Category Archives: Communicating science to the rest of us

Skeletons in the closets

Part 4. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

From Bend to Dayville’s Fish House Inn and RV, where I camped for the next 4 nights, is a 2-1/2 hour drive, which I made in 7 hours—on purpose. Stopping in the Painted Hills near Mitchell is mandatory! Only 1.75 hours from Bend, don’t miss this amazing unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, or JODA, in National Park Service shorthand. 

painted hills

Some of the painted hills, on a cloudy day

When you go, allow 2 to 3 hours for meandering on all 5 short loops in the Painted Hills, and taking lots of pictures. At three of the loops through the rainbow colored hills, I crossed paths with Park Ranger Michelle, who I learned was the same person with whom I had been emailing to arrange the week’s volunteer work. She recognized me by my trailer; apparently there are not many teardrop campers wandering around JODA in mid October. We made a plan to meet at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, aka, JODA Visitor Center, the next morning when my volunteer work would begin.

Michelle oriented me to the visitor center and the fossil bed basics—and turned me loose to wander the museum to get the gestalt. Who knew that from 50 to 5 million years ago a panoply of now-extinct mammals—evolutionary predecessors of felines, canids, cameloids, and horses—roamed the volcanic cauldron of what is now central Oregon? Or that the fossils they left behind, buried in the layers of a multitude of volcanic eruptions of ash, lava, and whatever else volcanoes spew, provide such a complete evolutionary record that they are used as reference points by paleontologists world-wide studying the Tertiary, or the age of mammals? OK, the question is rhetorical. I’m sure lots of people knew. But until a week ago, I was not one of them. Still, I can’t get my head around the concept of “50 to 5 million years ago” or baffling words like “Tertiary.” But this is a place where paleontological science laboratory meets museum meets family friendly indoor-outdoor learning playground. I witnessed the “swearing in” of two eager Aussie 10-11 year old siblings as they worked the children’s activities to earn Junior Ranger status. Their wonderment helped put a new sense of awe in my steps through this extraordinary terrain.

JODA painting workspaceAs for my volunteer work at JODA, “work” is the wrong word. The next 4 days felt more like recreation than work. Michelle’s job includes running educational programs at the visitor center, for which she often uses fossil replicas made to look like the real ones, to give school groups hands-on experiences with them. To create the realistic look, she spends her spare time during slower winter months painting the replicas. She set me up with a table and latex paints and brushes, showed me some real fossils (in background of photo) to use for models, and let me channel my inner Georgia O’Keefe on the replicas.

JODA my painted fossils

Replicas, L to R: an oreodont, a mousedeer, and a peccary

 I was happier than a clam at high tide! Second photo shows some of my final products.  

The other job I helped with was reviewing a ’90s era hands-on fossil curriculum that JODA sends out to schools for use in earth science and biology classes learning about evolution and how paleontologists piece clues together. The kit contains 16 fossil casts of various ages of horse heads and teeth through their evolution during the 45m years of the age of mammals. Michelle and I discussed how the curriculum could be updated to reflect the Next Generation Science Standards in wide use nationwide today. We planted the seed of an idea  for a summer teachers’ workshop to redesign the lessons in light of today’s classroom needs. Pure fun, bringing my 40+ years of teaching experience to this volunteer assignment.

JODA blue basin morn sun

Along the Blue Basin trail

There is so much more to write about this place—but it’s better to go see for yourself! Another MUST DO when you go is to walk the 1-mile Blue Basin trail near the visitor center. Absolutely eye-popping! (Yes, the hills really are aqua-colored.) And you can’t miss Picture Gorge as you drive through the valley—it’s equally jaw dropping.


Folks don’t usually want others to see the skeletons in their closets, but at JODA, they are the main event!

Volunteer hours worked at JODA: 24

2 thumbs up 14.05.29

Yes we can, by dam!

Part 5. ONDA Riparian Restoration Work Camp Trip

hi des crooked2

South Crooked River valley in the Ochoco Mts.

My week-long volunteer circuit around the Ochoco Mountains included a two-day work camp sponsored by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA. Circling the Ochocos clockwise, I stopped often to marvel at the incongruity of a “desert river” and found the gravel turnoff at a milepost somewhere between East-and-West-of-the-Hinterlands. The last 4.5 miles brought a 30-minute crawl overhi des denizens bovine hills, gullies, and rangeland between rocky buttes. Two range-roaming cows were unimpressed with my rig. Just when I was certain I was lost, I spotted the tents and cars of my fellow volunteers, and maneuvered JT into the encampment.


Seventeen of us met on a Thursday evening at this crackling dry, juniper-studded field along the South Fork Crooked River. After dinner, we had a fireless (due to a statewide burn ban) “fireside chat” about the next two days’ work, then hustled under a billion stars to warm sleeping bags as the temperature plummeted. Jefferson Jacobs, the ONDA staffer who led this trip, is well known among ONDA volunteers for fireside discussions, where he shares his considerable knowledge of the high desert region, its history, peoples, and ecosystems. His story-telling reputation is what  prompted me to sign up for this trip, and the stories were as delightful as predicted.

4frosty morn1By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, Jefferson had brewed us the most delicious coffee I ever tasted. I suspect he has learned that this is the best—if not the only—way to entice people out of warm sleeping bags on a 15˚F morning. I also suspect that the temperature had something to do with how good the coffee tasted.  At eight o’clock we gathered with shovels, work gloves, bag lunches and water bottles, and hiked through the frosty fields about a quarter mile to the day’s worksite in a grassy meadow by the river.




ONDA groups who preceded us earlier in the summer had  prepped the area in two ways:

  1. digging in exclosueOn one trip they had built several welded wire-mesh fenced enclosures (approximately 20 or 30’ square), or exclosures in volunteer-lingo, because excluding  deer and beaver is the only way to keep the young plants from being browsed to the ground in the critical first years while they get established. (as seen at right)9BDA2


2. On another trip they built two beaver-dam-analogs a half mile apart (or BDAs, as seen at left), These obstructions across the river made of logs with intertwined willow twigs slow water flow and raise the adjacent floodplain water table, in this case, by two feet. The BDA will give this patchwork of creekside plantings a fighting chance of surviving the hot  Oregon desert summers.

On this assignment, work meant work! Jefferson had lined up some 2,300 native saplings and shrubs for this crew to get in the ground: cottonwood, aspen, willow, alder, red-twig dogwood, elderberry, spirea, currant, and meadow wildflowers. We planted half at each of the two BDA locations. The second day a group of 20 or 30-something young recruits turbo-boosted the effort by lowering the average age of our group significantly. We called them the Riders of Rohan, from the epic scene in the Two Towers movie (Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy)—a team-building mythology instigated by Jefferson. 19happydiggers

In one of our fireless chats, we learned why we were working in this particular place. This 3-mile stretch of the South Fork Crooked River is on a 1200-acre parcel owned by Otto Keller, who is keen on land conservation and restoration. He collaborates with ONDA and other partners to restore the South Fork Crooked River to some of its former ecological diversity. Together they have successfully removed several acres of juniper and repaired fences to prevent cattle trespass (a significant issue, especially when one tries to find ungrazed land to study the effects of grazing on ecosystems). The partnership is now knee-deep in riparian restoration—with hopes of bringing back a habitat that can support native denizens such as trout and beaver. Oregon once teemed with beaver, but trappers nearly eliminated them from their natural range throughout central Oregon. In 20 years, when these plantings have grown, it is hoped that they will provide the elements beavers need to build dams and trout need for shelter and spawning.

8BDAJefferson was confident that this ragtag band of conservationists, ranging in age from 25 to 80 could get 2300 plants tucked into the ground in two 8-hour days. This was hard work, yet many of these folks keep coming back year after year to plant more sections of this meandering creek’s banks, and to check up on last year’s babies. Camaraderie buoyed this crew of shovel-wielding hole-diggers (2300 holes is a lot of digging) and trowel-bearing plant setters, and by dam—we did it! 

Two very muddy thumbs up!  muddy thumbs up muddy thumbs up


Volunteer hours worked: 16

riparian saplings   riparian empties


How to Make 300 Phytopathologists Laugh

By Eleanor Burke

In a short video, the person behind the camera posed this question to a series of random people: “What is a phytopathologist?” Stupefied stares accompanied answers ranging from, “No clue!” to “Is it about dogs?” (Think Fido-pathologist.) The audience laughed uproariously—probably because it was a gathering of the American Phytopathological Society–some 1,500 of whose members attended their annual meeting last summer in the Rhode IslaIMG_1883nd Convention Center.

Phytopathologists are specialists in plant diseases–doctors for plants, which, like people, can get sick and need medical attention. Why care about sick plants? Imagine one week in your life without them. No veggies, potatoes, or pasta; no meat or fish, since the drumstick on your plate owes its existence to plants, as well. Forget clothing, since fibers (even synthetics) originated as plants. In a plantless world, you would pretty much be living on water, wearing your birthday suit, and sleeping under the stars.

The sessions at the convention summoned visions of Greek mythological characters: Phytoplasma, Fastidious Prokaryote, Rhizosphere Ecology—yikes. But the keynote session, completely accessible to mere mortals, delivered a profoundly important message for scientists everywhere. The engaging speakers, Valerie Lantz-Gefroh and Evonne Kaplan Liss of the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, urged the auditorium of scientists to re-think how they communicate their knowledge to the rest of us, because what they have to say is too important to get lost in the fog of research publications that most non-scientists—politicians, funders, policy makers, and commoners like us—can’t follow. Continue reading →

Q&A with Green Empowerment Fellow Patrick Pawletko: Micro-Hydro in Myanmar, 2015-16

Published at    [Questions and responses edited for  continuity.]

Patrick graduated from Purdue University in 2014 with a degree in Civil Engineering. While studying there, he participated in a team collaboration to develop a locally sourced, locally fabricated micro-hydropower facility in the rural community of Bangang, Cameroon, where he gained his early lessons in micro-hydropower (MH) as a sustainable energy solutioPatrick Pn for rural communities. He carried these lessons on to his work with Green Empowerment, first as an intern for our partner organization Tonibung in Malaysian Borneo, and more recently as a GE Fellow in Myanmar, where he has spent a year exploring the possibilities for GE collaboration in developing MH facilities for rural villages with no other access to electricity. The opinions he offers are his own, and not necessarily those of Green Empowerment or of the other networks mentioned in this article.

How did you decide to focus your work on Micro Hydro solutions to rural development?

I’ve always been intrigued by small hydropower production—especially with all the new technologies coming out. I love to geek out on solving the engineering problems—and nothing can match the cost per kilowatt of Micro Hydro, if it’s done right.

Fresh out of a one-year internship, you took on a Fellowship assignment as GE’s solo man-on-the-ground to explore MH possibilities in Myanmar. How did that feel, starting out cold and alone, and not knowing the territory?

It felt cold and alone! But I had a good foundation to stand on. Shortly after graduation in 2014, I had worked as a “deck hand” at an HPNet* practice-to-policy event in Myanmar. I photo-documented the event, and was fortunate to meet a number of local MH developers. Volunteering at that conference planted the seeds for my fellowship work this past year.  [*HPNet = Hydro EmPowerment Network a community of MH actors whose mission is “Knowledge exchange for Community Micro Hydro in South and Southeast Asia.”]

Two key people paved my way into the MH community in Myanmar. GE’s Asia Regional Director, Gabe Wynn, had already established a solid landing environment for me. And HPNet’s Coordinator Dipti Vaghela guided my path to getting settled here. She also wasn’t shy about telling me the DO’s and DON’Ts about this work.

What sort of DO’s or DON’Ts did she recommend?

My early mentality was: “Find funding! Establish partners! Identify tech transfer opportunities!” But Dipti taught me that it’s not always about planting a flag for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes it’s important to stay behind the scenes.

Together with local developers we wrote a proposal to the biggest players—in the government and various bilateral development partners, for a Development Plan for Micro and Mini Hydropower Implementation of the NEP of Myanmar, using a Public-Private Partnership Approach. It lays a plan for the best chance for the MH sector to become sustainable. She taught me the important nuances of this proposal coming from local developers, not outside agents or NGOs. So the Small Hydro Power Association of Myanmar (SHPAM), a local practitioner’s association, authored the proposal, and we kept largely to the background.

What do you see as the most pressing issue affecting MH development in Myanmar?

Definitely the National Electrification Plan (NEP). It’s an ambitious plan which calls for 99% connection to the national grid by 2030, whereas currently only 30% of households are connected. The 1% not included in the grid-extension area would mostly access electricity through solar home systems, because they are too remote to connect to the grid before 2030, or maybe ever.

The target for sustainable MH mini-grids is primarily the half-million households in the “pre-electrification” zone, where their connection to the grid is 10-15 years out. MH is preferable to solar home systems for several reasons. Locally manufactured and maintained, it creates jobs in the local economy. And unlike solar, it runs both day and night, so it can power both income-producing end-uses like cottage industries, pumps, and rice mills, as well as evening household needs, and socially important facilities like schools and health care centers.

There are many—somewhere around 1,000—MH mini-grids built by private sector actors in Myanmar over the past 30 years, at a time when the former government was not paying much attention to rural electrification. These community-owned mini-grids are facing an uphill battle, because solar home systems can be implemented more quickly and on a larger scale than technologies like MH or biomass gasification, and the anticipated encroachment by the national grid is a disincentive for many MH mini-grid developers to pursue high quality sites, except in the most remote regions of the country. It isn’t clear what the new democratically elected government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), will do next. We hope to support our local partners, primarily the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar, make the case for MH mini-grids, and decentralized renewable energy solutions in general, as part of the new government’s energy planning process.

 After your year of internship in Borneo, you blogged that “nothing trumps the culture element in community Micro Hydro. It is the single most accurate predictor of project success and failure.” Is that still your main takeaway, after a year in the field in Myanmar?

Continue reading →

EE in U.S. High Schools: Survey and Analysis of Correlated Sustainability Features

IMG_2350A.L.M. Capstone Project Abstract

Since the enactment of the U.S. National Environmental Education Act of 1990, American schools seeking to develop K-16 Environmental Education (EE) programs ask which forces best drive strong environmental curriculum. Survey data from 193 high schools quantified their sustainability features and environmental curricular offerings. Univariate regression analysis determined the most significant sustainability variables (p< .05), and odds ratio analysis ranked their correlation with robust EE. The ratios suggest importance of: student demand for EE offerings; institutional commitment; teacher, facilities manager, and/or campus coordinator leadership; and networking or publicizing beyond school walls.

For the full article (7000 words) contact the author:

On the first day of Lyme Season…


On the first day of Lyme season…

My backyard gave to me: five nymphal ticks, four white-footed mice, three chipmunks, two shrub-eating deer, and the acorns from an oak tree. Each of these factors, not just the deer and the ticks, plays an important role in current epidemic levels of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S. Many towns in the region are culling, or considering culling the deer population in an effort to lower the incidence of Lyme. Studies indicate they may be shooting at the wrong critters. Continue reading →