Mechanical Computing Game Teaches Coding Fundamentals

Child playing with Turing Tumble game

Years ago, when Paul Boswell, Ph.D., was teaching at the University of Minnesota, he noticed many students from across the sciences ran up against a common barrier: they didn’t know how to program. Without computer programming skills, some types of research is more difficult to do, while other types are off the table entirely, highlighted in recent articles in Nature and Wired.

Boswell knew it was important for students to understand more about computers at an earlier age, but to him, the multitude of programs, devices, and courses already available to teach coding fundamentals often overlooked a very important component.

Two children playing with Turing Tumble game“The problem is that all of these websites, robots, and other educational materials require a computer or a computer chip,” he said, adding that the actual “thinking” the computer does—its logic—remains hidden to the user. “Kids really don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.” Continue reading

Meet Allen Levine, interim VP for research

University of Minnesota flag outside of a building

Allen Levine, Ph.D., has more than a passing familiarity with the University of Minnesota’s research enterprise — in one capacity or another, he has been connected to the U for more than 45 years.

Levine, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition and adjunct in the Department of Psychiatry, began his role as the U’s new interim vice president for research this week. He previously served as vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, as well as dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. As head of the Office of the Vice President for Research, Levine will oversee the University’s $900 million research enterprise across all its campuses and facilities, including the administration of sponsored projects, research compliance and regulatory offices, and offices dedicated to economic development and technology commercialization.

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“In my new position, I look forward to keeping the University’s research enterprise moving forward and preparing the office for its next permanent director,” he said. “Since arriving, I have found the staff at OVPR to be knowledgeable and well suited to the important work they do for the U.” Continue reading

With latest cold-hardy grape, U continues to help grow an industry

Itasca wine grape

The Itasca wine grape

At the University of Minnesota, grape research hasn’t just sprouted a few new vines — it’s spurred the growth of an industry.

Earlier this month, the University released Itasca, a low-acidity, high-sugar grape for making dry white wines. Itasca is the latest in a line of cold-hardy wine grapes developed by U researchers that have played a crucial role in building the winery industry in regions where low temperatures used to hinder grape growing.

“The grape and wine industries of the north are thriving,” said William Gartner, Ph.D., professor with the Department of Applied Economics in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “Through its wine grape breeding program, the U of M has been primarily responsible for the emergence and growth of the northern grape wine industry.” Continue reading

How size and lifestyle rule the plant world

Papaver alpinum

University of Minnesota researcher Peter Reich, along with numerous colleagues around the world, have found what scientists have long suspected: that despite Earth’s rich diversity of plant life, only relatively few combinations of traits are successful.

Drawing on a data set of 46,085 plant species, the researchers gave each an identity based on its scheme for growing, surviving and reproducing. Describing plants this way gives scientists a way to predict how different vegetation will respond to climate change, most crucially by the amount of carbon it can scrub from the atmosphere.

“This paper tells you about constraints on evolution,” says Reich, a Regents Professor of forest resources. “We need better models to understand and predict how vegetation globally will change with climate change. To do that, knowing more about the small number of ways plants vary can help us build more predictive models.”

The study appears in the journal Nature.

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A ray of light on climate change

Sunbeams in a forest

Trees are a vital resource for pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as plant tissue.

As temperatures rise, however, so does the rate of respiration—the process of breaking down stored sugars for energy, releasing CO2. Scientists have feared that a warming climate will prompt a jump in trees’ respiration rates big enough to flip them from carbon sinks to carbon sources, and climate change will accelerate.

But in a new study of 10 boreal and temperate tree species led by U of M researcher Peter Reich, trees grown at 6 degrees F above ambient temperatures—a level of increase expected this century—showed only a 5 percent average increase in respiration rate, compared to a 23 percent increase for trees suddenly exposed to the higher temperature. In other words, the trees that had the chance to acclimate to the higher temperatures responded by dampening their respiration by nearly 80 percent compared to trees that had no such chance. Continue reading

Startup takes aim at invasive carp threat in Minnesota lakes

Carp Feeding

The common carp, an invasive species now prevalent in Minnesota, has been a destructive force in the state’s many lakes since it was first introduced about a hundred years ago.

Now, a University of Minnesota startup is bringing a new approach to bear in the fight against common carp. Carp Solutions, which launched in February, uses the results from U research conducted over the past decade to provide a comprehensive assessment of carp populations and recommend methods for how best to limit their populations in bodies of water across the state. The company is led by Przemyslaw Bajer, Ph.D., assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology with the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, who has been conducting carp research in Minnesota since 2006.

“After years of research into carp population dynamics, we now have new knowledge that can serve as a powerful tool for fighting this invasive species,” said Bajer, CEO of Carp Solutions. “Carp Solutions puts that knowledge to use to aid statewide efforts toward reducing the destructive effects of carp and restoring our lakes to their natural state.” Continue reading

Students lead research into emerging aquaponics industry

Aquaponics system

In Minnesota, an emerging industry is starting to capture the attention of crop growers, fish processors, distributors, restaurants and many others. Aquaponics — a year-round way to grow aquatic animals and plants in the same system — lets growers produce food locally and sustainably, and it’s on the rise. There are now more than 40 aquaponics producers in the state, up from only three in 2010.

There’s just one problem with growing aquaponically: Even the growers themselves aren’t sure how best to do it.

In response to the need for more knowledge in aquaponics, a team of University of Minnesota faculty developed a new undergraduate course called “Aquaponics: Integrated fish and plant food systems,” which set students to work discovering industry challenges and researching solutions. The course debuted in spring semester this year as part of a larger collaborative effort, which includes research projects and continuing education opportunities, to position Minnesota as a national leader in the field of aquaponics. Backed by funds from the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), the effort brought together experts from fisheries and wildlife, veterinary medicine and aquaculture, horticulture and plant sciences to form a team of experts to help inform and guide an emerging industry. Continue reading

Low-cost, eco-friendly fertilizers from bacteria

Growing Seed

For the last hundred years, farmers have provided plants with much-needed nitrogen in the form of ammonia fertilizer, which they synthesize through a process that uses natural gas and nitrogen derived from air. While effective, the process has its downfalls: It releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accounts for 1-2 percent of all global energy use.

Now, a team of University of Minnesota scientists is working on a sustainable alternative. Led by Brett Barney, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering with the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the team is genetically editing a type of bacteria that naturally produces nitrogen to make it produce a much greater amount of the nutrient. That nitrogen, in turn, will fertilize the soil and steadily supply crops with the nutrients they need to thrive. Ultimately, the team aims to develop a new standard for supplying Minnesota’s key crops — like corn and wheat — with reliable nutrition to meet the growing demand for food, while curbing the environmental side effects of injecting ammonia-based fertilizers into the soil.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

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Research excellence in practice

Triptych: lake-probe-forest

In his annual State of Research report this year, VP for Research Brian Herman called out several University of Minnesota faculty who have demonstrated research excellence through their academic leadership, collaborations with colleagues and other institutions, and scientific advancements that improve our world. Below are short profiles of three of these exemplary U of M researchers and some of the current projects they are working on.

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International economics expert to lead global research effort

Holding rice crop

As the world’s population continues to expand, so does the need for a secure, sustainable food supply.

To meet this challenge and adapt to the rapidly changing field of agricultural research, the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Science (CFANS) recently named Philip Pardey, Ph.D., its first director of global research strategy. Pardey earned his Ph.D. at the U of M and has been a professor in the Department of Applied Economics since 2002.

In the newly established CFANS position, Pardey will work internationally to create new opportunities and partnerships between the U and private companies, commodity organizations and non-governmental organizations. He will also bring together researchers from different disciplines and those at partner universities and research agencies to find solutions to complex bio-physical and economic challenges.

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