STEM Story Project

Lily BuiPRX’s STEM Story Project 2.0

Lily Bui posted on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 | PRX, STEM Story Project | No Comments


It’s baaack! PRX is excited to announce version 2.0 of our STEM Story Project!

In partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, PRX will be holding another open call for radio stories inspired by STEM topics: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We have a pool of $58,000 to distribute among multiple projects.

Last year, PRX funded 16 open call stories about STEM, with topics spanning forensics, poison, human echolocation, DIY spacesuits, and more. They aired on national shows and stations throughout the country.

Our prime directive (as Spock would say) is to:

• Unleash highly creative, STEM-based original stories and productions
• Educate and excite listeners about STEM topics and issues
• Tell stories and explain STEM issues in new ways

Have an idea for a story? The proposal guidelines and application will be here later this week.

Applications will open May 5, 2014. The DEADLINE for applications is May 26, 2014 at 11:59PM ET.

Join us on April 30 at 2 p.m. ET for the STEM Story Project webinar to answer questions – register here.

If you can’t make or wait for the webinar, email your questions to But read the application and guidelines first when they come out later this week!

Follow #PRXSTEM on Twitter for all the latest.

Thank you!

John Barth
Genevieve Sponsler
Lily Bui

The PRX STEM Story Project Team

Lily Bui7 Essential Public Radio STEM Education Resources

Lily Bui posted on Monday, March 10th, 2014 | Blog, STEM Story Project | No Comments

Educators, if you’re looking for ways to bring public radio into the classroom, look no further than this blog post. Here’s a list of some great STEM education resources that you can tap into.

Full lesson plans (including objectives, materials, discussion questions, homework assignments, teaching standards, etc.) based on radio pieces about science topics. Listen Edition is also a formal PRX partner (see “purchased pieces” on the right-hand column for what pieces they’re using).

Example: Bees and Electric Fields

A list of experiments you can try at home and in the classroom, sometimes accompanied by audio segments from Science Friday. Experiments are sorted by topic (chemistry, engineering, math, physical sciences, etc.) and include full lesson plans.

Example: Smelly Chemistry

The Loh Down on Science offers a free, fun Question of the Day (QOTD) game for K-12 and beyond.  A humorous and intriguing multiple-choice question (astronautwear, hockey noise, robot speech, Egyptian beauty secrets), it stimulates discussion in the classroom and provides a crowd-sourced surprise the next day, in that the answer includes a poll on how players voted (sometimes the majority is right, sometimes they’re not). Visit The Loh Down on Science for info on its twice-a-year school contests where the school with the most QOTD answers wins $1,000!”

This is part of a three-year project to create fun, open-sourced science education tools for schools. Find “Loh Down” 90-second podcasts organized by grade level. From animal behavior to the physics of sports to the neuroscience of morality, educators will find material finely tuned for classroom audiences. (And plenty of puns to boot!)

Example: Crowdsourcing Quakes

Use the Encyclopedia of Life page to look up practically any species on Earth. Then listen to the “One Species at a Time” podcast for stories about these organisms! Produced for the Encyclopedia of Life by Ari Daniel and Atlantic Public Media, with support from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Example: Red Paper Lantern Jellyfish

Resources for teaching the science of sustainability. Find tools for teachers, handouts for students, infographics, slide shows, videos, and featured content related to water, food, energy, biodiversity, climate, and much more.

Example: Ocean Acidification

A weekly activity for students to engage with current issues using social media tools like Twitter. Every Friday, Do Now hosts Twitter discussions about civics, government and politics. Every Tuesday, Twitter discussions rotate between science and arts/pop culture. Follow @KQEDedspace on Twitter for more.

Earlier this year, PRX hosted an open call for STEM public radio stories, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. On this playlist, you’ll find stories about forensics, poison, DIY space suits, iron lungs, and more–covering a wide spectrum of STEM topics for all curious ears. Use these pieces to spark discussion about pertinent topics in science, tech, engineering, and math, and make sure you tell us about it!

Since the very beginning, public radio has endeavored to be an educational media outlet that provides quality content for public consumption. We hope this list helps you — and the younger minds you come across — stay curious about the world around you.

Image: NOAA


Lily BuiThe Making of ‘Remaking the Science Fair’

Lily Bui posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014 | STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

science fair

Do you ever wonder how much students actually learn from science fair projects? Producer Adam Hochberg investigates how some professional scientists hope to remake science fairs in the future. In Remaking the Science Fair, he shows us that rather than just building models or conducting demonstrations, children as young as eight can develop original science projects and make important discoveries.

While the concept of bringing science beyond the classroom is not completely new, framing science in a way that students can relate to remains a challenge for STEM educators and advocates today. The piece features interviews with some eighth-grade science fair participants, teachers, a citizen science advocate, as well as a science fair coordinator to get their perspectives. After listening, one might conclude that perhaps a more “inquiry-based” approach to science fairs may be successful.

Hochberg’s idea for this story came from a journalism graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Daniel Lane. After seeing a discussion on a science blog in which a number of scientists bemoaned the state of modern science fairs, they brainstormed ideas on how they could be improved.

“Daniel had originally proposed the idea for our own student-produced radio news magazine,” Hochberg says. “But one of the challenges we faced was finding a science fair we could visit. At least in our part of the country, science fairs tend to take place in the fall and winter, and we started working on the story in late spring.”

Luckily, the science fair season in Massachusetts runs into late May. Hochberg connected with Ari Epstein who runs MIT’s Terrascope Radio program, which encourages students to gather and produce stories about science. One of the students in the program, Ana Vazquez, was able to attend the Massachusetts Middle School State Fair in Worcester to record interviews with participants and organizers, which made it to the finished piece.

Give this story a listen and tell us your ideas on remaking science fairs in the comments below.

For more ideas on how to engage with science beyond the classroom (whether you’re an educator, student, or lifelong learner), get ideas from (mentioned in Adam Hochberg’s piece) and SciStarter, another citizen science site.


Lily BuiAn Equation to Predict Crime: A Street View

Lily Bui posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 | STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 1.07.38 PM

What if an equation could put police officers at the scene of a crime, before it happened? In Southern California, a team of academics discovered that crime patterns could be mathematically modeled like the way that earthquakes and their aftershocks are modeled. The LAPD gave this “predictive policing” a chance to prove itself on the streets, and discovered that it worked. Now, this mathematical model could transform the future of law enforcement.

Producer Aaron Mendelson first came across this idea through an academic paper that aspired to refine a statistical model that predicts crimes. This piqued his interest, and he began to dig deeper into the world of crime modeling. What he found was that it was not only something being explored in academia, but it was also in use by one of the nation’s largest police forces, the Los Angeles Police Department. The software is called PredPol, which takes crime data, runs it through an algorithm, and visualizes it on maps.

“The epicenter of this work is in LA — both at UCLA’s MASC (Mathematical and Simulation Modeling of Crime) Project and at the LAPD,” says Mendelson. “So I hopped on a plane to Southern California to figure out what was going on down there.” In reality, Mendelson’s  journey to collect audio for this story involved much more travel than a simple plane ride to SoCal. His trajectory included stops in Milwaukee, where he had just moved for the summer; Los Angeles, where he interviewed people at the LAPD and UCLA; Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania, where he covered another story; and then Rockford, Ill., to attend his cousin’s wedding. Mendelson sums up his trip in just five words: “It was a hectic week.”

In Santa Clara, CA, Mendelson was able to talk to George Mohler, a mathematician and one of the leading postdocs working on this model. What he found was an unexpected connection between earthquakes patterns and crime patterns:

“Mathematically, earthquakes and crime work in a similar way. Mathematical models for predicting earthquake aftershocks could be applied to predict the ‘after-crimes’ of an initial incident…According to Mohler’s model, one crime sets off a wave of crimes in an area. The equation draws in details from police reports, such as times, locations and types of crimes that already have happened.”

Mendelson’s piece ran on The California Report in Sept., where they also noted that San Francisco plans to implement the system by the end of 2014 and hopes to add other capabilities, including predicting gun violence and property crimes. Take a listen to his piece — we predict that it’ll teach you something new.

Lily BuiEngineering Gotham From Below: A Mole’s Eye View

Lily Bui posted on Friday, November 22nd, 2013 | Blog, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of PRX’s STEM Story Project series.


The New York City Subway is one of the most complex engineering feats in American History. In 1904, it spread out the dense population at the southern tip of Manhattan and has since fueled the city’s growth. In Engineering Gotham From Below, hear how the first subway system was engineered and its current expansion from the MTA’s chief engineer, historians, and the tunnel workers who make it possible.

In a conversation with PRX, producer Bishop Sand shared the inspiration behind the story:

“When I first moved to NYC, I loved the idea that I could get anywhere via the subway. The subway seemed to be this infinitely large passageway that I’d never fully explore. I remember riding in the front of the C train, where there is a window facing forward onto the tracks, thinking that there was an entire world of utilities and sub-tunnels down there. Then I wondered–how this was ever built with the city buzzing above and around it?”

With so much to say about a subway system that is one of the oldest in the U.S. (preceded only by Boston’s MBTA green line), it was a challenge to decide what information to include or exclude. One noteworthy aspect of production that was included, however, was Bishop’s interview with the Sandhogs, the guys who “do the dirty jobs that nobody else can do” and improve the subway for those who take public transit. (The myriad of improvements to work on may surprise you.)

“[They work in] the ‘hog house,’ where the workers change into their work clothes before they go into the tunnels. Inside, guys who knew each other for years asked about families, told jokes, and gave a lot of support to each other when someone was injured…The interview was done in small room, in between off-color jokes that would never make it radio…”

After about half an hour of trying to gather stories from the Sandhogs, Bishop began to realize that what we may see as an impossible feat is just like any other ordinary day.

“To them, their normal day’s work doesn’t seem like anything worth talking about and yet it is almost superhuman for most people.”

Lean in and listen to the story about the engineering of New York’s underbelly.

Image: Wikimedia

Lily BuiTracking the Secret Life of Soot: Sediment Surveillance

Lily Bui posted on Friday, November 8th, 2013 | Blog, PRX, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of PRX’s STEM Story Project series.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 11.07.27 AM

For a long time, scientists have known that breathing in soot from vehicles and power plants is bad for us. But the soot itself might not be the problem—at least not entirely. Scientists have found that particles live a ‘secret life’ once released into the atmosphere, picking up toxic gases and other hitchhikers before making their way into our lungs.

In researching Tracking the Secret Life of Soot, producer Reid Frazier was struck by how the scientists he spoke with described the properties of soot as it ages in the atmosphere. Their words of choice were “sticky” and “gooey,” not exactly the most scientific terms in the book! “It struck me as a wonderful way to describe the process–it’s visceral,” he explains.

But how to convey that through audio? Then one day, Frazier had an idea:

“I was at home writing the script one day when I looked at my garden—really, just a patch of untended flowers and weeds. I got an idea. I dug a hole, filled it up with water, then took my shoes off and stood in the muddy pit I’d created. I turned my mic on to capture the mucky, suction-y sound of me trying to lift my feet out. This is how I made that goopy sound you here in the background of the story as one of the scientists explains what happens to a soot particle in the atmosphere. It was the most fun you can have working—getting to walk barefoot in the mud. And it made great ‘gooey’ audio.”

Since Reid’s piece came out, a new study from MIT found that 53,000 people a year die prematurely because of automobile pollution in the U.S., compared to 34,000 people a year who die in traffic accidents.

Air pollution has also been implicated in low birth weight (and subsequent health problems and premature death), 430,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, and 4,655 premature deaths in São Paulo in 2011. Emissions from cars are a major cause of Beijing’s infamous smog.

Learn more about the secret life of soot and other particles in the air around us by listening to Reid’s piece.

Want to help monitor local air quality? A new citizen science project named AirCasting allows you to use your smartphone to record and share data about the air quality around you.

Image from EarthTimes.

Lily Bui52 Hz

Lily Bui posted on Monday, November 4th, 2013 | PRX, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of PRX’s STEM Story Project series.

In elusive moments, we can often feel alone in the world — prone to disconnection. What if I told you that there was at least one whale out there who could understand exactly how you’re feeling?

52Hz is the name given to a mysterious whale that vocalizes at a higher frequency than other whales. Some refer to him as the world’s loneliest whale, but scientists aren’t convinced that its unique call has left the whale isolated. The producers of Everything Sounds investigate the 52Hz whale, marine mammal communication, and whether or not this whale is truly alone.

Making this piece come together was no easy task. Craig Shank and George Drake, Jr., decided to drive 15 hours from Chicago, Ill., to Woods Hole, Mass., to grab audio on-site in order to get a more complete view of the work that marine biologists do. (For those unaware, Woods Hole happens to bear significance for those with a love for both science and radio.) There, the producers spoke with Darlene Ketten:

“Maybe it was our exhaustion setting in, but we left that conversation feeling as though we had some of the most interesting audio we’ve ever collected together. We were amazed at how much we learned about marine life and we were eager to share it in our piece about the 52Hz whale. That conversation helped us to realize that the stories we tell ourselves about animals often aren’t anywhere near as fascinating as the facts and the process of making new discoveries. I expected to produce a story about one unique whale. However, I didn’t expect to come away with a changed perspective of the natural world.”

Lean in and listen to a story that will not only change your perspective on the world, but also one that sparked a change in the producers who ventured to tell it.

Image: Spectrogram of the 52 Hz signal, Wikimedia

Want to learn more about whale calls? Whale FM is a citizen science project that allows you to help scientists better understand orca and pilot whale sounds. You can listen to the sounds online and help identify matches.

Lily BuiFollowing in Darwin’s Footsteps: Two Young Women Scientists Forge Their Futures in the Galapagos

Lily Bui posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 | Blog, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This post is part of a series of posts featuring the stories from our STEM Story Project.

Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 2.20.04 PM

What motivates young people to become scientists? Meet Maricruz Jaramillo and Samoa Asigau, two young women scientists from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, whose professional aspirations have taken them to the Galapagos Islands. Science reporter Véronique LaCapra joined Mari and Samoa in the Galapagos, where they are studying a type of malaria that is affecting native bird populations there. “Following in Darwin’s Footsteps” profiles their research and personal journeys into science, and highlight the changing face of scientific research. The Galapagos Islands — Charles Darwin’s inspiration and a touchstone in the history of evolutionary biology — serve as a sound-rich backdrop.

For producer Veronique LaCapra, gathering the audio and photos for her story were just the beginning. There were physical challenges as well, including

  • Hiking up a steep, rocky hillside to get to one of the field sites, in the dark (before dawn), with all my recording/photo gear
  • Not being able to drink the water in my room at the field station (or even brush my teeth with it). Sometimes the water went off altogether…
  • Very variable weather — hot most of the time, but could be very chilly if it rained, or at night, or at higher elevation

As if physical toil wasn’t enough during her trip to the Galapagos, Veronique also experienced some close encounters with the insect kind. Centipedes, to be exact.

There was really only one thing I was sort of concerned about — a kind of centipede that is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It’s poisonous — enough to put you in the hospital, if a larger one bites you.


[My] first night in the Galapagos, what did I see walking along the wall, right above my bed? A five-inch-long centipede (and a really big spider, but I wasn’t AS worried about that!).

There was nothing I could do about it — it was too high up on the wall for me to knock down (you’re actually not supposed to kill them, since they’re only found in the Galapagos and are protected). I left the room and by the time I came back again, it had disappeared. I checked in my bed…under my bed…nothing. So I just hoped for the best and went to sleep!

Fortunately for us, Veronique made it back to the U.S. and lived to tell the tale–both her own and that of scientists Maricruz and Samoa.

Image: Veronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Want to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and get a close-up view of the Galapagos? Try out Darwin for a Day, a citizen science application that allows you to explore the Galapagos Islands through Google Street View and document its unique plants and animals.

Lily BuiSailing the High Seas 2.0 — Under the Current

Lily Bui posted on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 | PRX, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This is part of a series of posts about the PRX STEM Story Project.

Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 12.07.23 PM

Imagine for a moment you’re a kid on an epic family road trip. You roll the car window down, then extend your arm straight out into the breeze. Tilt your hand slightly upward, and your arm raises. What you’ve created is a crude “wing” generating lift. That’s why your arm rises like a plane taking off.

In Jason Albert’s story about wing sail technology, Sailing the High Seas 2.0, you’ll learn how this back-of-the-car experiment helps us understand how wing sails make catamarans race across San Francisco Bay during the America’s Cup. This technology may eventually allow cargo ships to power down engines and set sail for a port near you.

Our journey to a low-carbon society may in fact mean re-imagining the past. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, how about re-inventing the sail? Untapped wind resources pummel the ocean’s trade routes; so it might make perfect sense for newer cargo ships to harness wind power with sails that act and look like airplane wings.

We asked Jason Albert what it was like to construct this story.

“It’s an endeavor where the paintbrush and the protractor meet [...] I spent hours with sailors and boat builders. They were unanimous in their sentiment that the way forward for the America’s Cup was through high tech sailing machines. In asking if they would ever consider going back to the slower and sluggish traditional mono-hulls, I received a collective ‘no way.’ The upshot: maybe this enterprise and its wing sails technology can serve as a proving ground for a more conservative cargo shipping industry.”

In seeking for non-petroleum-based means of propulsion, could cargo ship companies powered by sails pioneer the future of transportation? Set sail toward Jason’s STEM story, where he’ll navigate you through the latest discussion about this technology.

Video footage of a race on August 17 at America’s Cup:

Want more? Check out our other STEM Story Project pieces.

Photo by Jason Albert

Lily BuiForensics in Flames: Your Burning Questions Answered

Lily Bui posted on Friday, August 16th, 2013 | PRX, STEM Story Project | No Comments

This is part of a series of blog posts for the STEM Story Project.

Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 4.48.11 PM

What if you could commit a crime and destroy all the evidence? With fire, you can. Michael May’s STEM Story Project piece “Forensics in Flames” answers our burning questions about how this is possible.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a revolution in the science of arson investigations. Many clues that scientists once looked to in order to determine that a fire was not accidental have been proven false.

Reporter Michael May looks closely at two deadly fires to explore the cutting edge of fire science. He shows us that a new understanding of a phenomenon called “flashover” has disproved many old assumptions. What’s more–clues left in victims’ blood can help determine how a fire started and spread.

We asked Michael some of our burning questions about how the piece came together. Here’s what he had to say:

“My favorite part about making this piece was being able to try new approaches to storytelling and sound design. Since there were no witnesses to the deadly Graf fire the story looks at—and since the various narratives of what happened that day was based solely on forensic science—it gave me the freedom to use reenactments to play out various scenarios. My other favorite part was working with some of my favorite collaborators: Julia Barton, who edited the piece; Kaitlin Prest, who composed the music and sound design, and Dave Mann, who has been reporting on arson science for years.

“My least favorite part was being unable to interview Ed Graf, who was convicted of arson based on flawed science. He’s sitting in county jail and the sheriff refused me access.

“I was completely shocked to learn that a fire lit by a child could engulf an entire house in a matter of minutes. And that a fire in a cabinet or under a table could produce enough carbon monoxide to kill someone, even if they didn’t feel the heat.

“I was also surprised to find how sympathetic I was to the prosecution’s narrative while reading the trial transcript—even though I ultimately concluded they’d sent an innocent man to prison. It just goes to show that once prosecutors have decided someone is guilty, they can find plenty of circumstantial and forensic evidence to show how a suspect, even a mild-mannered banker, had a motive to do an unthinkable crime.”

Michael’s story is one that will leave your ears burning. Take a listen and tell us what you think.

Subscribe via Email

Become a Fan & Follow Us

Support Us!