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McAuliffe Center hosts Mass STEM Week events

Alexis Schlesinger / THE GATEPOST

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

By Francisco Omar Fernandez Rodriguez

Staff Writer

The Christa McAuliffe Center’s very own director, Irene Porro, also doubles in her free time as the manager of the Metrowest STEM Education Network, a group dedicated to promoting education and involvement with science, technology, engineering, and math.

This came in rather handy for Massachusetts STEM Week, which started Oct. 15.

Massachusetts STEM Week is a statewide initiative to engage students in STEM. This year, the events were all themed around how important STEM is in clean energy, sustainability, and climate change.

The week kicked off with a workshop at 1:30 p.m. on Monday Oct. 16 titled “Is the Amazon Rainforest Disappearing?” It was hosted by Natick company MathWorks.

The workshop used a dataset of photos of the Amazon rainforest over a 16-year period to illustrate how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to analyze change in climate.

Ram Krishnamurthy, senior customer success engineer at MathWorks, led the workshop, and explained he would be demonstrating how to use a tool called MATLAB to compare images over time.

He said MATLAB stands for “matrix laboratory,” and is a unique tool because it stores all its data as matrices, unlike traditional programming languages. He added MATLAB is also very user-friendly because it has tools that allow users to generate code without writing it themselves.

He walked through how to use MATLAB to analyze the colors in the dataset of photos, comparing how much green is present to represent the number of trees - and by extension, tracking the amount of deforestation.

Krishnamurthy said this is just one use of MATLAB, and gave examples of many other uses for MATLAB, including cars, autonomous robots, and advanced prosthetics.

Later in the day, at 4:30 p.m., MathWorks hosted another workshop titled “The Power of Data in Climate Science.”

Mary Dzaugis, STEM outreach program manager for MathWorks, began her presentation with an introduction to herself and Krishnamurthy, followed by an overview of the sections she covered throughout the presentation.

One of the sections is research, Dzaugis said, including how computational tools such as MATLAB and AI can help understand climate change.

She said data can be very complicated and can take many forms. She added in order for raw, “noisy” data to be useful “you have to apply some type of process to it in order to get your end results.”

Dzaugis said once the data is analyzed and processed, scientists and researchers make a model, often using AI.

She added an important step that is often overlooked is sharing the data and the model. Some examples she listed on how to share data is with the internet, or by creating an app.

She said sharing data is a key principle of open science and gives someone else the chance to “advance the science further.”

Dzaugis showed an example of how AI helped with climate science. It was used to predict droughts in Ethiopia, which she said were becoming more and more of a common occurrence there.

She said the affected region mostly uses agriculture for survival. “They’re heavily dependent on it to make a living. So when droughts like this occur, it can really devastate the region,” she added.

She said teams of climate scientists from Canada and Algeria worked together to help predict when these droughts would happen. She added they analyzed the standard data with new techniques, using an “artificial neural network.”

This AI system finds patterns that would take humans significantly longer to find in large datasets, she said.

She added a predictive model was developed and shared with Ethiopian climate research groups.

Dzaugis showed another example, predicting the weather using AI. She said a hurricane that hit Florida in late August was supposed to be a Category 2, but it became a Category 4 the night before landfall.

She said this has been a recent pattern. She added, “It followed this new pattern that people have been observing of an increased intensification before landfall.”

She added scientists at an image laboratory used images from satellites to create a predictive model. She said this helped researchers understand modern day hurricanes better.

Dzaugis said she hoped this presentation would help inspire others to contribute to climate science. She also wanted to help people understand how climate science works.

She said, “When you’re looking at these research papers and news articles, take all of that into consideration and really understand what was being done to get the results of the study that you’re looking at.”

Dzaugis said it’s important to work with students of all ages on developing computational thinking skills.

“We need to prepare the next generation - scientists, engineers. And that’s where we need to be focused - in those younger ages,” she said.

Krishnamurthy added many students can struggle with math, which is a problem MathWorks helps solve.

“It’s math,” he said. “People struggle with math at a fundamental level, and now it’s about using computational things like MATLAB.”

On Wednesday Oct. 18 at 4:30 p.m., the McAuliffe Center hosted the third and final event for Massachusetts STEM Week, a presentation and networking opportunity called “Clean Energy - Education and Career Pathways 101.”

Many organizations and companies in Massachusetts gathered in the McCarthy Center Forum. The array of groups gave students a chance to learn about careers, internships, and volunteer opportunities in the growing fields of clean energy and sustainability.

The keynote speaker, Angie Alberto, is the gas-to-geo transition director at Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET). She gave a presentation on how geothermal energy can be implemented and what benefits it would have for the economy and environment.

She explained one of the challenges of transitioning to geothermal energy is that when individuals make the change to geothermal, it can make others in the same area who still use gas energy less efficient and causes the price of gas in the area to rise.

Alberto said HEET tries to mitigate this by encouraging entire communities to transition to geothermal.

“The utility of a utility is to socialize the cost of infrastructure,” she said.

She added Framingham currently has a program to slowly introduce the area to geothermal energy, starting with a single street and working outward.

Alberto, as well as the other employers at the event, said many jobs are available in clean energy, even for people who don’t want to work in STEM.

Porro said the point of Massachusetts STEM Week is to “see yourself in STEM.

“Everyone has an opportunity to participate and understand … independent of who you are or what you look like. But also, independently, you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer to be a part of STEM,” she said.

Crystal Johnson, assistant secretary of environmental justice with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, also appeared at the event.

She said she’d only been in the role for three days, and agreed students from all disciplines can involve themselves in clean energy and environmental justice.

“You don’t always have to go into environmental science. Whatever field you are in, you can bring that lens of environmental awareness and sustainability and resilience,” Johnson said.


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