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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.

Migrant Justice comes to Smith!

14 Dec

Hi! I am Diana one of the interns at CEEDS. I will post more about myself soon, but for now I wanted to share about a recent event that I went to:

On Thursday, November 16, Abel Luna, a speaker from Migrant Justice gave a talk at Smith, which was co-hosted by two campus orgs: Smith Students for Food Justice (SSFJ) and Organizing for Undocumented Students Rights (OUSR).

Migrant Justice is a farm worker-led organization that works to improve working conditions for dairy farmers in Vermont, a state which produces a lot of ice cream and cheese. They organize migrant workers mostly from Mexico and Central America who, in the words of Luna, “do the work that most people don’t want to do.” Their mission is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farm worker community and engage community partners in organizing for economic justice and human rights.

After campaigning for 2.5 years, Migrant Justice finally succeeded in getting Ben & Jerry’s to join their Milk with Dignity program. By joining the program, Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement to establish labor standards and an enforcement strategy.

Luna, the speaker, explained their organizing strategy as a spiral model which starts at the center with farm  worker’s experiences.

Migrant Justice’s organizing model.

He also mentioned the way in which conversations about food justice often revolve around food being local and organic. While Vermont farmers tend to pride themselves in saying this, and use these such terms to market their products, they rarely include fair conditions and wages for their workers in their definition of food justice.

The Real Food Challenge, however, does include conditions of farm and food chain workers in their definition of real food. Smith signed the Real Food Challenge in the fall of 2016, and Dining Services continues to work to increase the amount of “real food” it purchases. Smith students brought Migrant Justice to campus to talk more about food justice, and highlight their concern that Smith continue to commit to purchasing food that is fair and real in all the ways as defined by the Real Food Challenge.

Some of the SSFJ and OUSR students with Luna after his talk.

You can find more information on migrant justice online or the Real Food Challenge and Smith’s involvement online.

-Diana Umana (’19) is a philosophy major living in Wilder House. She is a CEEDS intern, active in SCOPES and OUSR.

Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith?

11 Dec

Environmental Science and Policy major Breanna Parker (’18) recently presented an interim report on her thesis “Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith: An economic transition strategy to lower carbon emissions through informed decision-making”. The inspiration her work, as she explained it, was the report which was released this spring by the college’s study group on climate change. The report provided a series of recommendations to develop and internalize constant carbon emissions such as a carbon proxy price to help guide major problems in budget management along with other decision-making processes. Smith College currently emits 27,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. While there are already a variety of new projects underway at Smith that will be more energy efficient (e.g. the new library), in order to significantly reduce our emissions, Parker recommends that the college apply proxy carbon pricing. With this honors thesis, Parker seeks to engage Smith stakeholders in order to standardize and incorporate the acceptance of carbon emissions into the decision-making process.

The specific mechanics of applying a carbon proxy is vital for a sustainable approach. Ultimately, this is an additional design criterion that people can use to evaluate different options. For instance, when evaluating a new purchasing offer, we first consider the quantities of carbon emissions obtained, then we modify the units to compare it with other options, and apply a proxy over the lifetime or life-cycle of a project since carbon emissions will continue to be released as the product is used. To this evaluation, we also add the initial and maintenance costs. With this method the complete carbon emissions cost can be used in comparison with other choices in order to select the most energy efficient and affordable plan. To help the audience better understand the process, Parker used the example of purchasing a light bulb. Which is a better choice- incandescent or LED? The incandescent light bulb has a cheaper initial cost, but has an expected lifetime of only about 1 year. In comparison, the LED light bulb has a lifetime of approximately 22 years. Since bulbs generate additional costs each time they must be replaced, even before it gets turned on, the incandescent starts out with a higher hidden cost. Moreover, incandescent light bulbs use more energy, which cause more carbon to be emitted. In comparison, the LED light bulb, although it has a higher initial purchasing cost, has a slower operating system that requires less energy and produces fewer carbon emissions. This, combined with its longer replacement interval, makes it the better option. This simple example highlights the importance of considering the entire lifetime cost of a system or component, which is not always considered.

Parker then spoke about some of the ways that Smith might be able to benefit from using proxy carbon evaluation. One example was in the renovation of Washburn House. When thinking about heating systems, there are two main approaches: geothermal or natural gas boilers. The latter is more common given its lower initial cost. Nonetheless, if the cost comparisons include long-term maintenance  and carbon emissions, the natural gas boilers have significantly higher life costs and higher carbon emissions, suggesting that a geothermal approach would be a better choice. She noted that carbon proxy evaluation can be used in other situations, too, and it is important and interesting to also consider the vehicles used at Smith. For instance, vans rely on gasoline, but with the availability of an electric parking station near campus, over the long run a transition to electric cars would mean lower carbon emissions and lower monetary costs.

Other universities have implemented different methodologies to acknowledge and lower their carbon emissions. For instance, Yale University has a carbon fee ($30) that is applied to all administrative units individually (buildings). Through some modifications in their infrastructure, they are able to read their carbon emissions levels, so if an academic building has lowered their carbon emissions, then they are able to gain a monetary revenue for other projects. Princeton University has a proxy carbon price similar to what Smith is considering. In this method, a tool was created for administrators to record the initial costs, operating and maintenance expenses, and apply a proxy carbon price to their projects. Swarthmore College has a combination of both a carbon fee ($100) and a proxy carbon price calculator.

Parker hopes that like other colleges and universities, Smith College will acknowledge its carbon emissions and move towards using carbon proxy evaluation for future projects so that the full cost- both environmental and financial- is part of the decision making process.

-CEEDS Intern Erika Melara (’20) is an Engineering major. She comes to us from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.

HCC-ALC: Owl Pellets Lab

6 Nov

After an owl hunts, how does it eat its prey? With a fork and a knife? Although modest, owls prefer to keep it simple by swallowing their prey whole. Impressive as it sounds, Jessika, a student at HCC- Adult Learning Center in Holyoke, asked, “Does that mean owls can digest bones and feathers?” The answer is…no! The undigested parts form a tight pellet that is later regurgitated. Gross! But not as much if it’s sterilized.

This past Wednesday (Nov. 1), through STEM Outreach, Thomas Gralinski, Ellen Sulser (‘18) and I (Erika Melara ‘20) visited the learning center and introduced the concept of Food Chains and Food Webs to a small class of pre-GED adult learners. After delivering a baseline presentation, we prepared a lab activity to dissect owl pellets. We particularly focused on the barn owls which usually prey on insects, reptiles, bats, and small rodents. An interesting fact about these owls is that they can hear a mouse’s footsteps from 30 yards away! This is fascinating, considering most of us can barely hear our names being called across the room.

Although some students were reluctant at first, by the end of the lab activity, they were determined to find and classify each of the bones to later boast about their owl’s appetite. Personally, I was bewildered about how some of the bones (i.e. skulls) were intact and well-preserved. Take a look at some of the pictures!

-Erika Melara is a Scorpio, who comes from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.

Meet the Intern

23 Mar

 

Breanna

Hi! I’m Breanna Parker ’18 and am an intern in campus sustainability at Smith College. I came to Smith from a small town in Iowa. I chose to study Environmental Science and Policy because I want to work toward a future that supports the economy, the environment and society as a whole.

Smith College is committed to the ambitious goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. To accomplish this goal, the college must reduce its carbon emissions by mitigating the direct use of fossil fuels and by increasing efficiency on campus. However, other sources of carbon emissions, such as travel by students, staff and faculty, cannot feasibly be eliminated, which is why Smith is exploring the option of carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a way to invest in renewable energy, clean technology and efficiency and receive a carbon credit toward achieving full carbon neutrality.

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Currently, I’m working to develop guidelines for Smith’s innovative carbon offset program, the Community Climate Fund. The program is a collaboration with Amherst, Hampshire and Williams Colleges and the Center for EcoTechnology. The goal of the fund is to generate carbon offsets locally in western Massachusetts with co-benefits for the community and the colleges. The research phase was launched in 2015 and now the Community Climate Fund is implementing its first project to assist local businesses and institutions invest in high-efficiency heating systems by providing funding to lower the cost of the units. The additional funding provides an incentive to those organizations to invest in new heating systems. The reduction in energy use from these high-efficiency heating systems does three things: it helps the businesses save money and be more energy efficient, and it generates a carbon offset for the Community Climate Fund, which will help Smith reach its goal of being of being carbon neutral by 2030. It is very exciting to see Smith take action both on campus and in the community to support a sustainable future.

Smith team takes on climate change video challenge

27 Feb

Each year the Environmental Engineering and Science Foundation (EESF) and the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) put out a call to current undergraduate and graduate students studying environmental engineering or sciences worldwide for a video competition.

This year’s theme, “What can individuals do to help reduce climate change?”, inspired Jocelyn Yax ’18 (engineering), Amelia Wagner ’18J (engineering/government), and Jasmine Pacheco-Ramos ’19 (environmental science and policy) to take on the challenge. Assistant Professor Niveen Ismail in the Picker Engineering Program acted as the faculty advisor for the project.   Check out their video on YouTube.

The winning teams will be announced at the Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Science awards ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on April 13, 2017.

eesf_logoMore on the contest rules:
The video should be targeted to motivate 8th grade and higher students to change daily habits that contribute to climate change. The video may also be used more broadly to motivate the general public to change simple patterns that contribute to climate change.

The video should motivate individuals to change daily habits that cause carbon emissions that may contribute to climate change. People have varying views on climate change. Contestants are urged to develop a message that acknowledges the breadth of opinions on this issue but that encourages everyone to make changes that will help with climate change. Because most people do not understand the roles of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, the video should end with brief reference as to how Environmental Engineers and Scientists are working on climate issues.

Interterm at MacLeish, Day 5

23 Jan

Students Zoey Sims ’19 and Rachael Drinker ’20 report on the final day of their Interterm class Landscape Interpretation: Get to know and learn to share your New England landscape.

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Today, after spending the week learning and preparing, we led the 6th graders from the Smith College Campus School around the field station for two hours. The day started with the students arriving earlier than expected, but this gave us and their teachers time to get them organized into groups. We collected our students and moved to our designated first activity. The groups rotated between the stations (weathergrams and the living building, Dan Ladd’s tree art sculpture, the blindfold tree game, the cellar hole and hike, and the orchard) so the students could see everything. 

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Playing the blindfolded get-to-know-a-tree game!

Zoey: Several students in my group found ways to bring humor to each of  our activities which helped get the other students more interested and involved. When we asked questions, the 6th graders usually responded with well-thought-out answers or guesses, which was encouraging. A few times, when they were done giving serious responses and ready for us to just tell them the answers, they gave sarcastic responses such as “aliens” as an explanation for the stone walls on the sides of the path. At some points while we were explaining things, it seemed like the students were just goofing off. I was happily surprised when they were able to answer questions and recall information that I thought they hadn’t paid attention to, such as how to differentiate between a white and a red pine by counting the needles in a bundle.

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A beautiful weathergram by one of the students

Rachael:  I was intrigued by the process of figuring out how to tailor the day to each of the students’ learning styles while also being on the move and teaching about multiple topics. My favorite times were when I could see something piqued the interest of a student who had previously seemed sarcastic and unenthusiastic. One such moments was at the cellar hole. I noticed one student liked to do hands-on things and so I hinted at the idea that, hidden under a big pile of leaves on one side of the hole, there might be bricks from the old collapsed chimney. The student almost immediately stopped goofing off and asked if they could try to find the bricks. It turned into a sort of treasure hunt during which they asked a flurry of questions and tried to date the pieces of brick they found. This made me curious about what I could do to interest the other students and I experimented with this throughout the day. Other highlights included the students teaching me how to whistle with an acorn cap, intentional yelling in the woods about nature, and discussing whether or not a track the students found was big enough to be from a bear (they eventually decided it was from a domesticated dog).

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Our debrief after the students left

After the 6th graders left, we regrouped to eat lunch, reflect, and debrief. There were a few experiences that several groups had in common, such as a struggle to get everyone involved during the first activity and a surprising enthusiasm for the blindfold tree game. Many of our classmates recounted specific challenges and successes; every group had a few things that went particularly well and a few which they would have changed if they had the chance to do this again. All in all, it seemed like we had mostly enjoyable experiences but we were also relieved when it was over.

The Future of Sustainable Livestock Farming

17 Jan

We are students from Professor Washington-Ottombre’s ENV 101 class. For our final project in December, we made a short video about the future of sustainable livestock farming, which explores the current state or “regime” of the U.S. livestock system, and possible improvements the industry could make to move to a more sustainable regime. Our video is a mixture of animation, footage from one of our farms, and system models we learned to make in class. The models show where the livestock industry is now and where it could go from here based on a few variables.

Take a look at our video here!

The main idea in our video is a hypothetical non-profit organization we created called F.A.R.M. which stands for Farm Assessment Re-envisioning and Maintenance. The organization helps already sustainable farms stay sustainable and gives them a grade based on their level of sustainability, similar to LEED certification, but at no cost. In addition, the organization helps farms that don’t meet the requirements of sustainability transition to being more sustainable at no cost.

We hope you enjoy our video and that it sparks ideas and interests surrounding today’s agriculture system, perhaps even on the way toward re-envisioning a more sustainable future.

photo-4Emelyn Chiang ’20, Kimby Davis ’17, Tori Greco Hiranaka ’19, Elsbeth Pendleton-Wheeler ’19 and Claire Rand ’20

Interterm at MacLeish, Day 4

13 Jan
Interterm students Ruby Kohn ’19 and Maya Salvio ’18, from the class Landscape Interpretation: Get to know and learn to share your New England landscape, are today’s guest bloggers.

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We began our day by continuing to brainstorm for the 6th grade field trip tomorrow. The 6th graders are coming for two hours and it is our job to encourage engagement with the field station.
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We had the help of Oakley, Carol’s adorable yellow lab, who was quite taken with Reid. They had some good bonding time.
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We decided to take the 6th graders, in small groups, to five stations around MacLeish where we will teach them how humans interact and intervene in the natural environment around us. One way we will engage with them is by making weathergrams. We went a little overboard in our preparations and prepped 200 for 37 students…we got a little excited.
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After planning our five stations, we did a dry run of the hike that we’ll do with the sixth graders. While each group will start in a different location, the groups will explore the Living Building, investigate the apple orchards and weather tower, examine the historic cellar of the Waite family, observe the art installation, and play the get-to-know-a-tree game as well as create weathergrams.
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Someone got snow in their boots…
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We then went back to the classroom and reflected on our day. There are so many post-it notes!
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We are so excited to meet the 6th graders tomorrow!!!
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Interterm at MacLeish, Day 3

12 Jan

Caroline Eyman ’18 and Regina Wu ’18, students in the Interterm class Landscape Interpretation: Get to know and learn to share your New England landscape, are today’s guest bloggers.

Today was fortunately a warmer day with a high of 49°F–a nice change compared to 18°F on Monday. We started off the day with an introduction to the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station. The field station was named after the MacLeishes who were good friends with Smith College’s first woman president, Jill Ker Conway. The field station itself is 240-acres of forest and farmland located in West Whately, Massachusetts. Smith College first purchased the land for an observatory. The college wanted to protect the observatory from light pollution and West Whately seemed to be the perfect location.

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It was fascinating to hear about the development of the MacLeish Field Station which began in the fall of 2008. In addition to the college’s faculty and staff, many Smith students were part of the design process of the liberal arts field station. Students came together from different disciplines (landscape studies, architecture, engineering) and worked with each other to create things such as recreational trails, a solar-powered electric fence, and a fire pit.

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After the introduction to the field station, we made our way outside to the ropes course for some adventure education. In our first challenge, Full House, we had to silently choose a woodland creature to pretend to be. We then stepped onto the wooden balance beams. The challenge was to figure out who was what creature, without talking, and to order ourselves from smallest to largest without falling off. It’s always a fun time to play silent charades while trying to balance on wood beams! On our way from the first challenge course to the next, we divided into groups where one person lead three people who were blindfolded. We all made it safe and sound to our next destination. The next challenge was a low ropes course called the Whale Watch. We were on a large wooden platform seesaw and our goal was to balance the platform while completing different tasks, such as two people switching from one side of the platform to the other or the entire group forming a circle and shuffling in one direction–all while the platform was balanced. It is not as simple as it may seem!

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The afternoon portion of the class was spent mostly inside learning more about the Bechtel Environmental Classroom and the different aspects of the Living Building Challenge. We began by discussing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications for buildings. We discussed how members of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) wanted to make it more difficult to achieve a certification similar to LEED. The members of the USGBC created the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge has seven main components: water, energy, site, material, health, beauty and equity. We analyzed how each component was used in the building process and use of the classroom.

Before we debriefed at the end of the day, we received a lesson about composting toilets. We went down to the basement and saw where all of the human waste is deposited. We even opened up the chamber where the waste was held, and some of us were brave enough to look inside. The wood shavings covered up the smell!

After our composting lesson, we ended our day by continuing to plan for the sixth graders on Friday. We are excited for them to come experience the magical place that is the MacLeish Field Station.