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Improv-ing Our Way of Communicating Science

13 Sep

If you’d stumbled into the right room of the theater building this spring, you might have been startled to see sixteen Smith faculty and staff staring fixedly at the floor, walking random circles around each another, in total silence, as if they’d gone mad.

You might have been more startled still to hear that those faculty were at that very moment practicing pioneering new methods to communicate scholarly and scientific work to the public.

The group, including myself, was taking part in a program brought to Smith by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, run out of Stony Brook University.  Founded by famed actor Alan Alda of M*A*S*H, the center brings workshops to academic institutions around the country.

Before founding the center, Alda had long taken an interest in science communication, hosting the Scientific American Frontiers program about popular science from 1993 to 2005.  In working with scientists for the show, he realized that many of them had no idea how to effectively talk to journalists, much less the public.

Scholars seldom have trained to reach broad audiences.  Normally, they work either alone or with other specialists, reporting their work to audiences of highly-trained peers and relying on technical jargon and complex detail to get their points across.

The theater exercises Alda had learned as a budding actor, he realized, could prove as formative and life-changing to scholars as to theater professionals.   Rooted in improvisation and collaboration, the exercises help teach participants how to create human connection.

With study after study showing that information alone can’t change minds, building that interpersonal rapport may prove as crucial to sharing knowledge as providing the facts.

“If what you’re worried about is how do I look, how do I sound, will I remember the hard words, am I saying this in exactly the right way, then you’re not really communicating.  You’re in your own head,” Alda has said, about what he hopes the techniques will change.

That’s how Smith faculty found ourselves walking around the room, first staring at the floor, then switching to looking each other in the eye, then saying our names as we looked at each other.

The exercise calls attention to the power of body language, too often ignored by scholars when reaching out to the public.  Focusing on how one’s body takes up space in a room can offer novel insights, especially from the vantage point of a career based on books, calculations or scientific instruments.

The workshop also emphasized the power of story to get information across to others.  Scholars’ personal experiences and memories, when shared, can humanize research, pointed out workshop leaders Radha and Elizabeth.

Alongside the theater exercises, the workshop participants created and presented our own short narratives of how we got into our areas of research, with some striking results.

Suzanne Gottschang, a medical anthropologist, described how as a Masters’ degree student in public health, she took a class on infant feeding.  While in the course, she happened to have four friends become pregnant at the same time.

In the middle of the night, one of those friends called her, in tears.  Within days, a second friend called, weeping about the same problem.  Both friends had given birth successfully but were struggling to breast-feed their new babies, who wouldn’t accept the breast no matter what they tried.

Both women felt like failures, like terrible mothers, like something was wrong with them.

“To women in the U.S., breastfeeding is presented as something natural and innate,” Gottschang said. But in her course, “we were learning that it’s learned behavior.  Both the mother and the baby have to learn.”

Her friends’ struggle combined with what she was learning in class, Gottschang said, kicked off thirty years of following research.  Now, she studies the commercializing of infant feeding in China.  Despite a huge campaign to encourage women to breastfeed, Chinese breastfeeding rates have been declining.  The contradictions in expectations that women experience during early motherhood, Gottschang explained, likely contribute to the decline, but they’re seldom talked about.

Stories like Gottschang’s create emotional connection, quickly making clear why her research matters – a far cry from simply reporting breastfeeding rates around the world.

Gottschang said the workshop offered her a welcome opportunity to think about reaching audiences in different ways.

“Looking for those connections, finding those, I think that was really profound, both on an individual level and with a larger audience,” she said.

The Alda techniques are likely to enter teaching practice across Smith campus.  For instance, I’ve used the improvisation and theater exercises with AEMES students, and will also be using a variety of the improv and storytelling techniques this year in ENV 311, an environmental communication class.

Several faculty have told me they plan to do the same, including Zhang-Gottschang and astronomy professor James Lowenthal, who helped bring the Alda program to Smith after attending a previous workshop.

From when I was a kid until I went to college, I performed yearly in a summer theater.  There, I remember the shyest young man I ever met, a nine-year-old whom I thought could never manage to overcome his fears to perform onstage.  He could barely look up from his feet.

Over our years at the theater, my friend became the most outgoing, vivacious, gracious person I can imagine.  I can’t prove the theater’s training created the change, but I’m convinced that’s what brought him out of his shell.

If the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science can reproduce even a fragment of that magic, lighting an extroverted spark within the famously reclusive academic disciplines, it’s worth looking like a madwoman for the day.

Attendees at the May workshop included Alexander Barron, Nathanael Fortune, Katherine Halvorsen, Suzanne Gottschang, Valerie Joseph, David Bickar, Greg White, Susan Sayre, Virginia Hayssen, Joanne Benkley, Michael Barresi, Patricia Mangan, Molly Falsetti-Yu, Jessica Bacal, and Amy Rhodes, and Naila Moreira.

 

-Naila Moreira is a nature and science writer and poet.  She teaches in the Environmental Science & Policy Program and English department, as well as in the Jacobson Center.  She likes birdwatching and ultimate frisbee, and has a fondness for offbeat critters like salamanders, katydids, bats and snakes.

Controlled Rot: Growing Mushrooms at MacLeish

27 Apr

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” goes the proverbial phrase used to encourage making the best of what one has. At the MacLeish Field Station we have lots of forest that provides much shade. So why not grow food that does not require full sun—such as mushrooms? In April, eight students spent an afternoon inoculating logs with both blue oyster and shitake mushroom spawn. Their work was part of an agroforestry demonstration project being established this year at the Field Station.

Alexandra Davis ’18 and Lilly Williams ’18 drill logs in preparation for inoculation.

Inoculating logs is relatively simple. Holes drilled into recently cut logs are filled with mushroom spawn and then sealed with cheese wax.

Tracy Rompich ’21 inoculates logs with shitake spawn.

Tess Abbot ’20 and Molly Peek ’18 seal the spawn in the logs with cheese wax.

After being labeled, the logs are all stacked in the shadiest part of the forest. Over the 12 months the fungi will grow and spread throughout the logs, becoming well established, and hopefully begin fruiting mushrooms that we can harvest next summer!

 
Preparing hot chocolate for all the volunteers on the beautiful spring day are,
from left, Lily Williams, Molly Peek, Alexandra Davis, and Diana Umana ’19.

Sustainability Challenge 2018 – Heat Efficiency

23 Apr

For this year’s House Sustainability Challenge (2017-2018), I teamed up with my classmate, Yuging Geng (’21), to design a project that could potentially increase the environment-friendly initiatives on campus. Living in Massachusetts, cold, winter-like makes up much of our academic year, making our heating systems a potential source both for energy savings and for improvement of personal comfort. Before moving to Ziskind, where I currently live, I was in Sessions House where my room felt significantly colder. However, closing my window disrupted my only source of fresh air, with the result that I often had to put on extra layers of clothes or purchase additional blankets to keep myself warm and comfortable. In Yuging’s house, Chase-Duckett, she noticed that her friends had variable temperatures in their rooms. For example, one of Yuging’s friends felt uncomfortable because it was too cold, while another friend’s room felt significantly warmer, sometimes even too warm. Based on these experiences, when the call went out for the Sustainability Challenge, we decided that students would benefit from a system in which they could view their dorm-room temperature so they could make better informed decisions about when to contact facilities to request a change in temperature.

We decided to wire in a breadboard, a temperature sensor (DS18B20), to Raspberry Pi 3 and code it, using Python, to collect temperature data and display it on a website (i.e. livestream). An additional benefit of using Raspberry Pi is that no changes in the infrastructure would need to be employed, as its performance mainly depends on Wi-Fi. Since we are both international students, we calculated the temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. We envisioned this project as an early tool to raise awareness not only about campus heating systems, but also about the lack of ventilation during the summer. Take a look at our prototype website: https://melaraerika.wixsite.com/sustainchallenge for more info!

This year’s House Sustainability Challenge was sponsored by the Conway Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the Design Thinking Initiative, the Office of Campus Sustainability, CEEDS, and the Office of Student Affairs.

-Erika Melara ’20 is a Scorpio who is happy that winter is finally fading away!

Smith Sugaring

27 Mar

Spring is well and finally here! We’ve been celebrating its arrival with students in New England fashion- by taking a bunch of them to a local sugar shack for a tasty breakfast with the locals- and by taking others out to the MacLeish Field Station to learn how to first identify and then tap maple trees so we can gather their sweet sap. As the days slowly get longer and the daily temperature swings signal that it is time for the trees to send food to their flower and leaf buds, the slow and steady drip of sap has gotten faster and faster, filling the buckets easily each day.

Check out the video about this that our intern Ellen Sulser ’18 made and posted on FaceBook.

On Sunday we capped off the season by hosting our inaugural Smith Sugaring event. We brought to campus all of the sap we had been gathering and set up near Chapin House.

It was a perfect day to hang out and watch the water boil off and share with passers by the wonders of making maple syrup.


Some seniors (environmental concentrators, all) stopped by to check out the parklet that we had set up nearby.

And lots of other people (200 or so by our count) stopped in throughout the day to visit, check out our set-up, learn about the process, and taste some fresh maple sap or syrup. We made our very first MacLeish maple syrup here on campus, and a good time was had by all. Sweet success!

Another Earthbound Shake Up

9 Feb

On Tuesday, January 23rd the Pacific tectonic plate slid a tiny amount under the North American tectonic plate causing a magnitude 7.9 earthquake southeast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The epicenter of the earthquake is depicted on the map below from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). The red line on the map depicts where the two tectonic plates meet, forming the fault line. As the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet each other they are moving about 59 mm each year. This is why earthquakes are common in the Pacific-North America plate boundary region south of Alaska. Over the last 100 years, 11 other magnitude 7+ earthquakes have occurred within 600 km of the January 23rd, 2018 earthquake. This earthquake is shown as an oval on the map, not a single point. That is because this earthquake was generated when an area of the plates 230 km long and 30 km wide strike and slip over each other.

So why do we care about an earthquake that occurred over 3,600 miles away? Did you feel it? You may not have felt it, but the seismograph at our Ada & Archibald MacLeish Field Station located about 10 miles from Smith College campus felt the shock waves (see below). The seismograph at MacLeish is part of a vast network of stations across the entire country recording earth movements. We may think of the ground as terra firma, but when two tectonic plates rub against each other the ground wiggles like brown pudding.

To get a sense of the ripple effect of the earth from the earthquake, click on the map below to watch the vertical motion video map of the Alaskan earthquake. In this video, red dots represent vertical motion up and blue dots represent down vertical motion of the ground.  It is clear that the clash of the plates sent shock waves across North America and beyond. There was our beloved terra firma rippling like water.

Submitted by Paul Wetzel, Environmental Research Coordinator, CEEDS

With information from the USGS and IRIS DMC (2010), Data Services Products: GMV The Ground Motion Visualization, doi:10.17611/DP/16325361.

Animal Tracking at MacLeish

24 Jan

Hi and happy New Year! My name is Hayley Reifeiss and I’m a senior Biology major who just spent her first J-Term on campus. With graduation fast approaching I wanted to take advantage of J-Term classes while I still could. One of the classes I took was Animal Tracking with Scott Johnson. It was a three-day (two days because of snow) class where we learned how to recognize and interpret signs of wildlife in order to track them. I wanted to take the class to learn a bit more about the local fauna and surrounding environment. I was also hoping to practice some outdoor skills that might be useful for a Biology career doing fieldwork.

The first day of class was primarily spent learning about the different types of tracks and walking patterns. For example, canines and felines walk in an arrangement called “perfect stepping” so their prints look like there’s only two feet because the back ones land in the same place as the front ones. You can tell the difference because a canine print will have four toes in a parallel arrangement with the nail imprint visible while feline prints have four toes more splayed out and no nail imprints. But because the print isn’t always perfectly preserved animal trackers will often rely on how the prints are arranged as well as other signs such as scat and surrounding smells to make an ID. On our first day we used those signs to identify fox activity around the sports fields. While walking by paradise pond we noticed a musky smell and found scat in an obvious placement (in this case on top of a manhole) which is how canines mark their territory. We knew it was a fox by the specific smell and the material found in the scat. There was also signs of its digging.

The winter landscape at MacLeish.

On the second day of class we went to the MacLeish Field Station to test our skills in a more rural environment. MacLeish was full of animal activity and we found numerous tracks in the fresh snow that had fallen the day before. There were signs of squirrels, foxes, and deer, which are relatively common, but the most impressive animal we tracked was a bobcat -whose prints we followed for several hundred meters in order to be positive in our ID. It seems that this particular bobcat has made MacLeish its home because we found tracks almost everywhere we went.

The bobcat track at MacLeish (left) next to my hand print (right) for scale.

We also found a porcupine den -recognizable by the surrounding tree type, scat, and the most obvious sign: the quills. We tracked the porcupines to the trees which they climbed up as evidenced by the urine markings on one of the branches. It was really cool to experience the forest in this way, and at the end of day I think we all came away from the class with a greater appreciation of the animals we share this land with.

The tracking class takes a break in the camp shelter at MacLeish.

-Hayley lives in Tenney House while at Smith. She is originally from Plymouth, MA.

Building a Shelter at MacLeish

27 Oct

Hi there! My name is Tess, and I intern at MacLeish Field Station. I am a soon to be declared Environmental Science and Policy Major with a Sustainable Food Concentration. I live in Wilson House and hail from Brooklyn, NY. Last semester, I was first introduced to construction and building when I got the chance to work in the Hillyer wood shop and help build a wood shed for the Field Station’s fire pit. I found working with wood very rewarding, and as a summer intern, I got to see the woodshed to completion, helping to stain and stock it.

This semester, I’m excited to continue learning carpentry skills with the rest of the MacLeish interns. We work with Scott Johnson, manager of Smith’s Outdoor Adventure Program, and together we are building an Adirondack camp shelter to protect campers from cold, wet New England weather.

Lucinda DeBolt and I working in the roof while Sophia Stouse passes us tools.

The shelter, located in MacLeish’s main campsite behind the Chestnut Orchard, arrived as a pre-cut kit, complete with pine and hemlock boards, fasteners, roofing material, and a step-by-step manual. Of course, putting together a kit is never as easy as the manual makes it sound! As we began construction, Scott quickly realized some notches were not cut correctly, and the frame and siding were misaligned. After several calls to the manufacturer, new pieces arrived and we’ve made great progress.

Lucinda pauses mid-action.

We should have the entire shelter finished before the end of fall! We hope to see you come by and check it out!

Summer at the MacLeish Field Station

17 Jun

Summer work at the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station is off to a great start! Interns Molly Day ’19, Casey Hecox ’19, Naomi Jahan ’18, and Rachel Moskowitz ’18 have been working on several projects to keep the Field Station at its best. These projects include maintaining the challenge course, clearing weeds around the rock walls, maintaining the apple and chestnut orchards, and installing the test permeable surface materials in the new experimental parking lot.

Wall_interns

Molly and Naomi treat “The Wall” challenge course element with linseed oil.

The interns have been doing a lot of work to keep the dozen elements in our Challenge Course in great condition. They have treated all of the wood surfaces with linseed oil, removed rocks from the immediate surroundings, and used those rocks to build cairns as trail markers for the paths leading to the elements.

The interns have also begun laying down several different permeable materials on the experimental parking lot at the entrance to the Field Station. The parking lot, designed last summer by then-intern Laura Krok-Horton, ’17, aims to help us learn more about which of several different permeable materials will hold up best in this particular location and to wear and tear (including snow plowing), and what possible effects a permeable surface might have (positive or negative) on storm water run-off and flow in the nearby stream.

Permeable1

The first six parking spaces are covered with a permeable sheet material through which clover and other plants have already begun to grow.

 

 

One side of the parking lot is covered by a permeable plastic material through which clover and grass can grow.

permeable2

Student interns work together to lay the sectional paver material on the parking lot.

 

 

 

 

The other six parking spaces include two each of concrete pavers, gravel, and plastic pavers. The concrete and plastic pavers are being filled with soil and will eventually be seeded.

 

 

-Naomi Jahan (’18) is a geosciences major from Los Angeles, California. She lives in Wilder House and spends her time reading, singing, and looking at rocks.

Fiddles and Folks at the Field Station

16 Jun
— Somehow this post got hung up and never published. We decided to go ahead and share it belatedly anyway!
 Music at MacLeish_students_2016
On Saturday, April 2 there was a convergence of bluegrass music, dance, faculty, students, and local community members at the MacLeish Field Station. A friendly collection of musicians came together with their guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolin, and stand-up bass, and jammed together (the acoustics in there – amazing) while folks scattered around the cozy Bechtel Classroom sipped tea, sang along, waltzed, and even taught each other some clogging steps!
Music at MacLeish_with students and Max_2016
  A favorite song was “You are my Sunshine”. The energy was simultaneously gentle and ecstatic. The only question now is, when can we have an event like this again??
-Shelby Kim ’18 is a CEEDS Field Station intern with a love of folk dancing and driving 11-passenger vans.

Marking Up MacLeish

4 Nov

This past week MacLeish has been treated to a bit of spiffing up. If you’ve ever walked the trails there, you surely noticed some colorful trail markers guiding your way. But what happens when these markers start to spend a little too much time on the path? The trees start to grow over these helpful hints, and eventually they get to become one with the tree or fall down, never to be seen or heard from again.

Not the markers at MacLeish though! With the help of CEEDS interns Shelby and Liz, as well as Lucia Delbene, a visiting biologist from Uruguay, the trails at MacLeish are staying well delineated and magnificent!  To keep the trails going these trail rescuers had a lovely walk and spent the afternoon prying out the nails holding the markers up. These markers were put back in, this time with a little more breathing room, to giving the tree some space to grow. What’s left now are freshly marked trails; feel free to check their work by having a walk-through at MacLeish.

one   five

Shelby (l) hammering in and Lucia (r) removing trail markers.

two

Shelby(l) and Lucia (r) just being photogenic professionals.

four

Lucia (l) and Liz (r) are on the move for some more maintenance.

-Liz Nagy (’18) is a double major in environmental science and Japanese, and hopes this will take her to some fun places in life. She is passionate about invasive species, avocados, Japanese culture and wolves (in no particular order).