Unifying Theory of Geology Class

Erin Parker

The last quarter of a school year is often the most challenging- for both students and teachers. The end is in sight, but we still have a lot of content to cover. School activities ramp up- prom, Advanced Placement tests, field trips, awards ceremonies, senior brunch, and, for staff, professional development and planning for summer and the next academic year. All of these extra-curriculars mean working even harder in class to keep kids engaged with the content and learning that still has to happen- even if the weather is gorgeous and weekend plans are filling everyone’s heads.

This is the quarter that I teach about plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and mountain building- all interrelated topics and also with a high “wow” factor. In the Midwest, where earthquakes and eruptions are well, virtually non-existent, we have to figure out ways to bring all of these things into the classroom.

To begin, the students map the locations of about 40 earthquakes and another 40 volcanoes on a world map. Some students finish in minutes, quite comfortable with latitude and longitude, but many struggle with coordinates. Many of them don’t know the continents by sight or name, which makes understanding (or even noticing) patterns difficult and thinking about the crustal plates even more challenging. What I like about the mapping activity is that is lays a foundation for everything else that we do for the quarter. If the idea of plate tectonics is the unifying theory of the science of geology, then this mapping activity is the unifying assignment of high school earth science. We reference it almost daily- hammering home where the boundaries are, how they interact, and what happens when they move in various ways.

I typically start class with a warm-up question (the idea being that it gets my students in to learning mode faster- pencil and notebook out, in their seats, etc. as soon as the bell rings). By the third week of plate tectonics-related assignments, my students can often chant their answers in unison “Convergent!” or “Subduction” rolls off their collective tongues. But even better, is that they have internalized enough of the background information to come up with great questions of their own. This is the time of year that class discussion seems most possible- because earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and other huge natural disasters are fascinating and horrifying to everyone, and because the major quakes in Japan, Haiti, and Chile reside in the recent memory of even my least-engaged students, it is easy to hook them into figuring out why things happen and where they happen and to really put the pieces of the geologic puzzle together.

I see students “getting” the bigger picture of geology during this quarter- the slow process of laying foundational and background knowledge (What is the earth made up of? How does it work? How do we know?) leads to a pay off this time of year. The kids that finish out the semester really have learned something, and I like to believe, connected enough dots in their mental map of the world that they won’t easily forget it.

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A noble cause: Repairing Wikipedia’s Geology articles

Tim Sherry

Wikipedia can be a great first stop when beginning research. Mainly it is a great first stop if the article is well cited. Wikipedia can lead you to top scientific papers on a subject. However, if an article is incomplete, poorly cited, or wrong it can not only be useless, but also point you in the wrong direction.

Recently a grip (I love using that word) of Geology Wikipedia articles got repaired, improved, and/or written. This past semester I was a teaching assistant for an upper division Tectonics course taught by Christie Rowe. One of the assignments for the students was the Wikipedia Repair Project. This gave students in the course an opportunity to help other geology students, because chances are the first Google search result is going to be a Wikipedia article.

  • The assignment had students pick an article that needed work.
  • Either save or print the article and mark it up.
  • Do the necessary research.
  • Edit (improve) the article offline.
  • Submit the original and edited versions to the TA correcting the assignment.

The TA then graded the assignment with the grade gave one of the following recommendations:

  • Edit the online Wikipedia article with the new and improved version.
  • Make minor edits and edit the online version.
  • Major edits then modify the online version after re-submission and approval.
  • Or… do not modify the Wikipedia article.

The student’s grade was not finalized until the followed the recommendation.

Now it’s time to get your readin’ on. Here’s a list of the articles that made the final cut and have been updated:

For profs who are interested in implementing a similar assignment in their courses here is a pdf of the assignment sheet.

What geo-wikipedia articles are lacking? This could be a fun project for the blogosphere, though maybe we should leave some articles for the undergrads.

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Glaciations and ruminations

Erin Parker

The Midwest is not known for its obvious geologic charms- the highest point in Wisconsin, for example, is Timm’s Hill, which only stretches 1,951 feet above sea level. Wisconsin landscapes lack the breathtaking scenery of snow-capped mountains or the alien beauty of sculpted desert sandstones. But poking around in the Midwest’s lush woods and fields allows one to discover some interesting geologic stories that are just as interesting, if not as obvious.
Wisconsin was shaped by ice. The last glacial advances in Wisconsin (roughly 35,000-11,500 years ago), carved out lakes and deposited till throughout much of the state. The city of Madison sits on an isthmus between two glacial lakes in one of the flattest parts of the region. To the southwest is the Driftless Area, left untouched by the last rounds of ice cover and today full of winding rivers and steep hills- known for farms, trout fishing streams, and great back-roads biking. To the east is the Kettle-Moraine, a sprawling state park of potholes and hills, famous for mountain bike trails.
And, to the north of Madison is the Baraboo Range, a metamorphic quartzite string of bluffs that rise up, surprisingly, out of the surrounding flat farmlands. Devil’s Lake State Park preserves some of the ancient range for present-day enjoyment, and while the bluffs themselves are significantly older than the last ice age, remnants of glacial activity survive in the scars scratched into the remaining rocks. Hiking the bluffs gives interested geology students glimpses into various segments of Earth’s past.

The cliffs themselves, popular with rock climbers, probably formed in the Proterozoic (nearly two billion years ago) and are some of the oldest exposed rocks in Wisconsin. Carved by the pre-glacial channel of the Wisconsin River that was then dammed up by glacial moraines creating Devil’s Lake, the hard quartzite survived the scouring and scraping of the rock-filled ice that uncovered them. The glacial remnants atop the cliffs and nestled in the woods alongside them show evidence of some of the most recent geologic history of the area- perhaps lacking the grandeur of the Rockies or the Alps, but certainly an interesting juxtaposition of geologic time. The Baraboo Range and the park are also home to many effigy mounds, created by early residents of Wisconsin that have also shaped the landscape, though certainly with more purpose than the glaciers.

On Sunday, I hiked the bluffs (roughly 3.5 miles round trip) with about a dozen students. We’ll be heading out on a backpacking trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and this was both a pre-trip shakedown hike to see how their gear worked and how it felt to carry a heavy pack along a trail, and also a chance to develop a sense of place. Most of the kids had been to the park before, many of them many times. But I always hope that in the preparation to travel south for a week of hiking in the Appalachians, the students start to absorb the differences in topography, terrain, and ecology. The stories that the rocks tell in North Carolina and Tennessee will be more meaningful when we understand the geologic tales told here. Much as glaciers shaped our current landscapes here, the geology of a region can shape the ecology, the terrain, and the human history of a place as well…

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Fun with low Reynolds number Flows

Tim Sherry

EDIT: Seems to be some trouble with embedding YouTube videos. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Last week the Tectonics class I’m TAing had an extra “throwaway” lecture. We decided to let the students build their own experiments to gain some intuition about Low Reynolds number flows, and what the Reynolds number means.

First we showed them a video produced by the National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films which was an awesome NSF funded project to develop and film these complex and/or expensive experiments (which can be found on YouTube).

One of my favorite aspects of flow is the phenomenon of low Reynolds number flows. Low Reynolds number flows are flows where inertia plays only a small roll.

The Reynolds number is a dimensionless number that can be characterized as:

Re = (Density * Length * Velocity) / Viscosity

or…

Re = Inertia / Viscosity.

Generally if the Reynolds number is below 2000 the flow is laminar, greater than 2000 the flow is turbulent.

To tie it to geology we helped the students work through an order of magnitude calculation of mantle viscosity. Try it for yourself: Density = 3300 kg/m^3, Length = 3 X 10^6 m, Velocity = 1 cm/yr, Viscosity = 10^21 Pas. What do you get? Is the mantle a turbulent or laminar flow?

After the video we gave the students a set of ingredients and beakers to play with: canola oil, molasses, water, food coloring, and glycerin. Fun fact about glycerin, the pharmacy only sells small bottles and employees will give you VERY strange looks when you ask for a liter of the stuff.

Here are the experiments the students came up with. You’ll here conversation about flows, mantle winds, and non-school stuff in the background.

First up we have molasses poured into glycerin:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wrrb0craGg&feature=relmfu

and a small amount of molasses…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-9LuanrGm0&feature=relmfu

My favorite: a two layer system. Bottom layer is glycerin and top layer is oil.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOooexv9FkM&feature=relmfu

And a turbulent flow for good measure…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBPymM4AXDg&list=UUa52EAV_nf220zpmyoOmeGQ&index=1&feature=plcp

Some things to take away from the student’s experiments: our containers were too small in height for the low Reynolds number plumes to fully develop before hitting the bottom. This would also require much more glycerin, and more weird looks.

And for fun here’s a video I found of a low Reynolds number (~1000) vortex ring collision. Science is so sexy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJk8ijAUCiI

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Science Standards- earth and space science

Erin Parker

“Science, Earth and Space, Performance Standards E Grade 12

By the end of grade twelve, students will:
ENERGY IN THE EARTH SYSTEM
E. 12.1 Using the science themes*, distinguish between internal energies* (decay of radioactive isotopes, gravity) and external energies (sun) in the earth’s systems and show* how these sources of energy have an impact on those systems
GEOCHEMICAL CYCLES
E.12.2 Analyze* the geochemical and physical cycles of the earth and use them to describe* movements of matter
THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF THE EARTH SYSTEM
E.12.3 Using the science themes*, describe* theories of the origins and evolution* of the universe and solar system, including the earth system* as a part of the solar system, and relate* these theories and their implications to geologic time on earth
E.12.4 Analyze* the benefits, costs, and limitations of past, present, and projected use of resources and technology and explain* the consequences to the environment
THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF THE UNIVERSE
E.12.5 Using the science themes*, understand* that the origin of the universe is not completely understood, but that there are current ideas in science that attempt to explain its origin”
-From Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction science standards for grades 4, 8, and 12: http://dpi.wi.gov/standards/sciintro.html

I thought it might be interesting to look at an example of the state standards set for teaching science content- because I teach high school, I selected the standards for grade 12 (the other standards are for grades 4 and 8). The earth and space standards above are one of eight sets for science in Wisconsin. As you can see, they are both broad and vague- and apply not only to geology and oceanography/limnology (both courses that I currently teach) but also astrophysics and meteorology (the other one-semester earth science offerings, taught by colleagues of mine in the building). The asterisks indicate links to definitions or examples provided by the Department of Public Instruction, and accessible from the link above.

To be fair, Wisconsin is one of many places taking a critical look at science education and what goals we have for the development of scientifically literate citizens. Our new state standards will be unveiled officially in January of 2013, and will most likely include many more specific, process-oriented goals like the ability to create and interpret graphs.

In the meantime, I have to admit that I rarely utilize the current standards when I’m creating content or new lesson plans. I think everything we do in geology fits under these rather all-encompassing objectives. As there are not really any specifics according to the state standards, I use these loose goals along with more specific overarching themes in geology and oceanography to develop my course content. Utilizing the practice of “backwards design”, where you think through the end goals of learning and then work backwards to fill in the day-to-day content, I’ve gotten to a place where I feel like the substance of each class has a narrative thread, hits on big ideas and works in some science skills (back to those graphs!). But because the standards are so general, I could change my content substantially each semester and have students still meeting those vague ideals.

Part of the challenge- and definitely part of the joy- of education is the “art” of teaching. How do you create lessons to meet the needs of your students, to push them to learn and to connect ideas, to meet state or school standards, to help them succeed on mandated tests, and foster a sense of wonder, engagement, and inquiry all at the same time? While I think our current state standards are too generalized to be particularly useful in creating classroom materials, I also believe that moving towards a system where the standards are too specific won’t be any more useful. It is only my 3rd year in the classroom (discounting a particularly challenging year where I was a substitute teacher in every grade level in our district!) and I know that while my content knowledge has deepened, it is my teaching practice that has changed most dramatically. I would hate to lose the autonomy of bringing my own ideas about how to develop, present, and evaluate content for my students.

What should come from the global, national, state, and local discourses around public education? What do “good” science standards look like? How do we make these standards applicable to today’s students and the scientifically literate society we hope to achieve? How do we create standards that are challenging and appropriate for evaluating student skill but still respect and encourage the art of teaching and the development of teachers as professionals?

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Making it relevant

Erin Parker

I suspect that every teacher has heard “why do we have to learn this, anyway”? about their subject material. I struggle with how to answer this question from my students- kids who likely won’t pursue any further science education beyond high school. How do I make geology relevant and engaging enough to help them become scientifically literate adults?

At the high school level, earth science classes tend to be seen by students and staff as easier or less rigorous than the other course offerings in science- a pathway to science credit for students that claim to hate science, or that weren’t successful in their freshmen year course. Thus, geology is populated with students that are disengaged from education, determined that they hate science, and often struggling socially with a wide spectrum of both academic and behavior problems. This is exacerbated by the fact that students who see themselves as high achieving don’t want to be in classes where security is called on a daily basis, or where I spend more of my time going over basic skills rather than getting to content- so few advanced students stick with earth science. The first weeks of a new semester is always a time of chaos- the kids learning my classroom rules, students dropping the course, students being placed in the course because they failed something else. Because there are no prerequisites, kids will show up (and be removed from) my roster for weeks into the semester- I’m frequently told that a student is joining my class for the rest of the semester because we need to “put them somewhere”. Clearly it isn’t just the kids who see geology as a lesser course.

Many of these kids will not have any further science education if they succeed in geology. I don’t have a lot of say in the science class pathway that students in our school take, but I wonder if earth science is the logical choice for struggling learners? Currently, all freshmen take biology, which earns them one of the two science credits that are required by the state to graduate. Most four-year-college-bound kids then take some combination of chemistry and physics during their sophomore and junior years, and then go on to take an elective credit or two during their senior year. This leaves geology and meteorology for the struggling kids- both courses difficult for different reasons, and neither as “simple” or “easy” as they are regarded.

The geology of Wisconsin is fascinating- from the ancient Keweenawan rift to the rich history of glaciations. But much of this history is hidden from my students beneath farms, fields, strip malls, and parking lots. They do not have a sense of being surrounded by or shaped by geology, despite our city’s location on an isthmus between glacial lakes. And, as they’re only too happy to tell me, “Rocks are boring.” While I disagree with them about the rocks, I’m not sure how to move them past their disengagement.

I make an attempt to build skills into the content of geology- creating and interpreting graphs, looking at and understanding maps; reading*, writing, and communicating in science. But how to make the curriculum relevant? I’d like to re-frame my lessons through the lens of problem solving- but I’m not entirely sure what that looks like in the context of geology. An example of this might be using conflict minerals to anchor our minerals unit- show clips from the movie Blood Diamond, read articles about coltan mining, and then have the kids learn about minerals from a human rights angle. Another idea would be to use the controversies over hydraulic fracturing to teach about mining, groundwater, and mineral/water rights. It isn’t that I don’t incorporate local and global issues now, but that the kids still struggle to connect with the material in any meaningful way.

What other problems or issues can I use to frame the important concepts in geology? What should students know leaving a one-semester introductory course on geology? What should they know about science when they complete high school, especially these students of mine who most likely won’t complete any further education in science after high school? I have flexibility with what and how I teach the course- I’d welcome thoughts on what people wish students learned, or how I could better connect the content to my students.

*I’ll save my attempts at teaching reading, writing, and communicating in science for another post.

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Please don’t lick the specimens…

Erin Parker

Like many high school science teachers*, I have a bachelors degree in science and then I went back to school to add my teaching certifications** after a few years of working. My own BS is in ecology and environmental science, though I took multiple courses in earth sciences before I added the earth and space science certification that allows me to teach both geology and oceanography in the classroom today. I draw on the diversity of experience (and coursework) that I had in my content area to teach, and often shake my head at what I didn’t learn in my teacher education program.

I didn’t learn that, like many parents, that I would find myself saying things that I wouldn’t have believed possible before working with students. We started our unit on minerals last week, and the phrase (uttered with increasing frustration each time) “Please don’t lick the specimens” has come out of my mouth more times than I can count. I’m used to it by now, in my fifth semester of teaching geology- the first time I saw a student pick up one of our much-handled minerals and put it in his mouth, I was horrified. Now, I usually just remind them about cold and flu season and wipe it down with an alcohol wipe. (While taste may be a completely valid tool for identification of some rocks and minerals in the field, it doesn’t really work for our classroom sets of minerals being handled and mishandled by 150 students each semester).

I didn’t learn that my worldview, and the worldview of the average fifteen-year-old boy would be completely at odds with one another. I had one of those rude-awakening phone calls on Friday after the school day was officially over. One of our assistant principals had a student in her office because he’d made a bomb threat. It turns out, he’d taken one of my model volcanoes and told someone it was a bomb. These volcanoes are a simple plaster cup-shaped mound filled with crayon shavings and a wick, that when lit, slowly melts the crayon and you get a slow, oozy volcanic event…an event so non-eruptive, so non-exciting to the average geology student, that I stopped using these models for class demonstrations, because the kids were perpetually disappointed with the results.

On the positive side, I also didn’t learn how excited you would be about student successes. I gave my oceanography students a pile of materials- test tubes, food coloring, salt, scales, thermometers, ice, hot water, etc and asked them to demonstrate to me the effects of salinity and temperature on the density of water. After struggling for a while- What do mean, there aren’t directions for this?? – I heard some of the most incredible dialog around the nature of science, inquiry, and how scientists set up experiments. I was so proud that I wanted to frame some of their explanations- and it wasn’t pride that they all eventually achieved the end result that I expected.

There is a lot more to being a teacher than simply knowing the content, though certainly that is critical. The art of teaching is something that I’m not sure can be learned except on the job- in the daily interactions with kids, with content, with our colleagues. Certainly, I feel that my own practice is getting better with time (now I begin the minerals unit by asking the kids not to put the specimens in their mouths!), though there is always room for improvement (hide the model volcanoes, give the students more room to develop their own inquiry into science). Luckily, it’s a pretty fascinating process for the most part.

* I have no statistical evidence of this, only anecdotal, but I suspect more secondary science teachers receive their BS before going into teacher education programs. Of my own 13-member science department, at least half of us have a content-area bachelors degree (and many a content-area masters as well) along with our teaching credentials.
** In many states, you are simply certified as a “science teacher” for secondary science, no matter what your undergraduate focus. In Wisconsin, each field has its own certificate and those certifications determine what we are able to teach at the high school level. For example, I have my biology, earth and space, and “broadfield” science licenses, and am 1 credit short of my environmental science license. I cannot, therefore, teach upper level physics and chemistry courses. I am also licensed to teach in Colorado, which simply grants one a “Science” certification- there I would technically be qualified to teach any science class.

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Radioactive

Erin Parker

“Whoa! Ms. Parker, is that uranium?” one of my students shouts at me as he enters the room after lunch, eyeing the beakers of yellow liquid on the front table.

Students don’t seem to struggle with relative dating- stratigraphy, at least in the simplistic form that we use in class, makes sense. The laws of geology are intuitive in relative dating- layers are laid down in horizontal lines (the law of original horizontality), the processes that erode or change rock formations happen gradually, slowly, over huge amounts of time (law of uniformitarianism) rather than in abrupt events; older layers are underneath younger layers (law of superposition); that layers need to exist before magma can ooze up into cracks and form intrusions (law of cross cutting). Relative dating can be modeled in the classroom fairly easily, too, with paper models and with field sketches.

Relative dating doesn’t get at specific ages. Relative dating tells you how old something is in comparison to something else- rock layer A is older than rock layer B which is older than rock layer C. I use the example that it is like using obvious signs to determine that I am older than a particular student, but we don’t yet know exactly how old I am.

Relative dating and the laws are fun to teach, I like having the kids create their own construction-paper stratigraphy columns for their science notebooks. They compare rock formations from around Wisconsin and use index fossils and other features to correlate their rock layers from site to site. Everyone, teacher and student, gets to feel some success with the concepts of relative dating.

And then comes absolute dating. The principles of radioactive decay and half lives are much more complicated, and a lot more difficult to model effectively in lab. Many of my students have not taken any chemistry, and so the idea of isotopes isn’t within their working vocabulary or knowledge base.

The labs we do around the radioactive decay process might include popping popcorn- the kernels pop, but we can’t predict which individual kernel will pop at any particular moment…and once they’ve popped, they don’t ever return to “kernel” form. We also try shaking a set number of pennies- each “shake” of the box represents a half life and they remove the flipped pennies until none remain. They graph their results and we look at what happens through time.

The “uranium” in question was, indeed, colored water in beakers. This is our third day working with the concepts of absolute time. The kids poured out half of the water into a dry beaker with some drink mix powder in the bottom causing the yellow parent isotope in the original beaker to “decay into” a red daughter isotope in the second beaker. They had a “half life” for their isotopes, graphed the results, and answered some analysis questions about their decay process.

The goal is to get students to understand that radioactive decay happens naturally, spontaneously, and at constant rates that aren’t changed by the processes of the rock cycle (heat, time, pressure); and that half lives for different isotopes can be used to determine the ages of different materials. But sometimes I think that the kids see these models – popcorn, pennies, Koolaid- as being completely separate from the geological concepts we’re aiming for. How does food coloring and water help us determine how long ago a massive extinction event occurred?

It turns out that the kids, of course, understand the concepts on a variety of levels. Some of them are clear on what we modeled, and can explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the models. They can draw parallels between rocks and popcorn. Many of them at least understand that the graphs of the decay process are always similar, even if they don’t completely understand isotopes and exponential equations. If their understanding of why we graphed pennies in a box is a little shaky, they are able to explain that decay happens in a measured way and that somehow scientists use that to attach dates to events and organism.

Much like geologists choosing different isotopes depending on which rock/fossil/time period that they are interested in, my students take different depths of understanding with them depending on their background knowledge and the time and effort that they put into the course.

Turns out that both radioactive decay and high school students can be considered spontaneous and unpredictable. I just hope all of them are clear that we didn’t, in fact, really get to use uranium in class last week…

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Bedrock

Erin Parker

Bedrock (noun): 1) Solid rock underlying loose deposits such as soil or alluvium

2) The fundamental principles on which something is based

It is the third week of the semester, and one of my unruliest classes of high school students is struggling with geologic time. It’s immense and intense and I dared ask them to do some calculations along with the vocabulary. They’ve already worked their way through a version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar activity, where they’ve crunched all of time from the Big Bang to the present day into one year.

Today, I’ve handed out props with rough dates attached, and asked the class to physically arrange themselves in order of appearance in the fossil record- a stuffed black plague microbe stands in for the first life-forms; a plastic Buzz Lightyear represents modern humans. After I separate the monkey (representing first mammals) from the dinosaur (representing dinosaurs, but intent upon the destruction of everything in his path; note to self, next semester, hand the dinosaur to a quiet, calm student), the kids arrange themselves in a straight line, equally spaced from one end of the chalkboard to the other. Here is where it gets tough, when I ask the remaining kids to “fix” the line.

“Amphibians came before reptiles!” shouts one student, and the classmate holding the tree frog’s terrarium obligingly switches places in line. A few more shuffles, and the sequence of fossil emergence is in rough time order. The kids are still in an equally spaced line, however, and I’m still waiting for someone to realize that the formation of the Earth and the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere shouldn’t be able to hold hands.

Welcome to the world of high school earth science- I teach 10th -12th grade students, and it’s a diverse bunch. Strangely, the vast majority of students that are enrolled in my geology class are not excited to be there on the first day. They whine and complain about being forced to learn about rocks. By the time they leave, I like to think that the same majority have both come to some scientific and geologic understandings, and enjoyed themselves along the way.

Along with the typical struggles of public education, high school geology is routinely treated as a dumping grounds by school counseling staff and, to a lesser extent, colleagues, for students who desperately need science credit and are seen as being problematic, lacking in foundation skills, and have been generally unsuccessful in science in the past. This makes the teaching of earth science particularly difficult- how do you manage disengaged students with challenging behaviors and inspire them to connect with geology content? How do you keep the subject matter relevant, rigorous, and robust while working within the reality that many of my students can’t read at grade level and need not just foundational science skills, but foundational life skills?

I don’t know the answers, but I am certainly trying to make geology and oceanography come alive for my kids. My contributions to Earth Science Erratics will focus on my challenges and successes connecting students to earth science, and my own occasional sojourns into the realm of field geology.

Oh, and the geologic timeline? A student finally recognized that by placing themselves in front of the chalkboard in such an evenly-spaced line, they were throwing off the scale of both geologic and biological events. Everyone grudgingly squashed together towards the classroom door marked ‘present day’ and we re-emphasized the immensity of the time that had occurred since the formation of the earth to the first appearance of well, Buzz Lightyear.

I like to set the stage during the first week of geology by opening with really big questions about how the Earth formed and what it took before we could be sitting here in fifth hour, pondering our place in time. Geologic time and Earth’s fossil history form the bedrock of the course, placed firmly beneath our metaphorical feet, allowing students to have a frame of reference for everything else we cover. Now, if only I could keep the dinosaur and the monkey apart from one another…

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WEFTEC 2011 – Day 3: the beginning?

Will Dalen Rice

The third in a series reporting on the Water Environment Federation’s annual technology conference. Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

Monday was, for many people, the first day of the conference. That being the case, the first agenda item of the day was the opening general session. This was held in one of the largest halls at the facility in LA. I was sitting so far back, I was having trouble seeing the giant screen, which was projecting what was happening on stage, which was basically in a different zip code. Regardless of that issue, the audio reached me and got me excited about water.

The initial welcome was put forth by LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He talked a little about how LA was innovatively tackling the issues of so many people in such a small space with water being a strained resource. He talked about the massive amount of water being treated, wastewater being moved and cleaned, and the stormwater also coupled into the cycle. The first motto of the conference was “we believe in clean water.”

Next, Jeanette Brown (immediate past president) came out on-stage to recognize everyone involved in WEF, the WEFTEC organizers and board members, as well as various prize winners in the water-based arena. She then introduced Jeff Eger, the new president. One of his first acts was to present the “Water’s Worth It” Campaign. This is the new initiative by which everyone in the water industry can unify and reaffirm the importance of what is done. It’s a WEF logo and slogan, but more important, it is meant to be a unifying, identifiable symbol that everyone can get behind to place more value in what is really the most valuable resource we have.

With the official-type business out of the way, the two keynote speakers began. First, there was Dr. Rita Colwell. She has spent significant parts of her life studying water, child mortality, and Cholera. She found a strong correlation between copepod presence and Cholera bacteria presence. The zooplankton (copepods) are often carriers of the Cholera bacteria, and provide a sort of host for the Cholera bacteria to thrive and spread. Since the zooplankton is related to the phytoplankton population (food source), and phytoplankton population is related to rainfall and measurable by chlorophyll quantitative analysis, Cholera could be correlated with weather phenomena and further predicted via weather models. Dr. Colwell’s computer models ended up being very effective in predicating Cholera behavior given a specific location and weather analysis. Academically, her work was done at this point. She went beyond this though, asking “What can be done now that we know where and when it is going to happen?” Focusing on a region of Bangladesh, she experimented with filtration for water sources. In this highly populated, very wet region of the world, water sources often double as sanitation transport, and vice versa. Water quality is very low, especially with a large population of impoverished people. Luckily, the copepods are very large organisms, and through crude filtration, they can be eliminated. Sari cloth ended up being the local, most easily attainable option for copepod filtration. With minor training and experimentation, they found that their “Sari Filter” experimental group had reduced instances of cholera by 50%. The filtration aspects of a piece of old Sari folded 4 or more times was all that was needed. They believed the percent of success may have been even larger, but was skewed lower due to mixing of control and filter test groups. Subsequently, returning many years later to the test area, they found the practice had been adopted further, and even more people were benefitting from this research. This is the kind of story that really creates excitement about getting out there and tinkering to solve our large scale problems. Science can lead to great things. But then again, great things can happen without science too.

Enter Doc Hendley, former bartender and musician, and current water non-profit champion. Doc came on stage after a great show of research and benefit from Dr. Colwell to tell us a more personal story. One day he woke up and decided that being a bartender and musician was no longer his road in life. He found out about the many people in this world who didn’t have clean water, and it surprised and shocked him. He didn’t know much about his own water much less water for the rest of the world and he had never questioned that the rest of the world wasn’t as fortunate as him. Like most of the public, he basically thought water was free and everywhere. Finding out that wasn’t true compelled him. So, he hosted a gathering and served wine to all his friends, attempting to raise money to help get water for people. He ended up raising more money than he had ever planned. Then, he was ready to hand that money over to Samaritan’s Purse so they could drill wells or whatever, but something strange happened. They said no. They told him to keep his money. They instead trained him in everything they knew about providing water, and sent him out into the world to spend the money on his own. This is where the story of Doc Hendley and Wine to Water began. Today they are working with locals all over the world, providing lower tech, hyper-local solutions to getting water. Whether its filtration, locally rigged machinery, or other simple and easy methods, Doc and his organization are filling in the gap between high-tech, expensive water exploration/ development and the absence of water altogether. He admitted that his engineering abilities were indeed non-existent and he implored the crowd to stop looking so hard, and to just start doing. Solutions exist and the need has never been greater. After hearing this guy speak, its hard not to quit my job and show up on his doorstep telling him I will follow wherever the water leads him.

Categories: Environment, Water