Stuff YOU Should Know

Posted by on Mar 4, 2021 in Stuff You Should Know

Israel’s Mystery Oil Spill

Israel is undergoing a massive cleanup effort after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea polluted the country’s beaches and coasts with tar. This oil spill is Israel’s biggest ecological disaster in history. But the strange part is that no one quite knows how the tar got there.

Israeli authorities suspect that the spill comes from a tanker that was far out in the Mediterranean, beyond the territory controlled by Israel. It likely happened during some stormy weather that occurred about a week before the tar started appearing. The European Union has used satellite technology to monitor ships that were in the region at the time and has identified a list of ten possible tankers.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 volunteers are working to remove tar from more than one hundred miles of beach, which are currently closed along Israel’s entire coast. So far, more than seventy tons of tar have been removed, at a cost of about $13.8 million. Sea turtles, birds, fish, and important species of reef-building snail have all been negatively impacted by the spill. According to Gila Gamliel, Israel’s environmental minister, a forecast of large waves could cause even more of the sticky, black tar to be washed ashore. This will make cleanup efforts even more difficult. Ecological impacts aside, the spill also comes at a terrible time for Israel politically. The country was preparing an agreement to build an underwater gas pipeline to Egypt. Israeli leaders hoped this would bring a much-needed economic boost to the nation.

Dig Deeper Experts say that this disaster is like (though much smaller than) the Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989.  Where did that spill occur? What was the aftermath?

Spacecraft Named for Katherine Johnson Docks at the ISS

Liftoff of John Glenn's Friendship 7, Feb. 20, 1962
Mathematician Katherine Johnson helped John Glenn get to space. She was recently honored with a spacecraft named after her. Credit: NASA

Have you heard of Katherine Johnson? She was one of the NASA mathematicians featured in the 2017 film Hidden Figures. Johnson’s mathematical calculations were pivotal in putting American astronauts into space. She passed away in February 2020 at the age of 101. Now, Johnson is being recognized with a spacecraft that is named in her honor. The S.S. Katherine Johnson arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) February 22, carrying four tons of research supplies and hardware that will be used for scientific tests and experiments aboard the ISS.

As an African American woman, Johnson began her time at NASA in a segregated wing before being transferred to the Flight Research Division. Eventually, she became part of NASA’s “Computer Pool” of mathematicians. Not only did she break glass ceilings, she became known for the uncanny accuracy of her calculations. Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. According to a Northrop spokesperson, it is traditional for the company to name each Cygnus spacecraft after someone who has played an important role in human spaceflight.

The S.S. Katherine Johnson, made the trip from its Virginia launch pad to the ISS in two days. The equipment aboard will help with a variety of research projects. The S.S. Katherine Johnson will remain at the ISS until May.

Dig Deeper Last year, Northrop Grumman named one of its spacecraft after another groundbreaking woman: astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla. Use Internet resources to learn more about Dr. Chawla, and then write a paragraph about her achievements and accomplishments.

Standardized Tests are Back

Last year around this time, as schools around the nation began to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government waived its annual standardized testing requirement. Now, a year later,  most schools have moved back to at least partial in-person learning. And the federal government has announced that it’s time to bring back standardized tests as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, annual standardized testing is critical because it identifies struggling students and districts that might need additional resources. The department also says that it’s important for students to take these tests in person. They worry that at-home test takers may ask family members for help or look up answers online, which means that the results won’t be accurate.

As teachers across the country receive their COVID vaccinations, many U.S. students are in the process of transitioning back to in-person school after nearly a year hybrid or remote learning. Educators argue that they need to focus on getting students caught up rather than immediately pivoting to testing mode. Some school districts say it will be difficult to administer the tests safely in person. Educators and parents also recognize that a year away from schools, teachers, friends, and normal activities has taken a toll on the mental (and often physical) health of children. They believe that testing students right now is the wrong thing to do.

The Biden administration has emphasized that even though it’s important for the nation to return to standardized testing, there will be more flexibility this year than ever before. For example, states can request that the Department of Education not use this data to identify “failing” schools. Districts can also ask for waivers of the rule that requires 95 percent of all students to complete the tests. Other options include:

  • allowing states to shorten the tests,
  • offering the tests remotely where necessary,
  • expanding the testing window so that students can complete them throughout the summer and even into the fall.
What Do You Think? In your opinion, should the U.S. government require that students take standardized tests this year? Why or why not?

Trade and the COVID Vaccine

As of March, about 15 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated for COVID-19 (almost 2 million shots per day). But far more need to receive the vaccine before it becomes safe to return to “normal” life again. All over the world, the vaccine rollout is going more slowly than expected. Why? You might not think that trade has anything to do with it, but according to the new director of the World Trade Organization (WTO), it absolutely does.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian economist, and as of March 1, she is the first woman and the first African to ever serve as director-general of the WTO. The World Trade Organization is a global organization that helps manage trade agreements between nations around the world.  Okonjo-Iweala says that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the global econom. She thinks it is impossible to discuss economic improvement without first getting the pandemic under control. Right now, according to Oknonio-Iweala, about a hundred WTO member nations have export restrictions in place on the vaccine. This is inhibiting the free flow of manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine across the globe.

In December, the WTO put out a paper describing how adjusting trade rules can help ensure that people gain access to the vaccine more quickly. It addressed issues such as:

  • what steps to take to prevent false or substandard vaccines
  • how the vaccine will be distributed to suppliers
  • how inventory will be tracked and managed
  • how to preserve intellectual property,
  • and whether measures are in place to deal with the additional waste generated by administering the vaccine.
What Do You Think? Should individual countries be able to control how many doses of the vaccine they export? Why or why not?