Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Measuring the Invisible: Air Pressure and Quality Monitoring

Ah, sweet Spring… that marvelous seemingly magical time of year when the trees leaf out overnight, the bulbs and bushes burst into full bloom, and everything awakens to a fluorescent yellow stickiness that makes many folks suffer miserably through the welcoming season. We tend to sense the air around us more this time of year because we can smell the fragrant aromas in the breeze and see the bright pollen that entices the insects to do their important work. In my area, the pollen count leads the weather segment most evenings this month. The other time of year we focus on air quality is fast-approaching. As increasing heat commands weather patterns, we will likely hear even more about critical ozone warnings while spectacular, yet bittersweet, sunsets intensify thanks to summer pollution.

Found all over the United States, particulates and ozone are just two of the six common air pollutants for which The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Realizing that air is a critical resource that most of us take for granted, I decided to learn more. Virtually invisible, it is a difficult concept to master and a challenging topic to teach. As part of a Community Grant Program Award from the North Texas Clean Air Coalition, I created the A-I-R website to support the integration of hands-on, inquiry-based activities with current tools and resources to create a positive, technology-infused learning environment. The Air Lift! activity is one way we helped lifelong learners kinesthetically test the force of air pressure. Download the instructions by clicking here or on the image.

Your students can find out about current air quality trends on the EPA’s Where You Live page.

Instructor Notes: The Air Lift! activity could be leveraged as a cross-disciplinary link to physics or even technology when it comes to measuring air pressure and quality. The first thing I did at those summer workshops was to set up a CO2 probeware experiment to measure a cricket’s respiration. Like in a magic show, I made it ‘clear’ that there was ‘nothing’ in the stoppered bottle but the cricket. After our lunch break, we studied the resultant graph that definitely indicated something more was happening!

A few years later, I used that same ‘trick’ to get the attention of a diverse crowd at the Texas Aquarium and Zoo Educator annual meeting one year where we focused on ‘measuring the invisible’ in terms of educational research. FYI, in each case, we celebrated the cricket’s release back into the wild before any harm came about to any of the participants.

HippoCampus Correlations: There are several excellent resources on the HippoCampus site too! Among others, Photochemical Smog illustrates how air masses can become inversion layers and trap air pollution in an area. Earth’s Atmosphere describes the varying layers and air pressures surrounding our planet. Air Movement describes how air pressure and temperature differentials affect wind patterns. Climate Systems explores the potential regional effects of changing water and air currents.

Remember that you can use the activity-based playlists on my Hippo page for quick access to each of the media files referenced in these posts! Also, you can use the links on the SRCpage archive to access the PDF activity files directly.

The A-I-R on my website stands for Action-Interaction-Reaction: YOU are THE key! Environmental action begins with environmental literacy. By providing teachers with the content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and technology tools needed to make a positive impact in their classrooms, we can encourage action – interaction – and reactions to air quality issues. Focusing on ecological knowledge, and social and political knowledge, and sustaining environmental resources in a personally-relevant context will develop the critical foundation required for action. Coming round full circle to the good/bad news noted in my first post, as John Muir put it: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The Wind Map project (which will blow you away) is one way to visualize the interconnections that flow throughout this wonderful topic of Environmental Science. How do you cleverly teach critical concepts so that your students internalize them today?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Raising the proverbial bar: Upcycling ‘waste’ with technology-supported design

Good educators are experienced designers. The research shows that the teacher is the single most important variable in any classroom! Among so many other distractions, you are responsible for the learning environment in which you teach and your students learn. No need for any qualifiers there… they are always learning something; hopefully that new life experience includes something from your lesson plan.

Great educators have mastered the magic of minimizing ‘waste’ in terms of time, tools, and especially, non-essential effort. (That’s why it’s not at all surprising that we share this common interest in HippoCampus!) Engaging today’s students in yesterday’s classrooms can be a challenge indeed. In fact, it’s an uphill battle at times! But thankfully recent trends in teaching and learning are encouraging creativity in the classroom – for both teachers and students finally! Problem-based learning centered on real-world issues is one of the ways we can challenge learners to maximize their unique potential.

I was fascinated by the universal implications of upcycling as explained in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Far beyond the relatively simple recycling practice we ‘boomers’ practice, the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. Of course, recycling is still a key component of modern waste reduction; however, students may not realize that it does not provide a long-term solution.

In contrast to the third component of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" waste hierarchy, upcycling is a process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value – moving resources back up the supply chain. Upcycling requires innovative design and is likely critical to maintaining a balance between consumption and availability in our current system. Hence, the new activity Cycling Up Hill was designed as a summative assessment! Click on the following image to download a copy.

I’m certainly not suggesting that reducing and reusing and recycling are a waste! There are many excellent tools and resources on the EPA’s Learn the Issues page on Waste. For example, Individual WAste Reduction Model (iWARM) is the consumer version of the WAste Reduction Model (WARM) created by the EPA to help solid waste planners and organizations estimate the energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions from several different waste management practices. Extending the Energy Watchers activity, it explains the energy saved by recycling small quantities of common household products, rather than landfilling them.

HippoCampus Connections: As you’d expect, the HippoCampus site also includes relevant resources you can design into your lessons in a variety of ways! A Modern Landfill shows how landfills are created and illustrates the lasting change to the natural environment. The next option for garbage disposal is detailed in Incineration, which also contributes to landfills. The External Costs video explores relates the cost of pollution clean-up to private production costs and the overall economic and environmental impacts. The Superfund animation tells the story of Love Canal – and how waste dumping resulted in long-term health problems and government action.

Instructor Notes: If you have the time and resources, I think the Cycling Up Hill activity is a perfect fit for graphic animation as an alternative project outcome! Mashable offers a good summary of Free Animated GIF Creators You Can Use Online. I’m always looking for innovative ways to integrate new teaching techniques into the online learning environment, which adds the title of ‘instructional designer’ to my ever-growing list. If this aspect interests you too, you might want to check out Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen. In addition to practical information that can be applied immediately, she models a visually-rich presentation style that fits my classroom.

Sometimes seemingly off-task topics demand/deserve your attention. Leveraging those rare ‘teachable moments’ is never a waste of time. Knowing we made a unique contribution makes all the difference. Somehow, how we chose to orchestrate the physical, intellectual and emotional aspects of the learning environment makes having to deal with the tedious tasks of academic politics is worthwhile – and on occasion, priceless. Thank you for the great work you do in putting together great lessons for our future problem-solvers!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Internalizing “the Worth of Water”: Human Hydration and Water Conservation

If you drive over 800 miles across Texas (west to east) along Interstates 10 and 20 and 30, you can’t help but notice the differences between ecoregions as you move from the Chihuahuan Desert of El Paso to the Piney Woods of Texarkana. Having experienced that continuum of increasing annual precipitation (and being a native Texan), I’d almost bet my brother’s pickup truck that you’d find an almost direct and inverse correlation of location to attitude toward water conservation. I don’t even want to think about the real numbers for actual action at present.

As Benjamin Franklin said way back in 1746, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water” (Poor Richard's Almanac). Depending on where and how your students live, they may not appreciate the critical importance of fresh drinking water - and I mean critical as in life-support. Most of the water on our planet is contained in two areas that most people can’t readily access or use. And on top of that, all of the water that is on this planet is the same water that we’ve always had! The Water, Water Everywhere! activity shows how very limited the water that we have to use is relative to the total supply.

Used as a diagnostic assessment, this hands-on exploration adds an urgent perspective to protecting and conserving our precious water – and all natural – resources. And since March 11-17 is National Groundwater Awareness Week this year, the EPA’s Learn the Issues page on Water is a terrific place to start all sorts of investigations that ought to have a great deal of personal relevance to your students! With activities for all ages, students can find out how water is stored in an aquifer, how groundwater can become contaminated, and how this contamination may end up in their drinking water!

HippoCampus Connections: You can also incorporate these resources from the HippoCampus site in a variety of ways! The Water Cycle exploration in NOAA: Water Cycle graphically shows where water accumulates in the water cycle – and how it moves through the cycle. The Global Impact video, also in NOAA: Water Cycle explains how water pollution threatens our relatively scarce fresh water supply. Similarly, Water Resources illustrates what happens to fresh water within a watershed. The Water Distillation video shows how pond water, sea water, and tap water can be purified. And the Wastewater Treatment video describes how we are reclaiming reusable water resources.

Instructor Notes: Click here to see how Dr. Fred Fifer helped Texas science teachers learn how to integrate the Water, Water Everywhere! activity into their classroom teaching. He goes on to show how this experiential training activity can lead to discussions on how this experience can help all understand the term 'variable' and the importance of water conservation.

Researchers estimate that half of the world's population is chronically dehydrated. And in America, that level is thought to be even higher at 75 percent of the population. According to WebMD, “Dehydration can occur in anyone of any age, but it is most dangerous for babies, small children, and older adults.” Check out the Hydration Calculator to figure out how much water your body requires to function properly. To see how much your students have internalized, challenge them to create an ‘infographic’ of the benefits of hydration – along with the percentage of water in their own bodies! Here’s an example to help sustain your flow of creativity

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Sustainable Frontier Ethic: Reclaiming Non-Renewable Energy Sites

This month’s blog topic, Land & Cleanup, is far more personally relevant than I expected! Beautiful spring-like weather coerced me to do my annual yard cleanup much earlier than usual. Even though I’ve xeriscaped significantly, non-native invasive vines and saplings commandeer a good bit of physical energy each season.

Speaking of energy, the previous post focused on one kind of renewable energy: solar. The Great Buffalo Shortage activity helps students learn how to weigh the trade-offs of mining operations, a common way of extracting non-renewable energy sources. Like the buffalo, that almost became extinct, without proper management, we may lose the environment itself. Click on the image below or right here to review a truly hands-on model that offers a fun formative assessment!

Many students tend to believe that mining always produces a profit. They may not know about the regulations governing mining and requirements for land management or how to weigh the yield. As detailed on the EPA’s abandoned mine lands site, AMLs present serious threats to human health and the environment… not to mention often extreme scarring of the land. I think it’s well worth your time to scroll way down NASA’s remote sensing tutorial page to see satellite images of long term changes in resource use, such as strip mining and the progress of land reclamation.

Instructor Notes: It’s sadly easy to relate real-world stories of energy-related environmental destruction back to almost every activity I’ve shared to date! Think about the implications of mining operations in terms of systems (Balancing Acts), adaptation (Moth Mothers), food webs (Oops, I Broke It), and population (No More Room), for starters. That’s why I was so happy to see a new Fact Sheet added to the EPA resource site just this past December. Directly related to the Energy Watchers activity, Shining Light on a Bright Opportunity: Developing Solar Energy on Former Mine Lands provides a great summary of solar energy – and how abandoned mining areas can serve as ‘renewed’ sites for renewable energy production.

HippoCampus Connections: Several excellent resources on HippoCampus support an understanding of why the revitalization and reuse of damaged land – and protection of land in general – is important to each of us. The Mining for Borax video shows a real-world success story of managing this balance. Unsustainable Frontier Ethic simulation shows why it’s critical we find and maintain a balance by explaining desert encroachment. Tree Harvesting explains how we can mechanically remove a renewable resource in a sustainable way. The Fight to Preserve the Bollana Wetlands presents a case study of how citizens took action to save a local environment from over-development. Other related items of possible interest include: Mine Restoration and Area Strip Mining.

FYI: I’ve set up playlists on myHippo page at the new HippoCampus site to match all of these blog activities for your convenience.

Even though your students may not have direct exposure to mining operations, other than the many historic towns that come to mind initially (Leadville, CO for example), there are many active operations globally. See what’s closest to home on the USGS Mine and Mineral Processing Plant Locations map – and then see if your students agree with the practices and policies in place there today!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Taking Ownership of Environmental Protection

A big part of this season’s holiday joy, for many, centers on family anecdotes from years past that are remembered as we write the stories for future generations to recall. For some reason this year I thought about how my dad – who coached my community sports teams – told us how to win. He said there were only two things that mattered: scoring more points than the other team and not letting them score more points than we did! Yes, it’s just that simple.

As many of us ponder likely familiar resolutions for 2012, I decided to build on my dad’s advice to plan my personal goals this year. I aim to do more things that are ‘good’ for myself and fewer things that are ‘bad’ for myself. The same trade-off works for this month’s blog post topic. Paraphrased in terms of sustainability, we simply need to use more alternative energy and not use as much from sources that negatively impact our economy, safety, and environment.

Unfortunately, it’s not such a simple task to actually implement either challenge. Need some energy? Just flip a switch and the lights come on, or the computer boots up, or the washing machine starts to run. Many students think that electricity comes from the wall; they do not consider what had to happen for that electricity to be produced and to get to that wall socket. Further, they have no idea about the amount of energy they are using. The summative Energy Watchers activity is all about making the abstract more concrete – and putting all of that into a personally-relevant context.

Yes, this activity was inspired by the Weight Watchers program success! From their homepage, “Weight Watchers works because it’s not a diet. You’ll learn how to eat right and live healthy.” Fortunately, quantifying energy consumption and production along with comprehensive cost-benefit analysis for each option is becoming a lot easier and far more interesting thanks to new technologies that have recently made it to market. Adding an increased awareness of the causes and effects of our pre-information revolution lifestyles to that growing knowledge base is catalyzing exciting collaborations that reach across the political and peculiar boundaries for positive change.

Instructor Notes: Many new homes are equipped with ‘smart meters’ that send electricity consumption data to the utility. Smart meters can also record the energy fed back into the distribution network from co-generation sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. An internet search will also return ‘Home Energy Management Software’ apps to gain valuable insight into energy use. To gain a broader perspective, take a look at Chevron’s Energyville. While it’s called a game, it is a powerful simulation tool for controlling the energy mix of a virtual city. It can be played individually or as teams. You might set up class challenges! Even if you don’t use the gaming component, a wealth of information on energy sources and demands is nicely presented on the well-designed site.

Hoping to ‘score more points than the other team’, I am thrilled to be a part of the first community solar project in Colorado Springs. This innovative plan offers an affordable way for me to utilize solar energy – thanks to many people who worked together to figure it out. The city council unanimously approved the idea of a solar garden in September 2011. SunShare negotiated a working relationship with the local utility company to make it all possible. I leased my option in October to leverage attractive government incentives. The governor attended a groundbreaking ceremony when the first panels were installed in November. And I should see a credit for the energy piped into the local grid on my January 2012 electric bill! Perhaps someday soon I’ll need to map my CO to/from TX route on the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center site to make sure I can refuel my next vehicle as needed!

We all need to take ownership of environmental protection in whatever ways we can. Encourage your students to seek out other ways to reduce their environmental footprints today – at home, at school, in the garden, and in the community! The EPA’s Green Living page includes many great ideas and current information and a link to their Sustainability site. How will you measure your students’ success this year? It all adds up to a win-win for a healthier and happier future.