Friday, June 26, 2015

Slave River and Great Slave Lake

One of our camp spots- A sandy island that would be underwater in normal water levels
by Taylor Fredin and Nick Peterson

Deh Cho Canoe Expedition

Taylor Fredin and Nick Peterson are paddling 1,500 miles across the Mackenzie River watershed.  The canoe trip will take them down the Slave River, around the South Shore of Great Slave Lake, and down Canada’s longest river: the Mackenzie.  They will be exploring northern culture and environmental issues in and around the watershed. 

Slave River: June 9-14, 2015

Nick and I launched our boat from Bell Rock near Fort Smith, NWT. For seven days we paddled down the muddy Slave River. The water levels are down several feet due to drought and diversions for tar sand mining in Alberta. The low water allowed us to camp in areas that are typically underwater. Due to the drought, we saw smoke from forest fires every day. Fortunately, they were miles away from us.

A typical day begins at 7am. I take down the tent as Nick boils water for coffee and oatmeal. We load up the canoe and snap on the canoe cover for wind protection. The canoe cover is made by Cooke Custom Sewing and has been great on rainy, windy days. We usually begin paddling around 9. Lunch consists of peanut butter, cheese, nuts, crackers, and Nutella. We cook dinner in the evening and then paddle a few more miles before setting up camp. On average we paddle 25-30 miles per day.  We enjoyed seeing birds, beavers and lots of moose, deer, bear and wolf tracks.

Wolf tracks

Forest fires!

Enjoying an evening paddle

Fort Resolution and Great Slave Lake:  June 16-23, 2015

The Slave River empties into Great Slave Lake about 5 miles from the small hamlet of Fort Resolution.  A combination of low water and sediment flowing out of the river has resulted in a maze of shallow water and sand bars at the mouth of Slave River.  After a mile of pulling and pushing the canoe across sandbars we were back to paddling.  We arrived in Fort Resolution at midday. 

Calm water
Fort Resolution has a population of around 500 people.  The people we met were kind and full of laughs.  Our friend Glen Stewart let us take a shower and gave us a driving tour of the area.  After a day of rest we headed out onto the lake. 

Our first day of paddling on Great Slave Lake lasted for about two hours.  We found ourselves wind bound on a small beach.  Afternoon winds continued to slow us down for three days.  We paddled in the early mornings and evenings when the water was calm.  Two days of nice weather allowed us to reach Hay River on June 23.  Although the weather is sometimes rough, Great Slave Lake is great for bird watching.  We enjoyed seeing intense battles between Arctic Terns and Gulls, large flocks of Pelicans, and a variety of raptors.

Fort Resolution
View from the bow

Rocky Beach on Great Slave Lake
Rocky Campsite

Locking out Asian Carp at St. Anthony Falls

Water & Watersheds

by John Shepard

When they're agitated, high-flying Asian carp as big as porkers can conk people on the head and knock them out of boats. Two weeks ago, these noxious aquatic invaders gave the upper Mississippi River shipping industry a whack on the side of its noggin—a singular occurrence at a place of extraordinary convergence: St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis.

Stone Arch Bridge and downtown Minneapolis (Creative Commons)

St. Anthony Falls

At the Falls, elements from the past—ruins of historic flour mills and a magnificent stone-arch railroad bridge that is now a half-mile long park—are surrounded by glimmering new buildings. Coal and hydro power plants provide background for art festivals, outdoor operas, and place-based performance dance events like CGEE's longstanding Solstice River. Recreational paddlers, joggers, strollers, bikers, and two-wheeled electric Segway riders segue with commercial traffic on land and water. And on June 10, 2015 nature crashed into hubris, or maybe just shortsightedness.

The Invasive Threat

Four of the seven species of Asian carp brought to the U.S. in the 1970s to control weeds and parasites in fish farms—bighead, black, grass, and silver—have become a major menace. Since escaping into the wider world, they have been making their way upstream through America's river systems, over-eating and out-competing native fish along the way. Unlike the relatively benign common carp, which have been in the U.S. for more than 100 years without stirring up too much trouble, the Asian carp reproduce with abandon, can consume up to forty percent of their body weight each day, and can fatten up to more than 100 pounds. They tend to completely dominate aquatic ecosystems wherever they get established. 

Vibrations from outboard motors drive the fish into a frenzy and they leap high into the air in spectacles that have inspired a new kind of sport—assaulting the flying carp with arrows, swords, and spears. 

Keeping the carp out of the Great Lakes has become a driving priority for wildlife managers, but even if that effort succeeds Asian carp are poised to "spell disaster for our nation's freshwater ecosystems," according to the National Park Service. The Service estimates that freshwater fisheries could be impacted in as many as 31 states. At a recent public meeting, Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway, warned that the impact of these invasive fish on that pristine Mississippi River tributary would make other threats, like expanding development, pale in comparison.

Shutting down the Lock

Regression of the falls from 1680-1887
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
In an attempt to keep the carp from traveling any further upstream, on June 10 officials closed the massive steel doors of the river's two uppermost locks—maybe forever. Since 1963 the locks have allowed passage for barges and recreational craft around the river's only major waterfall, which was encased in concrete to prevent its continual and rapid erosion (10,000 years ago the falls were several miles downstream where Ft. Snelling is now). 

I will miss "locking through" these giant passageways in a puny canoe or kayak. Doing so involved hanging onto a rope as 10 million gallons of water released from the lock chamber into the murky downstream currents enabled a 50-foot descent that took only a couple of minutes. Then giant doors would slowly open to views of the historic bridge and the river below (the video below of canoes passing through Lock and Dam # 1 a few miles downsteam of St. Anthony Falls was made during a CGEE Mississippi River Institute in 2010).

Back to the Future

For paddlers, the past will intrude into the future once again, as the ancient portage around the falls will become the only way for vessels to beat the carp in the quest to reach upstream waters.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Brief Minnesota History: 50 of Our Greatest Hits

Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

Upside down Bundt pan
By No machine-readable author provided.
Dbenbenn assumed (based on copyright claims).
[GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0
( or CC BY-SA 2.0
 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Twin Cities Business recently compiled a short history of innovation "firsts" for the state of Minnesota.  Between 1879 and 2007 more things happened than Scotch Tape, SPAM, a wearable pacemaker and, are you ready?--the Bundt baking pan.

Here, are the "50 Fantastic Firsts," chosen by TCB editors from more than 100 inventions/innovations.

I could not help noticing how "STEM-ey" they are.  However, these firsts/inventions (the root of invention means to come upon) are more than just STEM, though. While they involve scientific and engineering practices (= inquiry in earlier science and engineering education jargon) and problem solving they include and depend upon risk-takers and entrepreneurs all of them wanting not only to make some money but also help.

In these pages are to be found more careers than one can shake the proverbial stick at.  And a number of the inventions/innovations, perhaps all of them, include implications that were not considered at the time or were unforeseen. Some good; some nood (not good).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


by Edward Hessler

By Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (],
 via Wikimedia Commons
It appears that MOOCs have been spooked. By data. The MOOC is shorthand for Massive Open Online Course, at one time heralded as the future of university education. Well, by some.

The rise and decline is summarized in three graphs in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Steve Kolowick for February 5, 2015. Graphs are great devices...a wonderful invention.

When MOOCs were coming on-line, I wondered, if they were to become successful and widespread, what this might mean, not only for the present and future of traditional colleges/universities, for teachers looking to increase subject matter knowledge, but also for high schools which today offer options for students to take courses and make use of MOOCS not only for high school graduation credit but also for college credit, e.g., dual enrollment programs. 

I've had no experience with MOOCs, other than peeking in on some (see below).  If you want an idea of the range of courses, see the Duke University offerings.  The course offered by Professor Mohamed Noor, "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution," has been well reviewed and remains active. Noor is the developer of a high school/college kit for describing selection in Drosophila sp.

MOOCs likely have a place but the hype about them taking over or significantly impacting the education world has collided with some hard realities, one is course completion rates. Another could be appropriateness. Some topics/disciplines might simply be better than others. The recently launched MOOC on climate denial, aka "Denial101x" seems to me a good example of such a course. It is free, open to all, of considerable interest and even includes an official certificate of completion for a small fee ($100) for those who find use for it. This course has received considerable media attention, e.g., a piece by Ari Phillips writing for ThinkProgress. I'm sorry it is too late to register but I suspect/hope it will be offered again.

If you have taken a MOOC, what has been your experience? If you know a high school student who has, what is her/his take on such courses?

h/t Jerry Becker, Southern Illinois University

Monday, June 8, 2015

Sesame Street MOOC: Some Results

Environmental & Science Education, MOOCs, Early Childhood
Edward Hessler

Bert and Ernie (2841396233)
By Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA (Bert & Ernie)
 [CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Results of Sesame Street Study on School Readiness
A while back I posted a note about MOOCs--Massive Open On-Line Courses.  One obvious example (finally!) staring straight at me for many years escaped my notice: Sesame Street!

A press release from Wellesley College describes a study coauthored by economists Philip B. Levine (Wellesley College) and Melissa Kearney (University of Maryland) titled "Study Finds Sesame Street Improves School Readiness".  The study found:

  • The introduction of Sesame Street to America’s preschoolers helped a generation of kids do better in school. When the show first aired in 1969, five million children watched a typical episode—the preschool equivalent of a Super Bowl every day.

  • Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the biggest improvements in school performance.
  • Effects are largest for children living in economically disadvantaged areas.
  • Sesame Street is one of the largest and most affordable early childhood interventions ever to take place.

  • Elementary students do better after watching Sesame Street
    A study by Educational Testing Service in the 1970s showed that Sesame Street improved pre-school test scores. The new study by Kearney and Levine now shows another effect: children who watched the episodes did better in elementary school once they got there. The authors note that the impact on later educational attainment as well as labor market outcomes is inconclusive.

    The Wellesley College press release provides a link to the full study, the complete press release, the Executive Summary by Melissa Kearney and Philip B. Levine, and a link to a talk by Professor Levine on the research and findings.

    There is a statue of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog in front of the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland (Henson's alma mater).

    When It's No Longer Just a Game

    Environmental & Science Education
    by Edward Hessler

    World map of countries by ecological footprint (2007)
    By Jolly Janner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 2007 map of ecological footprint
    The Ecological Footprint
    The idea of the ecological footprint was first developed by William Rees, University of British Columbia. It was more fully developed, including a method of calculating it, by his Ph.D. student, Mathis Wackernagel. In 2012, they were awarded the Blue Planet award for this concept and influential work.

    The ecological footprint is a widely used tool in environmental education. There are a variety of calculators but if you haven't used one and want to, it is worth checking several to see how well each fits with your needs and intentions.

    And as long as I'm talking about this idea, Laura Jane Martin asks whether our ecological footprint is the best metaphor for measuring our ecological impact. She suggests that our ecological handprint may be a more powerful way of conceiving it as well as making it more useful. The idea of an ecological handprint was developed by Rocky Rohwedder, Sonoma State University, who describes it in this Tedx Talk at Irvine.

    But the real purpose of this post is to describe some actions to reduce a very large footprint by a large organization.

    The 2014 National Hockey League Sustainability Report

    By D'Arcy Norman from Calgary,
    Canada (Flames vs. Wild - 10)
    [CC BY 2.0 (],
    via Wikimedia Commons

    The late University of Wisconsin's ice hockey coach, Badger Bob Johnson is remembered for his enthusiasm for the game as well as a greeting he used with almost everyone he met: It's a Great Day for Hockey.

    OK, it is June but the rink rats are still at it, playing for the Stanley Cup. So, it seems appropriate to talk about the game and its future. Were he here, Coach Johnson would agree.

    Will it always be a great day for hockey? There is concern about the number of great hockey days left, according to the not-so-recently released 2014 NHL Sustainability Report.

    In a letter accompanying the report, Dr. Allen Hershowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council writes that "Great credit is due to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff: An organization is always a reflection of its leadership, and Commissioner Bettman is without a doubt one of the great environmental champions in the world of sports. No league has ever produced a sustainability report that is so thoughtfully crafted, honest about its limits and emphatic about the urgent need to protect our planet. And no league has ever been so frank about the risks to its very existence posed by climate change."

    Divisions of the Report
    The report is divided into these major sections: rationale for the report and methods used, the environmental platform of the League, profiles of players who grew up playing on frozen ponds, the environmental impact and case studies of the carbon footprint of the league, and technologies for the future to reduce professional hockey's footprint.

    It is a remarkable report since it is from a large professional sports franchise on the impact of global climate change/global warming from an affected organization which also has an effect on global warming.

    Monday, June 1, 2015

    The Birds of John James Audubon

    by Edward Hessler

    See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    John James Audubon
    Audubon's Birds of America was printed between 1827 and 1838. Now, vibrant digital images (435) from the 1840 1st Octavo Edition can be seen on-line.

    In addition to the images, the site includes Audubon's narratives about the birds, a list of birds he painted that are now extinct, anatomical illustrations, various categorizations of birds, a list of state birds etc.

    Interestingly, Audubon's name is associated with but two birds, Audubon's Shearwater and Audubon's Oriole.  It is likely that he named a warbler after himself but today, given a better understanding of evolutionary relationships that bird is now known as the western yellow-rumped warbler. The conspicuous yellow-rump has given this early migrant the common name, Butter Butt.

    Yellow-rumped warbler of Audubon
    Clay Christensen, aka The Birdman of Lauderdale, writing in Saint Paul's Park Bugle, notes that when he sees "inchworm's hanging down from my neighbor's oak tree" he expects to hear the yellow-rumped warbler. But some springs are slow so then what happens? Do many of them starve? It turns out that they are able to feed on another food: tree bud scales.

    Image from
    This, an insectivore becoming a herbivore, is a remarkable adaptation. Mr. Christensen explains how this works. "The...digestive tract does a retrograde reflux that moves is food from the intestines back up into the gizzard for further process, and can do so several times if necessary. And there's a higher concentration of bile in the gallbladder and intestine and a slower gastrointestinal process that enables the bird to get nutrition out of the waxy lipids contained in such berries as those of the bayberry, juniper, poison ivy and wax myrtle."

    The description of Audubon's paintings by the late Joseph Kastner is one I've liked from the time I first read his book. It was as if art was dictating to nature (not precise quote). This is not surprising since the period in which he painted was the Romantic Era of North American Natural History. And Audubon was very much a romantic.

    Thank you John James Audubon and thank you National Audubon Society for making those images available to all of us.

    h/t MN Bird