Tag Archives: smith college

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.

Adventures in Belize!

25 Jun

Coral Reef Ed-Ventures is an environmental education collaboration between Smith College’s Environmental Science and Policy Program and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on Ambergris Caye, Belize.  This program for local children, which runs each summer on the island in Belize, is currently led by Professor David Smith (Biological Sciences and Environmental Science and Policy) and Dr. Denise Lello (Lecturer and Research Associate in Biological Sciences and Environmental Science and Policy).  Coral Reef Ed-Ventures began 19 years ago with two Smith student teachers and a few children.  This year’s team comprises six Smith student teachers who will engage over seventy children in two education camps!

This year both of the camps (The REEF Program [Advanced] and the Youth Program) are organized around the theme CONNECTIONS: participants will explore the connections between nature, the environment, and the community. The campers will also be introduced to research methods like mapping and coral identification, techniques the student teachers will themselves use when they analyze the data they collect in Belize.

L to R: Aidan Coffin Ness ’20 (SPN/EDC), Katherine Akey ’20 (EGR), Carla Schwartz ’20 (BIO/MSP), Dana Vera ’19 (EDC/MTH), Liz Nagy ’18 (ENV/EAL), Emiline Koopman ’18J (BIO/MSP).

The students are just starting week 4 in Belize. You can see pictures and read more about their experiences on the Coral Reef Ed-Ventures blog.

The Coral Reef Ed-Ventures program could not function without the generous financial and in-kind support of the people of San Pedro, Belize; the Hol Chan Marine Reserve; the Environmental Science and Policy Program; generous alumnae donors; the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability; and sources of endowed student support, including the Agnes Shedd-Andreae ’32, and B. Elizabeth Horner Funds. Thank you for your support!

House Sustainability Challenge 2018

29 May

The House Sustainability Challenge culminated its first chapter with a final winner: the Drying Racks team (Yolanda Chigiji ’21, Julianne Borger ’21, Emma Krasky ’21, Sadie Wiese ’21, April Hopcroft ’21 and Sophie Guthrie ’21). Congratulations! This group presented a practical alternative to drying machines and made it available to everyone in their house (Morrow-Capen) on a trial basis. Here’s how it went- they displayed several prototypes made out of inexpensive, recycled materials, such as bamboo, to their house community and encouraged their creation through small workshops. As a back-up, in case a DIY drying rack was not within the skillset or comfort zone of students, they made sure to have some standard designs on each floor of the house. These racks were managed with a sign-out system so residents on each floor are aware of who was using which drying rack at any given time. In case of a lost or damaged frame, the person, whose details was on the sign-up sheet, was contacted and the situation was assessed. Through the use of portable racks, the students were able to reduce the number of dryers in use over their trial period by almost 200 cycles in both houses.

The House Sustainability Challenge, sponsored by Smith’s Conway Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Residential Life, CEEDS, the Office of Campus Sustainability, and The Design Thinking Initiative, held its final challenge on April 20th, allowing each group to present their proposals and pilot programs to the judges. The winning team was awarded $1,000 while the remaining finalists received $250 for their respective houses. The winning team’s design for a campus-wide drying-rack program will be implemented next semester.

The runner-up team projects were:

  • A proposal to reduce water consumption through shower-flow regulators in Comstock House (Katie Knowles ’19 and Karime Gutierrez ’20)

  • A project to increase the heating efficiency in Chase and Ziskind House by recording real-time room temperatures and creating a communication channel between students and Facilities Management to better regulate temperature (Yuqing Geng ’21 and Erika Melara ’20) 

The House Sustainability Challenge was developed as a way to encourage students to use their expertise as residents to help envision and design innovative ways of solving real life issues on campus in an environmentally sustainable manner. Design solutions must also be economically feasible and replicable across the residential houses.

-Erika Melara, CEEDS intern

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.

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.