorithms, improve our system’s camera and add another degree of movement to the robotic arm – for example, enabling the end-effector to rotate – to increase its dexterity.

A woman wearing a sun visor and with a cloth bag slung around her waist bends over plants in a cotton field.
A woman picks cotton at a plantation in Birlik, Uzbekistan. Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

We see great potential for our robot in major cotton-producing countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, where cotton is currently picked by hand, often by women and children and sometimes under abusive conditions. One way to make this technology available for small farmers in low-income countries would be to make smaller, semi-autonomous robots that would require fewer sensors. Producing higher-value cotton with less damage to plants and soil could improve life for millions of people who earn their livings raising this global crop.The Conversation

Hussein Gharakhani, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Sunday 25 2024

FAFSA website meltdown: How to avoid additional frustration with financial aid applications

Some colleges are extending the traditional May 1 deadline for students to accept offers. valentinrussanov via Getty Images
Dawn Medley, Drexel University

When Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020, it was touted as making it easier for more families to access the government funding they need to send their children to college. But as recent events have shown, it actually made things more complicated, frustrating and confusing.

While the new federal student aid form – known as the FAFSA – is much shorter and requires less manual entry of tax information, there were glitches and delays in rolling it out, as with many new websites.

Initially, families could access the FAFSA only for a limited time during a “soft launch” period in December.

Now the form is accessible to families for them to complete, but the data is not flowing out to schools and colleges. Applicants are also discovering another problem. Often, students and parents may need to consult other documents or each other as part of the application process, so they will pause their application to complete it later. However, after initially logging into the FAFSA website, many students and parents experienced difficulty when returning to finalize their submission. The simplified FAFSA application has been online since the end of December, but users are still experiencing some problems.

The Department of Education’s student aid calculations have also been delayed as it incorporates a new formula intended to expand eligibility for financial aid. The department also made an error in the formula when adjusting for inflation. The calculations used for the determination of aid eligibility had been based on outdated consumer price index rules from 2020 but have since been corrected. All of this has delayed sending aid calculations to schools.

As a longtime college administrator who has developed programs to improve access to higher education, I see this situation as a well-intentioned but poorly executed effort. Ultimately, I believe the changes to FAFSA will help more students realize their dream of earning a degree, but this year I’m afraid it may cause many to abandon it.

To better understand the situation and what might come next, it helps to know how the government and schools work together to provide financial aid.

Measuring ability to pay

The Department of Education created the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in 1992 to determine how much the federal government believes a family can contribute for a child’s college education. To be eligible for Pell Grants, federal work-study or even student loans, students and families must complete the FAFSA.

Submitting the FAFSA prompts the Department of Education to set the amount it will offer in loans and other federal funding. The department then sends that information to the schools to which a student has applied. From there, the schools determine what additional financial aid they can provide. The schools make a final offer of financial assistance, called an award notice or award letter, to prospective students. Typically, this process takes a couple of months, and students can expect to receive their award letter from schools by the end of March, depending on when they filled out the FAFSA.

What happens after submitting your FAFSA form?

On Feb. 13, 2024, the Department of Education announced a temporary fix intended to shorten the department’s application review process, which would enable schools to make their offers sooner.

Extensions granted

In the meantime, some institutions have taken steps to alleviate stress and provide more clarity to applicants. Many schools have chosen to extend students’ time to accept their offer, moving from the traditional deadline of May 1, which is known as National Decision Day, to May 15 or even June 1.

Some have created their own mini FAFSA application to shortcut the aid application process; others are using their own aid calculators. Drexel University, where I oversee financial aid, has decided to forgo the FAFSA process and make a final offer based on another profile on a platform called College Scholarship Service that applicants complete.

None of these solutions is perfect. My peers and I are concerned that the frustration and confusion will lead students, particularly those who are the first in their families to go to college, to walk away from higher education altogether.

Students and families should now expect schools to communicate regularly, provide clear and concise information, and encourage students to fill out both a College Scholarship Service profile and a FAFSA if they haven’t already. The financial aid process is complicated, but it’s the responsibility of schools to distill it into a set of simple steps for their applicants.

Practical tips

Here are a few tips for students and their families going though this process right now:

  • Families should communicate with schools to see whether they are able to receive official offers based on net price calculators, College Scholarship Service profiles or school-created solutions. Students can do this via the schools’ websites, texting, email or even phoning.

  • If families do not have a guaranteed award from a school, they should ask for a deposit deadline extension so they have the full information they need to make a decision.

  • Institutions want to assist and support students through this period of uncertainty, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and stay in touch with the experts who have the most updated information.The Conversation

Dawn Medley, Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management, Drexel University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Young people are lukewarm about Biden – and giving them more information doesn’t move the needle much

Young voters in Ann Arbor, Mich., fill out applications to cast their ballot in the midterm elections in November 2022. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images
Neil O'Brian, University of Oregon and Chandler James, University of Oregon

Recent polling for the November 2024 election shows that President Joe Biden is struggling with young voters, who have traditionally supported Democrats.

A December 2023 poll showed that 49% of young people supported former President Donald Trump, while just 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they preferred Biden.

Biden is even struggling with young people who identify as Democrats. A Fall 2023 Harvard Kennedy School poll shows that just 62% of Democrats aged 18 to 29 years old said they would vote for Biden in 2024.

Many Democrats are increasingly anxious that young voters who supported Biden in 2020 will boycott the general election in 2024, support a third-party candidate or vote for Trump.

Polls this far from Election Day are notoriously variable and not reliable for predicting election results. Furthermore, some political pundits are asking whether young voters will return to the Biden coalition once the campaign season heats up and they learn more about the two candidates.

As scholars of public opinion and the U.S. presidency, we are deeply interested in the prospect of young voters, particularly Democrats, defecting from the Biden coalition.

A young, white woman with brown hair wearing shorts and a beige cardigan walks past a bulletin board with flyers on it for vioting.
An Emory University student in Atlanta walks past voting information in October 2022. Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

Mixed evidence on young voters’ support for Biden

About 51% of young voters, aged 18 to 29 years old, identify as Democrats. This compares with 35% of these voters who identify as Republicans. In 2020, young voters in this age group made up an estimated 17% of the electorate.

In a close election, securing the youth vote will be paramount in order for Biden to win reelection.

We wanted to understand how young voters might change their election pick preferences if they learn more about different topics, such as the economy, likely to feature in this election season.

We recruited 1,418 respondents from across the country to participate in an online survey experiment in December 2023, including 860 people who identify as Democrats.

In this experiment, we exposed respondents to different messages that the Biden campaign might employ, to see if young Democrats could be persuaded back to Biden.

A quarter of the respondents saw information about how inflation and unemployment decreased during the Biden administration.

Another quarter of respondents were given information about Trump’s norm-violating behavior, such as encouraging an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.

The next quarter of respondents were given information about Biden’s and Trump’s positions on abortion, and whether the U.S. should accept immigrants from the Gaza Strip.

The final group of respondents received no information about a particular topic.

In our research, which has yet to be published, we found mixed evidence that undecided young Democrats would be persuaded to vote for Biden based on any new information we shared with them.

Among the people we polled who were given no information, 66% of 18-year-old to 34-year-old Democrats said they would vote for Biden. This roughly tracks with national polling.

Would learning about the strength of the economy boost Biden’s support?

About 69% of young Democrats who read about dropping inflation and unemployment rates said they would vote for Biden, compared with 31% who said they would vote for Trump or another candidate. This reflects a modest increase in support for Biden, compared to people who had no information on this topic.

We then tested whether providing information to voters about the candidates’ policy positions would change support for Biden.

It is possible that voters are just unaware of the candidates’ positions on issues and, after getting more information, will change their views.

We found that 71% of respondents who learned about Biden’s and Trump’s policy positions on abortion and Palestinian refugees from Gaza said they would vote for Biden, compared with the 66% who did not read any new information on these topics before deciding their pick.

Finally, we gave people information about Trump’s norm-violating behavior. This actually marginally decreased support for Biden, dropping from the 66% among people who did not have any of this information given to them in the survey to 63% among people who did. This change, though, lacked what social scientists call statistical significance – meaning that we cannot say this difference is not just attributable to chance alone.

Overall, we found that giving young Democrats access to three different pieces of information generally led to small increases in whether they said they would vote for Biden or not.

Next, we asked respondents “How enthusiastic would you say you are about voting for president in next year’s election?” and how likely they are to vote in the upcoming presidential election. We found that the three different pieces of information each led to a small increase in reported vote intention among young Democrats, but didn’t, on average, increase their enthusiasm about voting. In other words, if young voters feel compelled to vote, they may do so, but without enthusiasm.

Young people sit around a table, and two young people, both wearing white T-shirts, stand near a screen that says 'Canvass training'
Abortion rights canvassers gather for a canvass training in Columbus, Ohio, in November 2023. Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images

The power of persuasion

Taken together, these results show little movement among young Democrats. This is particularly striking when compared to older Democrats in our sample.

When presented with information about the strength of the economy, the candidates’ divergent policy positions or Trump’s norm-violating behavior, support for Biden among likely voters who were 55 years old or older and identified as Democrats increased from 73% to around 90%.

These results suggest an uphill battle for the Biden campaign to bring back young voters. Young voters, even if they identify as Democrats, are perhaps less attached to a party, or democratic institutions more generally, than older voters. This means campaign messages about democratic norms might be less persuasive among younger voters.

On the other hand, there are reasons to expect young voters might return to Biden: The economy is doing well, which tends to help incumbents.

Furthermore, partisanship, particularly in this polarizing environment, remains a powerful influence, and may still exert a pull on young Democrats over the campaign.

Democrats, after all, successfully ran on an anti-Trump campaign in the 2022 midterm elections, 2020 general election and the 2018 midterm elections.The Conversation

Neil O'Brian, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon and Chandler James, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Making Medicare Simple


American Drilling Crane Division


The hidden threat from rising coastal groundwater

OPINION: Sea level rise won’t hit just homes on shorefronts, but also the infrastructure beneath our feet

When people think about sea level rise, many picture scenarios like flooded coastlines in Florida or Bangladesh, and beachfront homes succumbing to erosion on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But some of the most significant threats to our communities are going unnoticed, underground.

The ocean is in direct contact with coastal groundwater. If you’ve ever built a sandcastle on the beach, digging a moat that fills with water from below, you’ve experienced this firsthand. As sea level rises, coastal groundwater levels rise too.

Cities have a crucial network of underground infrastructure, including water pipes, sewer systems, stormwater drains, electrical and fiber-optic lines and support structures for roadways and buildings. As coastal groundwater rises in our urban areas, it can flood this subterranean network. Often, that water is salty and corrosive.

Infrastructure failure caused by groundwater rise is already happening in many places, necessitating attention and timely management. Affected areas are seeing flooded basements, structural damage to foundations, corroded rebar, an uptick in water main breaks and overwhelmed sewage treatment plants. They also suffer from excessive rutting and potholing of roadways as the supportive layers underground become saturated. Perhaps most worryingly, buried contaminants are being brought to the surface as rising waters interact with sewage infrastructure, old industrial spills and more.

I am a sea-level-rise flood modeler based in Honolulu, which hosts one of the nation’s longest-operating tide gauges, along with a network of monitoring wells dedicated to observing the rise, and increased salt concentration, of coastal groundwater. The tide gauge has seen a more than 20-centimeter rise in sea level since before World War I. Groundwater has been rising in step.

In 2017, for example, events related to the climate pattern known as El NiƱo temporarily elevated sea levels by up to 30 cm above tide chart predictions across the Hawaiian Islands. The groundwater in Honolulu rose by nearly 30 cm, too. While this wasn’t surprising to hydrologists, it surprised locals as water seeped up to the surface more than a kilometer from the shoreline. Globally, sea levels are expected to rise about a meter by 2100.

Honolulu is leading the way in researching the influence of rising sea levels on groundwater; researchers here published one of the earliest studies on the topic, in 2012. Today, our Board of Water Supply uses groundwater simulations to help maintain and upgrade infrastructure. And the Hawaii State Department of Health is tracking contamination.

Research published in 2020 suggests that nearly 90 percent of Honolulu’s active cesspools are already compromised during king tides. The health department is also concerned about the upward seepage of lead and hydrocarbons, as well as the possibility of methane-induced underground explosions. While the latter may sound alarmist, it’s a legitimate concern. When petroleum contamination from past spills is immersed in rising groundwater, anaerobic bacteria break it down, leading to methane production. The health department actively tracks unexplained underground explosions in Honolulu that are thought to be linked to this phenomenon.

Honolulu is particularly susceptible to groundwater rise because parts of the city were built on a wetland: During land reclamation projects in the early to mid-20th century, the area was filled with a thin layer of soil for development. Honolulu’s underground infrastructure lies within this thin and porous veneer. But Honolulu is not unique; many major coastal cities were also expanded onto reclaimed land, including San Francisco, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Osaka, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam and many others.

In a review paper on this issue, my colleagues and I identified 1,546 coastal urban areas around the world that likely have “critically shallow” groundwater 1.5 meters or less below the surface — a depth known to cause damage to buried infrastructure. Approximately 1.42 billion people live in these areas.

Honolulu takes a proactive approach to identifying groundwater-related issues, particularly in areas like Waikiki, which has financial resources and economic incentives to manage the damage. Three distinct research groups are engaged in developing adaptation plans for Waikiki, all considering groundwater inundation specifically. They plan to elevate infrastructure and catch problems early, knowing that pumping groundwater back down (a common first response) can just cause more saltwater intrusion and subsidence.

Despite this work, a recent survey of Hawaii decision-makers showed that while most are concerned about sea-level and groundwater rise, only 9 percent put it as their top priority. In the US, the sectors overseeing infrastructure for transit and wastewater management lack the necessary resources for basic maintenance, let alone for addressing future challenges. Many low-lying coastal cities around the world have even fewer resources and, in turn, face a chronic and escalating deterioration of critical infrastructure.

Groundwater inundation has the potential to cause overwhelming amounts of damage and to exacerbate social inequalities. We need to proactively tackle the current and impending flood of problems.