Archive | February, 2013

Lights Out! Students Report on How They’re Facing the Apocalypse

28 Feb
An analytic decision game underway in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology is pitting students against a massive natural disaster.

An analytic decision game underway in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology is pitting students against a massive natural disaster.

In a recent blog post, we talked about Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology Professor of Practice Col. Jake Graham’s  Security and Risk Analysis Capstone course (SRA 440W). Students in the class face what Graham calls the “Lights Out” scenario.

Here’s the situation:

The country has received a direct hit of a solar event called a coronal mass ejection. It’s bad news. There are three communities — Smithville, McCracken, and Longview — that the students are attempting to lead back into the 21st century in this Analytic Decision Game.

According to our student bloggers from Team Smithville:

Coronal mass ejections (CME) are bursts of solar plasma erupting from the sun’s corona. These outbursts are capable of releasing huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space above the sun’s surface and hurling the solar wind toward earth. CME is associated with enormous changes and disturbances in the coronal magnetic field. A large enough CME event is capable of shutting down the electrical grid and destroying all digital electronics in its path.

Our scenario is set in rural America in the year 2025. Up until now our lives have been overwhelmingly influenced by digital technology and a dependence on electricity. Then, inextricably, the lights go out. Our fictional post-cyber society community has been frozen in time. Automobiles, trains and aircraft cease to operate. The power grid has failed. All unshielded digital electronics have been fried and what remains of our military and government infrastructure is unknown. Our struggle is not in restoring the internet – our struggle is for the survival the nation and of our way of life!

Team Smithville observations:

The lights have now gone out in the Borough of Smithville. All electrical equipment and cars are unusable, thought to be the result of a sort of electro-magnetic pulse. Our team, representing Smithville, has been discussing duties of the community leaders and a chain of command.

We spent a considerable amount of time studying the maps of Smithville, Weaver County, and the other towns of Longview and McCracken.

As the Smithville leadership, we are trying to come up with a list of our most valuable resources and assets. Similarly, we have been looking for areas or buildings that could serve a purpose during this blackout. Using the booklet of the history of Weaver County has proved to be quite useful, as there are certain sites or activities described there that have given us some good ideas to pursue. We are working under the assumption that each town will work alone and put its own interests first.

Therefore, we are going to focus on the resources and tools we can gather from our immediate area so we do not need to rely on help from other towns. We are wary of the residents of other towns and are considering them a threat for the time being.

Our geographic location may put us at risk because Smithville is located between the towns of Longview and McCracken. For the time being, the Mayor and Chief of Police are trying to keep order and calm the masses.

This is the first in a series of student-written posts about their participation in this capstone course. In the future, we’ll feature more posts from the students as they progress through the Lights Out scenario.


Lights Out! Penn State Students and Researchers Face the Apocalypse

21 Feb

A lot of people think that scientists and researchers spend all their days and a lot of their nights toiling away in sterile, dimly lit labs, sequestered from students and the rest of the university community. Every once and a while, they may shout “Eureka!” to an unaware, but appreciative group of students and staff as they uncover the cure for a disease or add an extra letter to a really cool-looking math equation.

That’s not how research is done at Penn State. You’ll find research and teaching are tightly woven together in a positive feedback loop here. Research inspires lessons, which inspires students, which, in turn, inspires more research.

That’s especially helpful when you face an apocalypse.

Penn State IST Professor of Practice Col. Jake Graham is leading a group of students in his Security and Risk Analysis Capstone course (SRA 440W) through an exercise that is part emergency awareness exercise and part live action role-playing game. I might add that the only thing missing from this scenario that would make it a script for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster would be a roving band of zombies. (Maybe next semester?)

“The purpose of the SRA Capstone course, is to apply the knowledge, and skills achieved across  the Security and Risk Analysis curriculum in a culminating analytic experience to address a set of complex and dynamic security and risk phenomena,” Graham said. “This is achieved in a team-based, scenario-driven exercise — the Analytic Decision Game, or ADG.”

According to Graham, the scenario for this semester’s project is slugged “Lights Out.” Here’s the background: A solar flare fries just about every electronic device. Beyond not being able to check out the sports scores on your smart phone, it also means you won’t be able to cook, heat, drive a car and do just about everything else you’ve become accustomed to doing with modern technology. To put it crudely, the students — who are divided up into three communities, each with certain advantages and weaknesses — have become instant Amish, whether they converted to the faith or not.

“The research topic for this semester deals with the characterization of cyber-space in the year 2025,” Graham added. “The companion ADG for this semester deals with life in a post-cyber society, where students acting in leadership roles guide their respective communities through a series of cascading problems.”

Graham, who served as a Marine helicopter pilot and spent time ferrying United States presidents around in Marine 1, said that for the students in the project, the scenario raises a lot of questions. Do they cooperate with other town leaders? Do they conquer the other towns? Can they mitigate some of the catastrophic effects? Can they learn new skills and abilities to cope with the problem?

In the next few posts, we’ll hear from some of the students as they take their Penn State training, knowledge, and Brains! Brains! Brains! into the apocalypse.

A Banner Weekend for Penn State Research

18 Feb

At the AAAS annual meeting last weekend I learned a lot, such as:

  • How our preconceptions of viruses as nasty things may have thwarted our knowledge of the long list of positive interactions humans have with these microbes.
  • How evolution changed us from furry creatures into lean, mean, skin-covered, sweating machines.
  • And how we can now take pictures and make movies of atoms. Actual atoms.

Dr. Jablonski addresses media questions at AAAS news briefing.

One thing I did not learn is that I am not a great photographer. I have known that for a long time. In fact, if you couple my lack of photographic skills with my out-of-focus iPhone camera, the pictures of the atom have finer resolutions and were much clearer.

But I tried.

Here’s another thing I learned: Penn State should be proud of the work its research is doing because the rest of the academic world sure is. There were six Penn State researchers who presented 8 sessions at this year’s AAAS meeting in Boston. Here’s the list and the title of their presentations:

Marilyn Roossinck
Viruses as Mutualists
A Plant, A Virus, A Fungus: What It Takes to Take the Heat

Murali Haran
Using Models and Data to Learn about the Future of Climate

Richard Alley
Ice Sheets, Sea Level and Other Surprises: Benefits of Understanding Some Beautiful Places

Henry Lin
World Water Security Begins with an Adequate Blue Water Supply

Nina Jablonski
The Evolution and Meanings of Human Skin Color
Beyond Fur:  Sweating and Barrier Features of Human Skin

Steven Schiff
Towards Model-Based Networks and Control of Brain Networks

Also, Alley received an award for his outreach and education efforts from AAAS.

I don’t mean to be territorial about this because the conference featured so much research from dozens of great schools; but, with more than $12 million on the THON reveal board and a long list of the University’s researchers represented at one of the most prestigious academic conferences this weekend, it’s pretty hard to be modest about Penn State achievements.

You can read about some of the presentations here:

Microbes team up to boost plants’ stress tolerance

Wild plants are infected with many viruses and still thrive

Key to cleaner environment may be right beneath our feet

Evolution helped turn hairless skin into a canvas for self-expression

Modern life may cause sun exposure, skin pigmentation mismatch

Flow of research on ice sheets helps answer climate questions

Statistics help clear fog for better climate change picture

Engineering control theory helps create dynamic brain models


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