Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

This Friday, a lovely poem by Gail Mazur. However, it is so close to the new year I must add another. After the clock strikes midnight on December 31 here is a poem to start the year.

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

—Kobayashi Issa

I am likely to read it earlier in the evening well before the bewitching hour. By the way, this well known poem, one I never tire of reading, was originally called "The Century's End, 1900." And for information about the poet see here.

However, don't forget to add a leap second before you read the poem.

[Wikimedia Commons]

There is a wonderful entry in An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie who, in the year he wrote the essay was up at midnight, but in a much more indolent mood than the scientist he describes. It was the habit of this professor at the University of Gottingen to sit down at his work desk at midnight and begin work.

It is easy to read into this description and I do this regularly. The university and city were very integrated and the narrow winding streets of the city had homes, business and university lecture halls mixed together. Perhaps he walked from home to office-laboratory-atelier in light snow (my hope), alone in the dark.

The University of Gottingen was known in Europe and the United States for its many celebrated departments and professors in the first part of the last century although mathematics was the master discipline blurring the boundaries between pure mathematics, applied mathematics and the sciences. Three of those disciplines are are part of STEM education: science, mathematics and engineering.

The stance of the Issa haiku is one of humility.  Humility in the face of what we know, think we know and want to know is a good thing, I think!

Minnesotans are fond of saying interesting, a word with many meanings.  The new year promises to be very interesting but I hope it is a happy one for you.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Read All About It: Climate Change Denial

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Wisconsin DNR

One of our neighbors has made a change on its Department of Natural Resources website. It is now a statement written by climate change naysayers and doubters.

Natasha Geiling (Think Progress) writes about this and includes the old and the new language.

OLD Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources statement on climate change.

Earth's climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping ('greenhouse') gases are the main cause....

NEW Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources statement on climate change.

As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change as this particular time in the earth's long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Given Wisconsin's recent political environment this is not surprising. I hope that this is not a harbinger of future purges.

A STEM-Related Career

Image result for ecology

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

Almost 40 years have passed since Rodger Bybee wrote a paper which still resonates with me. Bybee is the former director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. (BSCS) He has had a strong hand in two standards projects, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the Next Generation Science Standards.(NGSS)  Earlier in his career, Bybee was a faculty member at Carleton College, Northfield.

In several papers, Bybee made a case that science education  was in a period of transformation concerning its aims.  He argued for growth toward an ecological society and made suggestions for the role of science, especially biology, in what he considered an emerging ecological society.

We know, of course, that this trajectory of change did not occur. I still like the idea!

Bybee noted that science education should prepare its citizens to make responsible decisions concerning science-related personal and social issues and the National Science Education Standards included this as a major strand. He noted three areas for discussion: problems of lifetime (conception, abortion, birth control, death and dying), lifespace (pollution, crowding, urban issues), and lifestyle (affluence, poverty, consumption, conservation). 

Bybee also drew attention to another goal of science education: career awareness, noting that "the aim has never achieved major importance" in science education. He also did not feature careers in his series of papers.

The papers and others may be found in Reforming Science Education: Social Perspectives & Personal Reflections (1993).

I thought of Bybee's concerns as well as of the role of STEM education when I viewed a film I've now watched twice.  The film, 13 and a half-minutes long, is deeply moving and wrenching.

STEM education is natural territory for incorporating and making use of STEM careers in the context of learning rather than as an add-on. We sometimes think of STEM somewhat narrowly, i.e., leading to careers in medicine, science and engineering. However, the reach of STEM is wide and deep.  There are many opportunities for students in STEM-related careers.

One of these (in health care) is featured in this film. It might be called "have a valise of health care tools and will travel." It is the story of a nurse-family program in Texas.

PS— STEM was first known as SMET.  I think you'll agree that the new acronym rolls off the tongue much more pleasantly! Even invitingly. SMET puts a period after it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vera Rubin

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

No observational problem will not be solved by more data. —Vera Rubin

Groundbreaking (well sky-breaking) astrophysicist Vera Rubin died Sunday, December 25, 2016.  She was 88.
Vera Rubin.

Rubin confirmed the existence of dark matter which comprises 27% if the matter in the universe. What it is exactly remains a puzzle.

I have written about comments made by cosmologist Sabine Hossenfelder on how deserving Dr. Rubin was of the Nobel Prize.

NPR's Camila Domonoski wrote a lovely summary of her life and also a tribute yesterday. Domonoski includes a widely cited quote stating Rubin's assumptions about life and work. I think these may be from a Carnegie Institution celebration of her life and work in 2002.

1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.

Vera Rubin was a national treasure.

The commencement address Rubin delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, May 17, 1996 was chosen by NPR to be included in a list of the 100 best commencement speeches ever. It is one of those addresses that you wish you attended.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming to Understand the Earth as a Dyamic System

History of Science
Environmental and Science Education
Edward Hessler

It was Marie Tharp's painstaking work on mapping the ocean that eventually forced a reluctant scientific community to accept plate tectonics (earlier known as continental drift, an idea first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912). She did one of the hard jobs in science:the numbing work of numbers crunching, data analysis and later transformation into a map.

All this was done back in the laboratory while the data collectors were at sea. She wasn't allowed to sail along. Navy regulations, you know.

Tharp mapped the 10000 mile-long-Mid-Atlantic ridge and the "boy" (Bruce Heezen) in the saga reduced it to "girl talk."  Eventually, he came round, persuaded by evidence, way too much evidence.

Marie and Bruce [Flickr]
The Royal Institution of Great Britain has produced a very nice short animated film of her work.  The Smithsonian Magazine published a great story about Tharp's work earlier this year which includes the map that she and her colleague, and more than sometime detractor, Bruce Heezen, produced. Heezen was stuck in a paradigm, saying that the map produced looked too much like continental drift.

Clare Dudman wrote a compelling page turner, a faithfully told story of the life of Alfred Wegener. It is told in Wegener's voice. Victorian prim and proper. It is a historical novel but please don't let the word novel turn you away from it. It sticks close to the science. Historical novels can be an interesting way to write about the history of science, providing readers a trustworthy account of how science was conducted during the time the scientist was working as well as how difficult, even when faced with data, it is to change one's view.

Science tends to be, with good reason, conservative when it comes to change. It takes a lot of evidence and Planck's principle. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

In 1930 Wegener disappeared beneath the Greenland ice. He was found, perfectly preserved, about six-months later.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri, on July 12, 2008.

Today's poem is by James Wright. Mr. Wright taught at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman, a major figure in American poetry during the second half of the 20th century.

It is titled "The Minneapolis Poem."

Here is an interview with Mr. Wright from the Paris Review in a series on the art of poetry. I must alert you that this interview is long (and rich, providing insights on Wright's work and his views of poetry, teaching, other poets and writing. Wright did his Ph.D. on Dickens and noted that his main subject as a teacher is the English novel.).

The unedited interview when typed was 83 pp!  The Paris Review shortened it for publication but it is still long and I add, endlessly fascinating. It also has a very funny story in it about a Jewish rabbi.

So, with the length of this recommendation in mind, here is a shorter biography from Wikipedia which notes that it is in need of work for citation verifications. Still, I urge you to at least skim the long interview. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Poems for the Winter Solstice

Environmental and Science Education
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

It is the Winter Solstice, one of the ways humans have marked time (think Neolithic) and have noted this occasion as the world turns around the sun. The arrival of winter according to the sky above—way above... deep above.
© Copyright Sian Lindsey.

What a pairing. Shortest of days. Longest of nights.

Well, not quite!

There is an interesting twist, a result which follows from geometry. It is the shortest day.  First, the year's earliest sunset is NOT on the Winter Solstice. It occurs a few days before. Second, the year's latest sunrise is NOT on the Winter Solstice. It occurs a few days after. It is because our orbit around the sun is not a circle but an ellipse.

Paul Huttner provides an explanation from (link to site above) on the Updraft Blog.

Three wintry poems here, here and here.

Ah, why not a fourth?!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for recycling

Art and Environment
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Edward Hessler

So what to do?  Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse.

To think about these choices as well as others that living on the planet reveal daily, if not hourly, read Adrienne Su's After the Dinner Party.

This poem was just published in the December issue of Poetry. Adrienne Su is chair of the Department of English at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. Not all of the links on the page about Su function but a few linked to other poems do.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Robot Is My Name: Spring Making is My Game

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

[Wikimedia Commons]

Most of us know very little about the factory floor these days, especially about the automation that has replaced so many workers or changed their jobs.

This music video from Japan joins driving electronic dance music with a film of robotic arms bending, twisting and cutting wire for a wide variety of springs.

Fortunately the film ends; otherwise I might watch forever, completely mesmerized.

A recent piece in MinnPost describes how robotics is changing Minnesota's workforce as well as trade-offs.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hamline University Waste Audit: Our Findings

CGEE Student Voice
Campus Sustainability
by Jenni Abere

previously posted some initial observations from the three-day waste audit we conducted in Hamline's student center, the Anderson Center. Now that the numbers have been processed, I can back up some of these observations with data.

As we prepare to start organics composting on campus, the biggest finding is that compostable waste constituted a larger percentage of waste by weight than trash or recycling -- combined. Yes, that's right, compostable waste was over 50% of the waste in a building that already diverts the majority of its food waste (through a hog farm). This is a surprising finding, and proves that we need to introduce composting on campus as soon as possible.

The total weight for each category from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday combined:
Compostable: 180.06 lbs
Recycling: 57.41 lbs
Trash: 84.9 lbs
Liquid: 15.9 lbs

I wrote about why we want to avoid throwing away liquids in my first blog post. But liquids can be considered part of the compostable category.

The recycling rate may seem low, but let's remember that this is just what was in the trash. We did not sort recycling. In 2015, Hamline recycled 15% of its waste. 15% is an abysmally low recycling rate, and now we know that part of the reason for that is because so much recycling is being thrown away.

Throwing Money Away 

We pay for everything that we throw away. In Ramsey County, there is a County Environmental Charge, which is essentially a landfill tax. $65/ton. That doesn't seem too steep, but for a large institution like Hamline it adds up. In 2015, we paid over $18,000 in this tax.

With these numbers from the audit, how much could we save if we composted and recycled everything we could? Let's wildly extropolate some data, shall we?

Our baseline 2015 numbers have shown that Anderson produced 66.92 tons of trash in a year, accounting for $4,349.80 in charges. The proportion we found in the waste audit should be consistent enough to apply to a year's worth of data.

If we only threw away what cannot be composted or recycled, we would throw away 16.73 tons of waste in a year. This would cost us $1,087.45 in charges, so the savings could be as high as $3,200 per year.

What's the real proportion of waste?

The finding that 25% of Anderson waste is landfill-bound is actual an underestimate, since we're not accounting for recycling that ended up in the recycling bins. Using campus-wide numbers that we recycle 15% of our waste, we'll assume that if 66.92 tons of trash came from Anderson, 11.81 tons of recycling came from Anderson.

That 25% of waste drops to 21% when we factor in recycling. This lines up well with estimates that say 75% or more of all waste is recyclable or compostable.

Beyond Anderson 

The proportion of compostable waste may be a lot smaller in buildings that don't deal with as much food as Anderson does. However, we also assumed that Anderson's percentage of compostable waste would be much smaller. Once we introduce composting in the Anderson center, we should conduct waste audits of other buildings on campus to see where there is a need.

Klas is a good place to start since it has a Subway. All bathrooms on campus would benefit from compost bins for paper towels. The dorms and apartments might be good candidates for composting as well. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Peopleing of the Planet

Edward Hessler

Gee, it was only yesterday, a mere 100,000 ybp, that humans began leaving their homelands on the vast and diverse continent that we know as Africa today.

I wonder what they considered as they moved from old, familiar territory to new and unfamiliar territory. Three things they had is found in Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go: You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go....

Consequences, intended and unintended were likely not part of their personal equation, not that we've changed that much since that yesterday. They moved, though, in search of a better life.

Wikimedia Commons

And now we are 7 billion + and growing, a number that is large enough that it challenges understanding. So how did this happen?

A data visualization from the American Museum of Natural History doesn't help too much in grasping the large number that represents our population. It does, though, show how the planet was populated based on the current evidence. And you can see how millions add up, contributing to helping us grab a very large number. I was surprised at times to see population centers of a million that I'd either not known about or forgotten.

The visualization includes some of the large, historical events that allowed this growth as well as contributed to its acceleration.

It may be seen here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Friday Poem

Image result for kid

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Mark Doty's "Brian Age Seven" is today's poem.

You may learn more about him here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Environmental Studies Field Trips: Hennepin Energy Recovery Center

CGEE Student Voice
Environmental Studies Field Trip Series
Waste Diversion
by Jenni Abere

This week, my class took our final trip to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, a waste-to-energy plant and controversial incinerator, commonly called HERC. After spending some time in the zero waste and environmental justice movements this summer, I had a negative view of HERC. I had seen the higher rates of asthma and respiratory ailments in north Minneapolis, where the wind carries smoke from HERC. I had held the belief that landfilling and incinerating are equally bad, it's just a matter of whether you want to pollute your water or your air.

But, I went into the tour and the presentation ready to keep an open mind.

HERC processes roughly 365,000 tons of waste per year, most of this waste from Minneapolis, and the rest from Suburban areas in the county. In 2015, this constituted about 30% of the total waste produced in Hennepin County. Nearly half of the total waste was recycled. The county aims to increase recycling rates and its new organics composting program in order to reduce the amount of waste that is incinerated. One-third of waste produced in the county is organic waste, so composting has a lot of potential.

Waste-to-energy facilities are preferred by state law over direct landfilling, and there are some comparative benefits:

  • Burning reduces the volume of waste by 90%.
  • Ash is sent to a landfill for incinerator ash only, which reduces the harm from leachate.
  • Landfill gasification is an even less efficient way to produce energy than waste incineration. 
  • HERC has fewer air emissions than most landfills, since one-third of the facility is devoted to air quality control measures. 

Perhaps one of the better arguments for incineration, is that it's a local operation. Landfilling often requires trucking trash to other states or even countries, which obviously has a huge environmental impact. But this means that the environmental and health impacts of incineration are also local.

How HERC Operates

After the waste is dumped on the tipping floor, operators pull out large items that would be harmful if burned, such as large appliances. These are recycled if possible, but otherwise landfilled. Waste is burned to produce steam, and the steam turns turbines to produce energy, like a typical power plant. However, as we learned from talking to the operators, waste is a very unstable fuel. It can be, literally, anything -- and sometimes the material is wet, which of course doesn't burn well. Some WTE facilities grind up the waste first to create a smoother burn, but HERC doesn't do this.

A truck tipping, and the huge crane carrying waste to the chute that feeds the incinerator.

HERC produces enough energy for 25,000 homes, and contributes steam heating to Minneapolis buildings. Some excess heat goes to the adjacent lightrail station, to heat the ground so that salting and shoveling is not needed.

As was repeatedly stated during the presentation, one-third of HERC is air quality and pollution control. This includes:

  • injecting urea to control NOx
  • scrubbers
  • a magnet to remove metals from ash (*the metal is then recycled)
  • fabric filters to catch fly ash
*The metal that is captured is typically not steel cans, or other easily recyclable metals (aluminum, for instance, burns), but metal that is inside of other things, such as small electronics. Of course, recycling your electronics through a reputable recycler is the best option. 

A pie-graph revealed that HERC constitutes 0.2% of county air emissions. (I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a small amount, since none of the comparisons were single operations.)

Thoughts on Waste-to-Energy

Hennepin county certainly doesn't want to incinerate so much waste, and they have done more than a lot of places to reduce waste. Organics composting is a big step in the right direction, and their current recycling rate is quite good.

My main issue with WTE is the green-washing. This is one of the dirtiest and least efficient energy sources, but it too often gets packaged as a renewable energy source. This assumes that egregious amounts of waste have to exist. It almost incentivizes the existence of waste because, hey, we can burn it and get a little bit of energy. 

After spending three days this week digging through garbage on my campus, it's clear that most of this waste doesn't have to be waste. Much of it is recyclable or compostable. The fraction that is left could be redesigned so that it's not waste.

Recycling saves three times more energy than incineration produces, and a lot of compostable waste, such as food waste, is wet and doesn't burn that well anyway. 

Our guide at HERC was aware of this problem. They know that a lot of what they're burning could have been recycled or composted or reused. But the interesting part is that they place the responsibility completely on individuals. It was repeatedly said that for HERC to slow or stop its operations, people need to stop throwing away so much stuff.

I definitely think that individual's actions can have a big impact, but after completing this waste audit it's clear that that's only a small piece of the puzzle. Institutional changes will always have broader impacts. At our campus, we saw that people are generally pretty good at putting the right stuff in the recycling bin. But those items typically don't end up being recycled because of institutional policies and workflow problems. 

Besides, the consumer doesn't always have a choice in what trash they produce. Most packaging is not designed to be recycled or composted, and there's only so much consumers can do about that. For Hamline students, food options are limited. If you want to eat, you're going to be producing a lot of waste. 

I worry that placing the blame on individuals might be missing the point when companies produce so much more waste than an individual ever could. I realized this weekend that even though I always bring a reusable cup to Starbucks, if they don't compost their coffee grounds and recycle their milk cartons, I can't really pretend that I'm reducing waste. 

I'm glad that I got to tour this facility that I had previously only heard about in the context of #ShutItDown. I'm now leaning toward the opinion that incineration is preferable to direct landfilling. 

However, I still think that WTE represents a harmful way of thinking about waste, because it assumes its existence and it isn't nearly as resourceful as recycling and composting. Burning these materials is a huge waste of resources for a tiny return of energy. In the Twin Cities, local governments including Ramsey County have invested heavily in Waste to Energy facilities: money that may be better spent on clean renewable energy or recycling and composting efforts. 

There's no easy solution to the problem of waste (or energy for that matter), but large scale incineration is not part of a sustainable future. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hamline University Waste Audit: Initial Insights

CGEE Student Voice
Campus Sustainability
Waste Diversion
by Jenni Abere

This weekend, students and faculty at Hamline conducted a comprehensive waste audit of the Anderson Center, the student center and main building on campus.

For three days, all waste produced in the building was weighed, sorted (trash, recycling, and compost), and then weighed again. We took note of where different bags of trash were produced in the building (for example, first floor versus second floor). This data will help us as we begin to implement organics composting in Anderson.

I was hoping that the waste audit would also help us demonstrate the need for composting. The future of this project was looking a little iffy, as we realized that since the majority of food waste in the building goes to pigs, the rest of compostable waste is mainly paper towels and napkins -- things that don't weigh much, so the financial savings and environmental impact from composting here may be minimal.

However, to me composting is an opportunity to switch from plastic disposables to compostable products. It's meaningless to have Catering and Dining Services start using compostable plates and cups if we don't have composting pickup.

Here are a few insights from the waste audit, based on my observations from three days. When the data gets processed, I'll have a follow-up post with some numbers.

1. Very little from Anderson recycling bins actually gets recycled.

This is for two reasons.

One, the recycling room is a floor below the loading dock, so it seems most bags from recycling bins get thrown directly into the dumpster, headed straight to the landfill. Many bags we opened from the trash dumpster were filled entirely with recyclable items -- it was easy to figure out what had happened.

Putting recycling and trash receptacles in the same room and making them both easily accessible to workers is an important first step to solve this problem.

Two, even the bags of recycling that end up in the right place are processed incorrectly. Yes, I did say "bags of recycling." The recycling often gets tied up tightly in a plastic garbage bag, so even if it's heading to the recycling plant, nothing in there will ever get recycled.

Hamline's new head chef stopped by while we were working on this bag. He told us that it looks
like scrapings from the dish room. If you don't scrape your plate into the correct bins, some one
else has to do it. And they don't have the time to sort correctly, so everything goes to waste.

Needless to say, this was hands-down the grossest bag I sorted in all three days.

2. Half-full beverages and liquids are a real problem.

Not only is it really gross (particularly that half-full carton of Eggnog that leaked all over my shoes) and disrespectful to sanitation workers to put liquids into the trash, it actually costs us money. Liquids are the heaviest thing in the trash, and we pay for throwing things away based on weight.

Another common problem was bags of ice from athletes -- that had become, naturally, bags of water. Heavy, expensive, and unnecessary.

The other issue was that a lot of these half-full cartons and bottles should have been in the recycling bin -- after being emptied at a sink, or even, finished by the people who paid for the drinks.

3. Composting constituted the most waste by weight. 

A lot of food waste was actually escaping the food waste bins, and the theory that lightweight paper wouldn't make a difference seems to be proven wrong. The paper is often wet, so that can make a big difference in weight.

We consistently found after sorting, that compostable waste constituted the largest chunk by weight.

4. Day-old food from Starbucks and the C-Store.

This was probably the most depressing thing to find: Nearly pristine muffins, cookies, and sandwiches from Starbucks. A lot of salads and sandwiches, still wrapped up.

From the C-Store, there were cans of soup that were possibly a day or two over -- but still, in cans. There were boxes upon boxes of Hostess treats that likewise, probably never expire. Also, inexplicably, a bottle of shampoo, still sealed.

Happy Holidays! from the garbage.
Still sealed: five sandwiches, two salads, and Eggnog. 

The food shelf I used to volunteer at in high school received boxes of day-old treats from a Starbucks. Good Samaritan laws mean that we can't be sued for donating food, which is a common myth. Looking into donating the food that is still good is the best option. If something is truly expired, or, like meat, possibly no longer safe, then composting can fill the gap.

5. Back-of-house recycling is not working.

There is clearly a problem with the workflow that is making it difficult for recycling to happen back-of-house in Anderson, both at Starbucks and the Bistro. We rescued countless milk cartons from the trash over the weekend. Several trash bags from Starbucks were filled mostly with cartons, but the presence of coffee grounds alerted us that this was not a misplaced recycling bag. This needs to be sorted out before we implement composting.

As the data gets processed, I will write a follow-up post with some of the numbers.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fossil Exhibit

Image result for fossil

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

The December exhibit at St. Paul's Smallest Museum is now open for viewing from the street.

MINI DINOSAUR FOSSILS features some work of Macalester College's paleontologist Kristi Curry Rogers.

Read a little about these little fossils here and here.