Thursday, December 30, 2010

Final Project

Guiding Question for the Course
  • How can teachers use digital resources, community resources and effective teaching methods, integrating Alaska Native ways of knowing with Western scientific methods to create greater student interest in, and understanding of, the geosciences?
Key Question for the Final Project
  • Why do people make the decisions they do, even when they know that the effects will be negative, and what can be done to change this?
We have spent a lot of time in the class looking at the science of climate change.  I recently finished up teaching a semester of Alaska Studies that looked at the over exploitation of natural resources in Alaska that continues on a daily basis.  The question that keeps coming up in my mind (and the minds' of my students) is why?  Why does this keep happening?  This lesson will investigate that question.

This lesson is loosely designed to be used in a history class - such great places to integrate science!

At the end of the lesson students will be able to 
  • describe the tragedy of the commons.
  • explain examples from the real-world that deal with tragedy of the commons.
  • evaluate proposed solutions to real-world tragedy of the commons problems.
I will use this lesson next semester in my US History class.  We will have just finished studying the changes in industry in the United States before and immediately following the Civil War.  This lesson be used as an introduction to the upcoming unit on the rise of industrialism in the early 1900s.  The text tackles a number of major changes that were happening in the United States.  Among those were changes in how business was organized and what corporations' obligations were to the environment and to their employees.  The theory of "tragedy of the commons" can help play an important role in understanding the decisions made at the time.

Introductory Activity - "Everybody Can Win"
The lesson will begin with a game designed by the textbook.  The game deals with unionization - where students in the class are employees at a factory considering unionization, however, those connections come after the game.

The class is split into 4-6 teams.  Each team is given an envelope with a green and a red card.  The game takes place over six rounds, and in each round each team plays either their red or their green card.  Scoring depends on the what cards other teams play.  If all teams play green then each team earns points.  However, if there is a mix (e.g. one red and three green) only the teams playing the red card earn points with the other teams losing points.  The third option, with all teams playing red, results in all teams losing points.

I played this game last year and I was surprised with the results.  If I remember correctly, only one team had positive points at the end.  I was sure that they would have worked together, all playing green cards, but it only took one round of a team exploiting the situation before all trust was broken and it was each team for itself.  

After the game is over, debrief with the following questions:
  • What emotions did you experience while playing the game? 
  • For those of you who played a green card every time, why did you do that?
  • For those of you who played a pink card even once, why did you do that?
  • Why was (or wasn’t) the class able to play the game so that everyone won?
  • Can you think of something from history or real life that has a similar dynamic to this game?
What's nice about this game is that it sets up discussion for the upcoming chapter on labor organizing, and also offers an explanation of a theory to help understand previous and upcoming chapters about environmental calamities.

Activity (Cultural Connections)
Independent investigation of historical events.
Students spend time searching for historical events in history that the theory of tragedy of the commons can be applied to help understand what happened.
Sources or ideas to look into...
Activity (What can be done?)
After playing the game at the beginning of the lesson and investigating a number of examples from history, students will have the benefit of hindsight.  How can this new knowledge be used to alter the future.

Students will listen to a podcast from NPR with an interview of Nobel laureate and political scientist, Elinor Ostrom.  Ostrom discusses ways that populations have bucked the "tragedy" through working together on a local scale.  She emphasizes that solutions to tragedies of the commons do not need the backing of a federal government, and in most cases, bottom-up solutions are preferable to large top-down solutions.

After listening to the podcast debrief with a series of discussion points.
  • How does Ms. Ostrom recommend that such problems are solved?
  • How realistic do you think her recommendations are in problems that plague Alaska (overfishing, mining)?
  • Can you think of any other solutions to a tragedy of the commons problem?  Can people work together, keeping everyone's best interests in mind?  
Final look at history...
Salmon politics - how does this reflect a solution to tragedy of the commons?  


Monday, December 27, 2010

Module 9 - The Terrestrial Cryosphere

Right off the bat I want to get some definitions down that I think are important to know... 
  • ice age/glacial age - a generic geologic term related to a long-term reduction of global temperatures and the growth of continental ice sheets.
  • glacial periods - colloquially referred to as ice ages, these are periods within glacial ages marked with even colder temperatures than the overall glacial age.  During this time, continental ice grows covering more of land with ice.
  • interglacial periods - periods of time, still within a glacial age, that is marked by above average temperatures.  Continental ice may fluctuate during this period, but because of the large amount of continental ice still around, it is still within the glacial age.
I was not familiar with these differences and found them necessary to discussions later in the module. 

After following the Wikipedia trail about glacial ages I got stuck on the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf mentioned in one of the TD videos.  From there I went to back to Wikipedia.  There I found that the "B" in the shelf's name differentiates it from the other two Larsen shelves - "A" (the smallest), and "C" (the largest).  What is shocking is that the three Larsen shelves were stable for thousands of years (B, the one that collapsed for the previous 12,000 years).  In a matter of weeks, Larsen B calved and disintegrated into the sea.

I was quite interested in those three shelves, so I went a bit further in researching them.  I think that this would make a very interesting exploration with my class as well, because it combined the four resources in the class that I find myself using a lot - the class blog, Teachers Domain, Wikipedia, and Google Earth.

The orange represents the missing ice shelves
In Google Earth I spent some time looking at the area of Antarctica that the shelves are located on.  The Larsen Ice Shelf runs along the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Of the three shelves, only the largest, C, remains.  Larsen A collapsed in 1995 and Larsen B disintegrated in 2002.  After looking at recent satellite images in Google Earth I found a button there that I wasn't aware existed - one that allowed me to look at historic images.  Amazing.  I could follow the collapse of Larsen B over those critical weeks in 2002.  I captured those images below and created a little movie.

I enjoyed this module.  What struck me over and over was that in all the talk about climate and geologic time, this area of science stuck out as being able to buck all that thought.  Of course, terrestrial cryosphere systems take place on those time scales, but they are also visible in human lifetimes, and as the Larsen Shelf shows - even months.  These are important things to keep in mind.  Global warming may not raise sea levels to historic levels (tens of meters) in my lifetime.  Global temperatures may not rise high enough to turn my home state of Minnesota into a tropical jungle.  Polar bears may not go extinct.  But I don't want to find out that these predictions are wrong.

There seem to be so many examples in these past two modules about catastrophic "burps" as one scientist called them.  The release of methane and CO2 from thawing permafrost.  The change of oceanic currents as melting sea ice and continental ice change ocean temperatures and open sea routes.  Small things that will bring about monumental change.

I guess time will tell.

Three Colleagues:
I visited the following classmates' blogs... 
  • Dan Adair's posts were very nice to read and full of images and links and all that good stuff.  I was interested is his intro to the module with a discussion about Captain Vancouver and his explorations around the area.  
  •  Alicia's Science Explorations blog was also a good read.  I enjoyed reading the facts she learned about the cryosphere in a prelearning activity - it was nice because I too felt the need to get some prelearning in prior to starting the module.
  • Last stop was Amy's Explore Alaska Blog.  She was struck by the $35 million permafrost damage figure mentioned in one of the TD videos.  It is an alarming amount of money.  In my village I have seen the result of melting permafrost as our school was recently reinforced because it was sinking.  These fixes are incredibly pricey, especially in rural regions where getting heavy machinery in an out is so complicated. 

Module 8 - The Cryosphere

With two modules on the cryosphere I found that I needed a better understanding of what the cryosphere was.  Wikipedia to the rescue.  I hadn't realized that the cryosphere included all frozen water - not just sea ice and glaciers, but it included snow, lake and river ice, and permafrost.  The cryosphere is a lot of water.  And some of that water has been locked up as ice for a long time - up to one million years.  And that locked up in the ice is a considerable amount of carbon dioxide and methane - powerful members of the greenhouse gas gang. 

As I was watching the TD videos, I began to make some interesting connections.  The Earth's Cryosphere video was very helpful.  The connection between increased sea temperatures leading to increased sea ice melting leading to less global cooling leading to more permafrost melting leading to the release of more carbon and methane that had been captured for hundreds of thousands of years is terrifying, and another great example of a perfect feedback loop.

This module has a lot of possible teaching opportunities - especially as the cryosphere around Tununak is rapidly growing at the moment.  In fact, I was just asked to go cryo-fishing.  Okay, I'm not sure if that's grammatically correct, but the opportunity was not available to me a few weeks ago, so it supports my "cryosphere is growing" claim.

This is also an area where my students can teach me a lot about the cryosphere.  They have intimate knowledge of the sea ice of the past decade and their relatives over the past decades.  Talking to them it seems that the snow fall is in the biggest flux.  Snow has come later, left earlier, and been less as a general observation.

It may not happen this year, as we just covered the topic, but the shrinking sea ice offers a wonderful data set for finding a line of regression and to make some meaningful predictions based on the found equation.  Algebra II - so helpful in real life.  It sure beats the cost per square foot of office space example in the book.

I will be teaching Government next semester and so have been making a collection of interesting things to talk about this spring.  The 2009 Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change and the declaration were intriguing examples of citizenship in rural areas of the globe.  In such a small, isolated community, making connections to the larger world is very important, and this document ties together a number of indigenous communities from around the world.

This module was important to me in a few ways.

The first way was that it provided more fuel for my campaign against climate change deniers.  I can't decide what worries me more - climate change or the attitude that it isn't happening and that scientists are lying to them.  I feel that the more information out there in easy to digest formats (like the graph of shrinking sea ice).
That image is from the National Snow and Ice Data Center's website.  It offers a considerable amount of interesting information.

I also think that this module is meaningful to my students.  I will be leaving Alaska sometime in the future to head back to the lower 48.  My students, in most cases, will not.  They will be the ones adapting to living in a world with a dramatically different cryosphere than the one we live in now unless things take an incredible turn in the very near future.  They will benefit from understanding the nuts and bolts of how these things work.

Three Colleagues:
Three colleagues this week...
  • Tyler's Alaskanwisdom blog was a nice read.  Of particular interest was his metaphor for a positive feedback loop:  a snowball rolling down a hill...picking up more snow and more speed as it goes.  A wonderful, appropriate example.  
  • Next stop:  Chena Lakes Farm's blog.  On the blog was an interesting discussion about how forest fires distribute ash and soot to surrounding snow covered areas, affecting the areas albedo, thus increasing melt rates.  Snowball to start the positive feedback loop less, then apply that knowledge to this example.
  • Last stop:  Matthew's Alaskan Knowledge blog.  Matthew discussed some examples of humans using properties of albedo to manipulate their environment - one example in farmers covering the ground with black plastic to warm the ground in the early spring, and one of scientists wrapping glaciers in white plastic to reflect more of the sun's energy hoping to reduce melting.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Module 7 - Changing Climate

I am a sucker for infographics.  If you are unfamiliar with infographics, I highly recommend the two sources that were linked in this module:  Information is Beautiful and Good Magazine, for they offer some of the best examples of these visual treats.  They will keep you busy for a while.

The graphic of sea levels rising was pretty powerful.  A 1-2 meter rise in sea levels (a conservative estimate that could happen by 2100) would put Venice, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam underwater.  Oh yeah, and Tununak (where I live).  And so many other villages and cities situated on the coasts of numerous seas and oceans of the world.

This led me to look at the Climate Control part of the module in the most depth.  Every time I spend time looking into global warming I feel a little part of me start to panic.  It happened this time watching the soil microbe video examining the positive feedback loop of warming permafrost > more microbial decomposition > more CO2 > more vegetation allowing > more insulation above the permafrost > increasingly warmer permafrost.

And so now I freaked out.  I'm not freaked out about the rising sea levels, however.  I'm freaked out with the lack of public faith in science, and I have another infographic to blame.  When 89% of all publishing scientists and 99% of climatologists agree with the premise of anthropogenic climate change, why isn't the public jumping up to change the way things are done?

Of course, some people are trying to do things.  I just wonder if it'll work.

A recent article in Scientific American was about installing machines around the world that remove carbon dioxide from the air.  The carbon dioxide would then be sold to a commercial CO2 company or sequestered somewhere (underground? in the ocean?).  And here's another article from the same magazine discussing the technology being used at a coal power plant.  It just seems like so much work.  Take for example this little fact from the first article:  It would take 10 million of these machines, up and running, for CO2 concentration to be reduced by 5 part per million.  Ten million machines!  Who's going to fund this?  There's got to be a better way.

Teachers Domain featured another version of carbon scrubbing technology in the form of a synthetic tree.  This design still held similar flaws of the other carbon scrubbers - they require large amounts of energy to remove, isolate, compress, and store the CO2 (where's that going to come from?), and they also require a significant amount of water (andwhere is that going to come from?).

I view problems like these to have solutions that fit into one of two categories.  One category involves fixes and patches.  So you're going to pollute?  That's okay.  Buy some carbon offsets.  Install this scrubber thing.  Then there's the systematic fix.  Let's change the source of our energy.  Let's drive less, eat less meat, have fewer pets.  Easy fixes - the former.  Difficult fixes - the latter.

Me...I'm going to keep riding my bike.  It's proven to keep one car off the road and has no additional energy or water requirements.  (Okay, maybe a little more energy and water requirements)

There are days where I don't see anything in the world more relevant than this topic.  I really do see it as one of the biggest issues on the Earth's plate at the moment.  It's on those days where I go on my little "Don't you know that paper airplane you made wasted a piece of paper that traveled a very long way to get here, consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels en route, only to be burned in the landfill further contributing to our problem" rants.

And it's in those moments I enjoy seeing the connections my students make.  Little by little they will begin to make the bigger connections.  In the meantime, they spend a lot of time making me see the bigger connections.

I will end on some student quotes as I remember them.  Learning is also a positive feedback loop.

"Why do you leave your water on when doing dishes?" 
"Why didn't you double side [print] this?"
"Why don't you walk there?"
"You can just email it to us."
"Do I have to print it off?  Can't I just email it to you?"

Other Cool Things:
Here's another infographic from Information Is Beautiful.  It's a nice primer if you are expecting an argument on climate change with roommate, spouse, or friend.

Wondering more about carbon scrubbers.  Here are some interesting questions and talking points investigating the reality of them.

Related to the above blog is an interactive infographic from Scientific American investigating the ecological paradox of hybrid cars.  More evidence that independent fixes (like hybrids of carbon scrubbers) will do little unless part of a much larger solution.

And of course, no discussion from me is complete without my pitch for the most efficient form of transportation yet invented by humans: the bicycle.  Efficiency of a human vs. the efficiency of a car 

Three Colleagues
Science Alaska Wages Style - This blog wondered about what to do to stop/slow/prevent climate change.  It's a question I struggle with on a daily basis.  It's hard...especially in rural Alaska where you are constantly aware of the resources you are consuming (filling stove oil, packing water, etc.).  But then again, maybe it's good to see those details.  It makes it all so tangible and real.

Explore Alaska Course - I enjoyed Sandi's discussions on climate vs weather and cyanobacteria first creating a (at the time) toxic atmosphere that brought about catastrophic climate change.  She also linked to the same Information Is Beautiful infographic that I did.  Good taste!

Many Paths to Knowledge - Marilyn talked about teaching science with music and I felt hte need to recommend the band They Might Be Giants.  Their most recent album, "Here Comes Science", is entirely devoted to science and similar relevant domains.  It's pretty awesome music.  Music can be so much fun to use in class.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Module 6: The Atmosphere

I recently read a book called Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber.  Steingraber, a cancer survivor herself, examines cancer clusters across the country and links them to sources of industrial pollution.  The book was an eye opener to me.  The connections the author makes helped strengthen my understanding of how decisions made on industrial and national levels affect entire populations that are seemingly unconnected to the source itself.  This module showed me that these connections are even more stretched than I had imagined.

I hadn't thought about the global air currents and layers work like currents and layers in the ocean.  I experienced a flash of understanding when I read that air masses move from warm to cold areas.  This I had understood in local areas to understand weather patterns, but hadn't thought about it on a global level where air moves from the tropics to the temperate areas to the arctic and antarctic regions.

This helped me understand how industrial pollutants, including the POPs discussed on the Contaminants of the Arctic Food Chain, have made their way to disturbing concentrations in the artic, an area so far from the source of the pollution itself.  

It troubles me that an area that is so unpopulated, and responsible for so little pollution, experiences more than their fair share of the results.  This pattern, unfortunately is not unique to the arctic.

I am not going to discuss the tragedy of the commons right now, but it is an extremely interesting concept that explains why human populations have a pretty terrible track record when it comes to protecting resources in the commons (the history of logging, fishing, trapping fur, mining, climate change, etc.).
While I'm not going to spend time on the tragedy of the commons here, I am going to explore the concept with my Alaska Studies class this week.  We have been looking at America's early interest in Alaska in the years immediately following the purchase from Russia.

America literally did nothing in Alaska for more than ten years following the purchase.  It wasn't until significant gold deposits were discovered that Americans in the lower 48 developed true interest.  As miners moved north, life in the North changed.  Some of those changes were for the better.  Others were for the worse.

It's hard to evaluate the decisions made in the past without a decent understanding of the commons.

Examining the historical impact of these events can help frame a discussion of events happening today.  Recent elections in Alaska had three major party candidates advocating for opening ANWR and for building a natural gas pipeline in the name of economic growth.  Is it worth it?  Are there alternatives to burning fossil fuels and adding the the level of toxic pollutants in the atmosphere? 

I am enjoying taking this course because it brings together two areas of knowledge I have - knowledge gained in my pre-Alaska life, and knowledge gained in my recent Alaska life.  Every so often I realize how I have a habit of compartmentalizing those two areas of learning.  The connections that arise at random times (like the connection of why pollutants accumulate in the arctic) help integrate my areas of knowledge.

I am wonder whether other people notice this type of learning.  The application of learning (past and present) is what I find so valuable that I am taking from this class.

Three Colleagues:
I visited Explore Alaska With Alison.  She made a small comment about flash freezing food and it reminded me of an article I'd just read in Wired discussing the very topic (ie - of freezing tissue - the article itself is about preserving human tissue samples for future research).  Clarence Birdseye, the man associated with inventing the first viable flash-freezing methods, was inspired by the way Eskimos (the article is no more specific that this) preserved their foods in the arctic - using extremely cold temperatures, ice, and wind.  

I also visited Doug's Explore Alaska Blog after receiving the words of high praise from Clay.  I was perusing his ring of fire photo tour and couldn't help notice the bicycle propped up in a few shots.  Having just completed my first bike tour (Portland to San Francisco) this summer, his photographs reminded me of the one of the best ways to learn about a region I have yet experienced.  It also makes you question your sanity when you fear the signs stating that you are leaving the tsunami danger zones (it can only mean one thing - another climb is approaching).

Blog number three for the week: Let's Explore Alaska and Get Connected by Kevin.  Reading others' comments made me think about a question one person brought up.  He or she mentioned that the wind always seems to be blowing in Barrow.  And we have a saying here in Tununak that they only time it's calm is when the wind stops blowing.  So with all that movement of air, why is it that pollutant heavy air gets hung up over the arctic?  What exactly counts as circulation?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Completely random observation about homework

I was curious about the "Stats" tab available when writing new posts so I did a little investigating.  It offers statistics about your blog including number of visitors, where they are located, etc.  I noticed an interesting theme...
See the highest peaks (this above 10 views)?  Sundays.  Quite the pattern it seems.

I just thought it was interesting.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Module 5: The Ocean

I didn't grow up near the ocean.  Kind the opposite actually.  Minnesota lies essentially in the middle of the continent.  As a result the ocean was a thing of mythic qualities.
I spent four years in Duluth going to college.  Duluth lies on the western-most point of Lake Superior - the largest lake in the world in terms of surface area (Lake Baikal in Russia beats out Lake Superior when one measures volume).

While in Duluth I volunteered in the Great Lakes Aquarium.  I learned a number of interesting things there (and then referenced here).  For example, Lake Superior holds 3 quadrillion gallons of water, enough to cover North and South America with a foot of water.  Pretty shocking, really.

But the Great Lakes Aquarium, since opening, has been underwater  - financially.  It seems that there is a reason there is only one aquarium in the United States dedicated entirely to fresh water.  To help keep the aquarium afloat (sorry), they brought in an exhibit featuring things from the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the oceans.  I love Lake Superior.  But the Mariana Trench - come on now.  Ocean trumps lake in the game of water war.

I really enjoyed the list of ocean superlatives and fascinating facts.  I think I spent too much time reading over them.  But how can you not?  Here are some gems:

Average depth:  12,000 feet! (For comparison, Lake Superior, at its deepest is a mere 1300 feet.

Average temperature: 39 degrees Fahrenheit (makes me feel bad for all the comments I made about the Bering Sea right outside my door - it's only a little below average right now)

Random gold fact: The ocean contains 20 tons of gold (the next gold rush?)

New life forms: A new form of life, that derives energy from chemical processes rather than from light, lives in the depths of the ocean where light cannot penetrate.

Oil spills: More oil reaches the oceans each year as a result of leaking automobiles and other non-point sources than was spilled in Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez (ride a bike)

The fragility of the ocean: A mere three degrees difference in ocean temperatures can mean ecological collapse


I see studying the oceans to be a very strong metaphor about learning and how learning can increase our understanding of what it means to be a steward of the environment.

My students are very interested in protecting the environment. I mean, they claim that they are. But I regularly see them do things that don't necessarily reflect their views in class. The problem is far from unique to only my students. I think that it extends pretty well throughout American culture.

So the metaphor to get my students to make the connection between thought and deed?

It would start with the video explaining the connection between ocean temperature and the ecosystem. As sea temperatures rise, cold-preferring fish swim at lower depths to find cold water. The fish that had been eating those fish are now stressed to find enough food to survive.

As the populations of fish (as well as other sea-based foods) begin to suffer, animals higher up the food chain begin to feel the impact. What had started as a seemingly benign change of temperature ended up sending ripples (if not tsunamis) through the whole interrelated food chain.

This video is a good starting point for the interconnectedness of life. It lays things out the connections and helps viewers gain an understanding of how affecting one thing can affect

How does this relate to my students lives?

We might look at the potential life cycle of something like a plastic bottle that accidentally escapes the dump (a likely scenario due to the high winds we endure on a weekly basis). It's only a short jump from dump to sea, from sea to ocean current, and from there, it's now on at the mercy of the sea.

Once in the sea, the elements begin it's break down into smaller pieces. But being plastic, it will never truly break down the way organic materials do. It just becomes easier to be eaten by other creatures.

What isn't eaten ends up in one of the many great garbage patches in the ocean.  These patches arise in ocean gyres that trap litter and debris, including high concentrations of small bits of plastic and "chemical sludge" from various sources.
Layson Albatross Chic
This brings us around to consumption. At any time in the plastic bottles journey up until this point it may become (or part of it may become) lunch for a passing fish or bird. Sometimes eaten accidently, other times eaten intentionally, the result is the same - plastic has been consumed. Birds and fish, like people, do not digest plastic. As a result, what cannot be passed is not passed - it simply builds up in the stomachs and digestive systems of the animal, eventually leading to death.

A choice made at the grocery store leading ultimately to death, perhaps years later, perhaps thousands of miles away.


The ocean is a wonderful opportunity to use with students. It affects life across the entire spectrum. It affects climate and weather. It influences culture and diet. It impacts immigration and trade routes. It's hard to find a subject that isn't influenced in some way by the ocean.

Three Colleagues
Visits this week included Amy's Explore Alaska Blog, Emerson's Explorations, and Alaskan Wisdom.

I found Amy's reflections on the same video I looked at - Warmer Oceans Affect Food Web.  Amy lives on Gambell and it was interesting to hear of the reports her students there of how the hunting of polar bear has changed in their lifetime as a result of global warming.
Cheryl, on Emerson's Explorationstook the information about gold in the ocean (enough for every person on the planet to have nine pounds) and extrapolated a number of interesting scenarios. For example, at current market value - each person would have $210, 016. An interesting situation that would be.

Tyler wrote on his blog, Alaskan Wisdom, about a bath toy disaster (think Exxon Valdez, only the cargo is plastic bathtoys) in the Gulf of Alaska. Twelve 40-foot containers were lost overboard, one of which held the precious cargo - 28,800 "Friendly Floatee" plastic bath toys. If only all such degradation of our natural environment was so benign seeming.