Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Thursday marked an annual celestial event, the Autumnal Equinox.

Meteorologists divide the calendar differently.  They use meteorological divisions.  Fall, for example, started on September 1.  For those who look up, the autumnal equinox is fall's marker.

Other critters have their own way of marking seasons by moving or changing their daily patterns, e.g., asleep and awake. Wendy Watson's children's book, Has Winter Come tells about one pattern in a critter's life cycle. It is a wonderful read aloud bedtime story seen through the lives of a family of woodchucks. "Although the children don't recognize the faint smell of winter in the air, a woodchuck family begins preparing for long snowy nights."

You may mind the anthropomorphism. I don't.

Poets have their way of marking the seasons and today instead of one poem, there are two. Actually there could have been a dozen. Baker's at that. Maybe more.  These are favorites and I've been known to read them at all times of the year without noticing or caring about the season.

One is by Thomas McGrath; the other by Karina Borowicz.

You may learn more about the poets by clicking on the name of the poet below the poem title.

Happy Fall!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

MacArthur Fellows 2016: Meet 'Em

Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment
Student Achievement

The Class of 2016 MacArthur Fellows has been announced.

The talent of the recipients of these so-called "genius-awards" is jaw-dropping and the range of the 23 awards, e.g., law, art, sculpture, scientists, engineers, computer specialists, a New Yorker writer, cartoonist, linguist, inspiring. The range hints at the large pool of talent from which these women and men were nominated and then selected to receive this honor.

I draw attention to one of them because she works in one of the STEM fields-science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  An NPR report was devoted to a profile of Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a professor of bioengineering at Rice University.

The reporter, Jason Beaubien, notes that "(Richards-Kortum) has made a name for herself in the field not for her own inventions, but for the incredible creativity of her students."

Professor Richards-Kortum "challenges students to design new medical devices and technologies that can actually be put into practice in low-resource settings. A device developed by one of her students to help premature babies breathe, for example, is now used in 19 countries.... So far the lab holds 29 patents for work they've developed."  
"If it stays in the lab, it's not really innovation," she says. "What we've learned here [at Rice] is that if you can engage students in helping to design new technologies and put them into practical use, they get so excited and work so hard that they learn in a different way. And they go on to have careers where they take that dedication and turn it into action in their own lives."

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Vaccinating Frogs

Endangered Species
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

The number of extinctions of frog populations worldwide due to fungal infections may surprise you. It did me. The number is 200 and growing.

It is a serious skin ailment caused by the chytrid fungus. Frogs die within a few weeks upon being infected. The importance of a frog's skin to its life is not to be underestimated. It allows them to be a frog. The skin is the organ through which frog's breathe as well through which chemicals important to their survival--e.g., fluid balance--are absorbed. 

Photo of yellow-legged frog by Isaac Chellman, NPS
via Wikimedia Commons
Recently scientists have turned their attention to the frog's immune system, trying to "trick" it by making it just sick enough to build their immunity to the fungus.  The experimental treatment is being conducted with yellow-legged frogs which are found in alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. About 90 percent of this population has disappeared.

The experimental therapy is nearing the end of its third summer and there is reason for hope since survival has been surprisingly good.  If the treated frogs survive for a few seasons they may be able to survive and grow in the long-term, as the great force of natural selection takes over and directs their evolution. But this will take time.

NPR reporter Lauren Sommer told the story of this research effort September 10.  A short film about it from the WQED and PBS "Deep Look" series is also embedded in the story.  

A Beginner's Guide to Vermicomposting

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere

The majority of cities in the U.S. don’t yet have organics composting collection— but that doesn’t mean you can’t start reducing your waste footprint! While you’re waiting for your city to get on board with organics, you can start composting at home.

Vermicomposting is composting using worms. This can be done indoors in a relatively small bin. The start-up cost is low, and it’s easy to maintain. Plus, it produces the most nutrient-rich soil you can get.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Get a bin.

There are bins made for vermicomposting, but you don’t need anything special. I used a medium-sized rubbermaid bin from Target. When looking for a bin, you want one with more surface area, so a shallow and large bin is best. Worms can be harmed by exposure to light, so make sure the bin has opaque sides.

The bin can sit in a closet or room where it won't be disturbed often. 

2. Set up the bin. 

Worms need to breathe, so drill some holes in the sides and lid. To control moisture, you can drill a few holes in the bottom. This will require something to catch excess moisture. I simply bought a larger bin to nest the smaller bin inside of. 

3. Add bedding and food.

These are the two materials that you will need to continually add to any composting bin, including a worm bin. They go by a lot of names: bedding and food, browns and greens, carbon and nitrogen. Essentially, bedding is something that used to be alive, and food is still alive. 

Bedding is dry and fibrous so it will absorb moisture, and hold the soil together. I use shredded newspaper, and non-recyclable paper like toilet paper tubes and egg cartons. You can also use dry leaves or straw. You want about twice as much bedding as food. 

Now for food. Worms aren’t very picky, but there are some things they can’t eat. Firstly, they are vegetarians! Don’t put any meat or dairy in your worm bin. The best food is raw fruit and vegetables. Worms are the perfect solution to non-preventable food waste such as banana peels, apple cores, and other peels, stems, rinds, and skins. They also like tea bags and coffee grounds— including the filter! 

My worm bin feat: shredded toilet paper tubes and tomatillo husks. 
Avoid processed, cooked, and oily foods. Worms can handle small amounts of starches, citrus, and onion. In a small indoor bin, you may want to avoid these foods altogether. 

4. Add the worms!

Set up your bin a week or so in advance so the food begins to decay. Before adding the worms, make sure the bin has an appropriate moisture level. It should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Adding food will increase moisture, and bedding will soak up excess moisture. Make sure the bin is aerated properly; adding dry bedding will help. 

There are many places to order worms online. The type of worm you want is called a red wiggler or red worm. You can plan for about 1,000 worms (or one pound) per square foot of your bin, but aim low when first ordering. They will multiply quickly if conditions are right. You don’t have to worry about having too many worms, though: If they run out of space and food, they will reproduce at a slower rate.

Worms may try to escape the bin when you first add them. They are restless from travel and not accustomed to the new bin. Give them some time to settle down, but be prepared to scrape some dried up worms off your floor. 

5. Harvest the compost. 

It shouldn’t be long before you see dark, rich soil in your bin. You need to remove finished compost every few months to keep the worm bin healthy.

No inputs are recognizable in finished compost.
Several weeks before you plan to harvest, only add food to one half of the bin. This will draw the worms over to one side. Then simply dig to the bottom of the bin and pull out the dirt. I pick out worms and bits of food/bedding that isn’t completely broken down yet, but this can become a painstaking process. A few worms and scraps aren’t going to hurt plants.  

After you’ve harvested, now you have a pile of rich, moist soil. If you’re an apartment dweller you may not have a use for so much soil. What now?

Remember that you’ve got a valuable commodity here! Ask friends and family if they would like some for their yard. Otherwise, go to a public park and sprinkle some in the grass and around trees. If it’s the middle of winter this might not be possible. You can store the compost by keeping it moist. 

Composting is valuable as a way to reduce waste, so don’t worry if you don’t have a good use for the end-product!

This basic information should help you get started, but any other questions can be answered online! There is a surprisingly large community of vermicomposters online to share tips and help troubleshoot. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Science Debate: Presidential Candidates Respond

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Well, three out of four major candidates responded to a nonprofit advocacy group's questions about science, engineering, technology, health, education and environment.

Who do you think didn't/hasn't responded. 

Their responses may be read at

Friday, September 16, 2016

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler PEYA Award
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality recognized 18 teachers and 63 students from across the country for outstanding contributions to environmental education and stewardship.

You may read the press release which has a link to the Presidential Innovative Award for Environmental Education (for teachers who were honored) and the Presidential Environmental Youth Award (for students who were honored) here.

There is a whole lot going on in schools in that wonderful and wonder-filled teaching-learning triangle: teachers, students and the "stuff" that brings them together.  The "stuff" may be thought of as curriculum but when you read these descriptions you will get an idea of its richness.

The announcements were made on August 16, 2016 and had it not been for a colleague I might never have known.

h/t: Brinkley Prescott, CGEE

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by William Kloefkorn, 1932-2011 who once served as Nebraska state poet.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

XKCD Takes On Climate Change

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Popular Science re-published a cartoon from XKCD on climate from 20000 BCE to 2016. It is scroll-like so you may have to  wait a few seconds for it to load and then scroll down. 

From Wikimedia Commons.
​I first found it on Greg Laden's blog and he has some caveats as well as a thorough discussion of the cartoon. The blog is subtitled "culture as science--science as culture," which reflects Laden's background and education in anthropology (Ph.D. anthropology Harvard with Irven DeVore). This is the place where the cartoons falls into difficulties and contributes to common misconceptions. 

Laden notes that the pre-history in the cartoon is considerably oversimplified, at times just plain wrong and misleading about the nature of humanity. Humans arose across time and space although sometimes we treat these changes as discrete steps. Our early history is wonderfully messy.

Laden comments on why its a great cartoon, on missed opportunities, provides a list of simple facts and big concepts that are wrong, and why getting the facts right matters and is important.

It is a wonderful cartoon.

h/t Greg Laden

Environmental Studies Field Trips: Frogtown Farm

CGEE Student Voice
Environmental Studies Field Trip Series
by Jenni Abere

This week, Hamline's Environmental Studies Field Trip Practicum class started the year off with a trip to nearby Frogtown Farm. This St. Paul urban farm and public park is in its first full season of production, so there is a lot of work to be done this fall. My class came to learn about the farm while we assisted with weeding in the fields and preparing for Saturday's Harvest Festival.

The class heads up the hill to the farm.

Frogtown Farm's History: Building Soil in the City

I had been to Frogtown Farm before; last fall, another field-trip based Environmental Studies class visited several times. Last year, the farm was not in full production mode. The site of the farm was once the House of the Good Shepherd; built and run by Sisters as a refuge for troubled girls and young women.

Turning the site of a large building into a farm has posed some problems. For one, the soil was very poor. Last summer, Frogtown Farm's acres consisted mostly of fields of peas and oats. These crops would build soil and fix the nitrogen level. They also grew a few small patches of leafy greens and were constructing a hoophouse.

This fall, the change and growth was remarkable. The once-scraggly pea and oat field is now full of rows and rows of crops: tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, kale, peppers, asparagus. The variety is stunning. The hoophouse is now complete, and teeming with several varieties of tomatoes and peppers and herbs.

Colorful rows of crops.

Poor soil is a common problem for urban farms and gardens. It seems that Frogtown Farm has overcome that first challenge.

Water Management: Fighting Gravity

Perhaps the biggest problem Frogtown Farm faces is water retainment. The farm is located atop a hill, so the question is: How do you keep water on top of a hill?

So far, they have implemented rain gardens and deep berms around the fields to trap water. Fruit trees planted in the berms have a dual purpose: providing food, and retaining water once they grow long roots.

Berms and growing fruit trees help retain water.

Keeping water at the top of the hill will benefit the crops, but it also protects the environment by reducing runoff during rainfalls. In an urban area this is a very important goal that will prevent pollution from reaching our lakes and rivers.

Exciting Future: Capturing Heat from Compost?

The inside of the hoophouse.
This season, the farm has sold its produce locally. In the future, there are some exciting possibilities. Farm to table restaurants? Partnerships with local schools? Frogtown Farm is unique because it is on public land. Being a part of the community is of the utmost importance. There are informative signs everywhere in the farm/park so that people passing through can learn about the work that is done there. There are plans for community garden plots on the site, as well as a community kitchen if the need is there. Public events such as this Saturday's Harvest Festival bring the community together over a meal of food grown at the farm; this weekend, it's personal wood-fire pizzas with veggie toppings! Yum!

One particular plan for this fall excited me. Frogtown Farm's hoophouse already extends the growing season dramatically, but an experiment will see if they can stretch this further. Frogtown Farm has a huge compost pile, of course, and it can reach an internal heat of 130°F. Could this high temperature be used to heat the hoophouse during late fall and winter?

This is an amazing idea: To reduce waste and extend the growing season at the same time!

This first field trip was a great way to get out in the community and learn about urban agriculture in a hands-on way. Pulling weeds and eating fresh tomatoes during a class discussion is a rare opportunity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The now-extinct Thylacine. Picture from Wikipedia
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Six vintage-style travel posters have been designed to draw attention to some wonderful critters lost to extinction.  And too often lost to our memories as well.

There is a poster of the relevant critter for these countries: Costa Rica, Mauritius, Tasmania, Jamaica, Alaska and New Zealand.

You may see them at Unknown Tourism.

View them and weep.