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Stuff They Should Teach in School

by Guy McCardle

May 26, 2012

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Donate I doubt that I'll get many arguments when I make the statement that the educational system in the United States is not the best in the world. My main complaint is that students are not, for the most part, taught to think. By that, I mean that they are not taught to ask the all important question, "why?". Why is the sky blue? Why didn't dinosaurs and humans occupy the Earth at the same time? Why did we fight the Civil War? Why was Shakespeare such a great writer? There are literally millions of questions out there for students of all grade levels and abilities.

For better or worse I am a product of the American public school system. Early on I found out that I had a knack for rote memorization. If I was taught that 5 x 6 = 30, or that Mercury was the closest planet to the Sun, I could easily regurgitate that fact back on a test and get an "A". It had nothing to do with being "smart". After 12 years of successful regurgitation, I got pretty cocky. It was only when I started in the pre-med program of a top tier college that I was knocked down a few pegs. I learned my problem solving skills a little too late.

Recently I've found out about the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In short, this is a worldwide educational evaluation of 15-year-old students. The program allows those with an interest in such things (politicians and other policy makers) to examine and compare educational systems in 65 different industrialized countries. The test focuses on reading, mathematics and science.

In science, based on results from the most recent testing, Chinese students scored highest with Finnish students placing second. The United States ended up in 23rd place with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France among other countries. Students in the US are not being taught basic fundamentals of science, space, computers, disease, war and atmospherics. What follows are my ideas on some topics that should be taught to all US students.


Students should be taught about the history of cyber warfare. Cyber warfare may be described as the politically motivated hacking of a network in order to conduct sabotage and espionage. Stuxnet is a computer virus (specifically a worm) that targets industrial software and equipment. This worm was first discovered in June, 2010. It initially spreads via Microsoft Windows, and targets only Siemens industrial software and equipment. Specifically, it targets only Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition systems that are configured to control and monitor specific industrial processes (such as the production of nuclear material).

Different variants of the Stuxnet virus were found in 2010 by five Iranian organizations. The primary target seemed to be centrifuge equipment at a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The virus has since spread around the globe to Azerbaijan, Pakistan and the United States. Interestingly, the virus is programmed to erase itself on June 24th, 2012.

Stuxnet can be used as a weapon. It contains code that causes an infected system not to shut down properly when abnormal behavior is detected. This would prevent operators from identifying serious problems, such as a nuclear core meltdown. It is worthwhile to note that the reactors located at the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan use Siemens' controllers. During the earthquake of March 11, 2011, three of the six reactors at Fukushima did not properly shut down. This behavior is characteristic of a Stuxnet infection.

The Holocene Extinction

The Holocene extinction is the widespread and sustained extinction of plant and animal species during the current (Holocene) epoch. This has been taking place since approximately 10,000 BCE. This time period includes the expansion of the human race and all written history.

Eight hundred and seventy five extinctions of species between 1500 and 2009 have been recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The lost organisms span numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods. This number, however, is generally considered to be a vast underestimation. According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, up to 140,000 species per year may be the present rate of extinction. Currently, about 40 per cent of the examined species of planet earth are in danger, including perhaps 51 per cent of reptiles, 52 per cent of insects, and 73 per cent of flowering plants. It is quite probable that organisms we did not even know about have recently become extinct.

The cause of the Holocene extinction has been attributed to global warming, pollution and other human factors. That said, one can attribute anything to anything. Scientific proof is another matter. There is no general agreement on whether to consider more recent extinctions as a distinct event, merely part of the Quaternary extinction event, or just a result of natural evolution on a non-geologic scale of time.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, also known as the easier to say CJD, is an incurable, transmissible neurological disease that is ultimately fatal. CJD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopaphy. "Spongiform" means pretty much what you think it means. The disease turns your brain matter to a holey mass somewhat akin to a sponge.

You might be asking yourself at this point, "Is this the same thing as mad cow disease?". No, it is not. Don't feel bad, some medical professionals who should know better are not aware of that fact. In one somewhat well known medical facility in which I used to work I noticed a sign on an interior operating room door which read, "caution: mad cow". This was accompanied by a crude drawing of a cartoon cow figure. Not cool, people. I made the staff remove the sign and noted that the patient was there for a brain biopsy to rule out CJD. I then reminded them that CJD and mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) are not the same thing. The last thing we needed was a mad cow scare on the local news because of a misplaced attempt at levity.

CJD is caused by a type of infectious protein called a prion. Prions are misfolded proteins which replicate in brain tissue by converting their properly folded counterparts. Since prions are not living things, they cannot be killed. Because of this, instrumentation must not be reused in a potential CJD patient. It cannot be adequately cleaned and sterilized to fully remove the threat of cross contamination.

How, you are most likely wondering, do people get this horrible, fatal disease? It can be congenital or acquired. In the congenital form, it occurs through a mutation of the gene that codes for the prion protein (PRNP). This happens in about 10-15% of cases. The defective protein can be transmitted by contaminated harvested human brain products, Immunoglobulins (IVIG), corneal grafts, dural grafts or electrode implants.

CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia. Initially, individuals experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease also may experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations. As the illness progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Individuals often develop involuntary muscle jerks called myoclonus, and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak and enter a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these individuals and are the most likely cause of death. I know. Great. One more thing to worry about.

Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage

This is probably the main reason we are not all speaking German today and doing raised arm salutes to the Nazi flag. As you may or may not be aware, the Nazi's had some pretty good scientists working for them and they were working on developing a nuclear weapon during WWII. In 1938, nuclear fission was discovered by a German chemist named Otto Hahn. Nuclear fission is the reaction needed to produce nuclear power and weapons. Hahn is regarded as “the father of nuclear chemistry” and the “founder of the atomic age.” By 1939, Germany had developed an advanced nuclear weapons program. They had a nuclear reactor and facilities used for the production of uranium and heavy water (deuterium oxide).

Heavy water acts somewhat like a "neutron moderator". Nazi scientists speculated that it could be used to slow down loose electrons thus increasing their chances of being absorbed and making for a better chance at a self-sustaining chain reaction (explosion).

Needless to say, disrupting the German nuclear program became a large goal of the Allies once WWII rolled around. The Norwegian heavy water sabotage was a series of actions undertaken by Norwegian soldiers to prevent the Nazis from acquiring heavy water, which could have been used in the production of nuclear weapons.

Germany invaded Norway on April 9th, 1940. Prior to that time, French Military Intelligence (no comment) removed 408 lbs (185kg) of heavy water from the plant in Vermork in then-neutral Norway. The managing director of the plant agreed to lend the heavy water to France for the duration of the war. Secretly, the French transported it to Oslo, to Perth, to Scotland and then to France. The plant in Vermork was still capable of producing heavy water.

Three operations (codenamed Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside) were undertaken by the Norwegian resistance (supported by Allied bombing efforts) between 1940 and 1944. Gunnerside, conducted by Norwegian commandos specially trained by British special forces, managed to knock the plant out of production in early 1943. These actions were followed by Allied bombing raids. The Germans elected to cease operation and remove the remaining heavy water to Germany. Norwegian resistance forces sank the ferry, SF Hydro, on Lake Tinnsjø, preventing the heavy water from being removed.

I really don't have time to get into the dramatic details of the missions, but you history buffs might want to do some research on your own with this topic. There is plenty of action with cross country skiing Norwegian Special Forces, British glider crashes and, unfortunately, Gestapo executions of Allied troops following the aforementioned failed glider mission. For those of you more inclined to watch a movie than do some research, there is always the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas, which told the tale of the most successful sabotage mission of the second world war.

There are plenty of other topics that I feel should at least be touched on in American schools today. I'll try to get to more of those in future articles. For now I think I'll go back to tutoring my son on those extra things he hasn't yet picked up in school.


The Heroes of Telemark, IMDb

OECD, OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Top ten scores from Shanghai stun educators, The New York Times

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Fact Sheet

Holocene Extinction, Wikipedia

Top ten facts you should be taught in school, Listverse

Heavy water and the Norwegians, Damn Interesting

by Guy McCardle

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