Dr. Bret Pasch, Assistant Professor in the biology department at NAU, is partnering with one of Jillian Worssam’s 8th grade science classes at Sinagua Middle School through the “Scientists in the Classroom” program founded by Jillian.
Bret specializes in recording and analyzing mouse vocalizations and has brought his digital sound recorder into Jillian’s classroom so the students can learn first-hand about singing mice. These grasshopper mice have a relatively loud voice so other mice can hear them over the vast distances in the desert where they live.
Bret shared audio recordings of the mice, and then slowed them down so the sound was more apparent to those of us with ears that don’t hear at high frequencies any more! He also showed the students how they can measure both the frequency and duration of the sounds on the sonogram.
The students are making hypotheses about whether the male or the female mice will vocalize more frequently, and which will have a higher pitch, higher amplitude (loudness), and longer duration of the sounds. Bret will leave the mice (male on one side of the room and female on the other) for the next few months along with the digital recorders so students can capture their vocalizations. The mice are nocturnal and vocalize more at night, so the students will be able to access their sounds when they return to school each day.
Bret fed the mice while eager students looked on. He fed them their natural diet of bark scorpions, which are one of most venomous scorpions in Arizona. These mice have a mutation in their pain receptors so they don’t feel the sting as much as another species of mice would. They also like Pinacate bugs that lift their hind ends and spray as a defense strategy. The mice have a behavior where they stick the bugs abdomens in the ground so they don’t get sprayed and then they eat the heads first!
Thank you to Bret for participating in the Scientists in the Classroom program and also for elucidating information on singing mice through a Science on Tap presentation to the community! Flagstaff really appreciates your scientific outreach to both our schools and our community!
Note: You can also see and hear the mice at Bonnie Stevens’ Brain Food story on Bret Pasch here!
Guest Blog Post by Tad Theimer, NAU Professor of Biology
Flagstaff is a city of science. We are literally surrounded by science. Up on Mars Hill there lies Lowell Observatory, to the north the Museum of Northern Arizona, the offices of the USGS, to the east and west the laboratories of GORE, to the south Northern Arizona University, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, TGen, the Naval Observatory, to mention but a few.
So I stand here as a scientist in a city of scientists. How many of you out there are scientists? How many the family or friends of a scientist?
It’s been said that you know you are a scientist when you wake up on a Saturday morning and think, “I could walk the dog, I could read the paper, I could go for a run, but what I really want to do is analyze that new data set, or sneak off to the lab for one more quick experiment.” And all your friends and families of scientists have seen that, you’ve seen them sneak out the door late at night or early in the morning. So we here all know that inside the breast of every scientist beats a heart as passionate, as driven, as that of any artist, musician or poet. Scientists do what they do because they can’t help themselves. They are driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, by an insatiable hunger to understand the world. That relentlessness, that dogged curiosity, is something folks who haven’t been around scientists may not realize, and as a result they may underestimate the power that stands here today. Because that same passion, that same resolution, that scientists bring to doing science, scientists will also bring to defending science. And that is why we stood here last year, and why we stand here today and why we will be here next year, and the year after that, and the year after that!
So we here in Flagstaff understand what science is, why it is important, and that we must help others understand the important role science plays in our lives. The speakers who went before me articulated that very well. But there is another point about science that we have to make folks understand. Scientists follow data to whatever truth they may lead, regardless of the implications that truth may have. And so scientists sometimes discover inconvenient truths, truths that make us have to question the way behave toward this earth, toward each other. Truths that are inconvenient because they come with costs. The cost of making sacrifices today so that our children and grandchildren can have a decent world to live in tomorrow. This is an important role scientists play, and
I have been trying to think of a simple analogy to help folks understand that important role of science, so let me try this out on you:
Let’s imagine that my inconvenient truth is that I only have $10 in my bank account. But because of this magical piece of plastic called a credit card, I can buy a car, I can buy fancy food and delicious drinks. And some of my friends will support me in ignoring my inconvenient truth because they like to ride in my car and drink my drinks and eat my food. But one or two of my friends will take me aside and say “Tad, what are you doing? You’re acting crazy! You only have ten bucks! If you keep this up you’re heading for financial ruin!” Now we all know which one of those friends is the most valuable. It’s the one with the courage to stand up and tell me the truth even though I didn’t want to hear it. And that’s what scientists do! They are the friends who stand up and tell us the truth even when we don’t want to hear it!!
We are passing through dark days for science. Honesty, reliability, consistency, responsible conduct. These are the cornerstones of science. These are also the foundations of a civil society. Yet every day these ideas are mocked, denigrated, cast aside! We live in a time when integrity has been replaced with irresponsibility, where falsehoods hold the same credence as facts. It is no wonder that we sometimes feel dazed, in a world turned upside down.
These are dark days, but we have seen darker. When I am most in despair for this world, I am reminded of Galileo, that great scientist who dared to follow his data to an inconvenient truth, that radical idea that the earth was not the center of the universe, fixed and immovable, but instead moved around the sun in its orbit. Today that seems like a ridiculously harmless fact, that the earth goes around the sun, but at the time, it was a very inconvenient truth, for it flew in the face of religious dogma. So at the age of 70, Galileo was dragged from his home, thrown in prison and eventually brought before the Inquisition in Rome, forced to kneel and to recant his life’s work, to state that the Earth was immobile and did not move in its orbit. But the story is told that as Galileo walked out of that room, he whispered under his breath, “and yet, it moves!” And so might we say to those who deny climate change today, “and yet, it changes!”
You can ignore the truth for a while. You can walk away from the Paris climate accords, you can tell your administrators to strike out all references to human-caused climate change. You can confuse the electorate by saying climate change is still debated, that there is no consensus. You can ignore the National Academy of Sciences and 17 other scientific societies that have stated that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed. You can ignore all that and build yourself a beautiful house of cards. But eventually that house of cards will fall. Scientists know this. Scientists understand the meaning of that old Buddhist saying: “There are three things in this world that cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth”!
Make no mistake, the walls of ignorance are strong, especially when reinforced by girders of greed and self-interest. But history has shown us that that stone of ignorance will yield to the cold, hard steel of science-based fact. It is for us today to follow in the footsteps of all those scientists and believers in science that went before us, to pick up those hammers of steel and bring them down on that rock of ignorance, knowing all the while that those walls will not fall to one blow, or to a thousand, but the point is to keep on hammering, to keep those hammers ringing. So I say, make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but also make ring so that they can be heard down in the statehouse in Phoenix. Make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but also make them ring so that they echo in the halls of congress back in Washington. Make those hammers ring here in Flagstaff, but most importantly, make those hammers ring so that they rattle the very walls of the White House! Make those hammers ring!
Guest Blog Post by Erin O'Keefe, STEM VISTA Open Space Aide, City of Flagstaff - Originally published in the City of Flagstaff Open Space Newsletter
On Saturday, March 10th, 2018, Open Space staff completed the first session of the 2018 Indigenous Youth STEM Academy. This year, we are partnering primarily with the Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory which consists of 9th-12th grade Native American students from various tribes. We had 9 students participate in our first session. The STEM focus area of this session was astronomy and included a site visit to Lowell Observatory. Our program began with a hike from Kinlani Dorm to Lowell Observatory via Observatory Mesa trail system. This gave us an opportunity to explain the significance of the relationships between Flagstaff Open Space and our neighboring properties.
Participants were given a private one hour tour of the Lowell campus followed by a 30 minute guest presentation from astronomer and researcher, Dr. Deidre Hunter, who is also co-founder of the Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Program. This program connects astronomers from Lowell to schools on the Hopi and Navajo reservations to partner in culturally-relevant astronomy-based curriculum. Dr. Hunter tailored her presentation to our specific group with a focus on the importance of minorities in STEM. She discussed her educational background and career path, gave information on her research, and described the Navajo-Hopi Outreach Program and how the program came about. The program session concluded with lunch provided for the students, transportation from Lowell back to the dorm provided by the Boys and Girls Club, and a gift card drawing for all participants. Students filled out questionnaires that aimed to gauge their interest in STEM careers, their interest in college, their favorite and least favorite parts of the program session, and why they think it is important for Native Americans to be in STEM careers fields.
Our next session will be a two part session taking place on March 26th and 31st with a STEM focus of Art and Graphic Design. Our guest presenter, Corey Begay, is a local Navajo STEM professional and artist who is the Lead Artist and Graphic Designer at the multicultural publishing company, Salinas Bookshelf, Inc. He will present to students on Monday night at Kinlani Dorm about his career path in STEM followed by a hands-on art activity. Part two of this session will take place on Saturday, March 31st which will consist of a visit to Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. The students will be taken on an interpretive tour of the Preserve where we will focus on the importance of our interpretive signs to show the possibilities of turning interests in art and graphic design into a professional career. Corey Begay will be present during this tour to share his knowledge and experience about turning a passion for art into a career.
Thank you to Marcus Yazzie, Recreation Coordinator, and Vicki Anderson, STEM VISTA at Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory, for their assistance with this event! If you would like to sign up for the Flagstaff Open Space Newsletter, click here!
Blog Post by Chelsea Silva, Executive Director, Friends of the Rio de Flag; STEM VISTA Member for Friends of the Rio and City of Flagstaff Sustainability
A Ribbon of Life for Flagstaff Students, Residents, and Visitors
Walking from City Hall north you will find yourself on the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS), seemingly headed towards the San Francisco Peaks. As you pass the Public Library, you’ll notice Wheeler Park to your right and a grassy, depression with a footbridge crossing to your right, the Rio de Flag.
An ephemeral stream, you will not see water in this grassy channel unless a monsoon hits in the summer or snow melts and flows downstream in the winter.
Keep wandering half a mile up the FUTS along the Rio de Flag and you will quickly arrive at Frances Short Pond. Filled naturally and sometimes supported with additional reclaimed water, the “duck pond” is one of the most visited sites along the Rio due to the recreation and wildlife viewing opportunities it provides.
The pond and the Rio flowing downstream from it provide a unique setting for Flagstaff students to learn about their environment. The Rio also gives students a chance to give back to their river through restoration and citizen science.
It is my goal as an AmeriCorps STEM VISTA member to connect Flagstaff students with the Rio de Flag. That is why I started the Adopt-the-Rio de Flag Stewardship program in my first VISTA term in 2016-2017. This program allowed me to connect with local teachers to share resources and provide introductory lessons on the Rio de Flag.
In fall 2017, freshman and sophomore biology students at Flagstaff High School began participation in the program. First, the students engaged in a classroom Introduction to the Rio, exploring different aspects of the Rio in small groups.
The following month, students collected data on the Rio de Flag, which was done in partnership with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s citizen science program called Arizona Water Watch. All of the photos in this blog post are courteous of these students who worked hard to document their surroundings as part of the data collection protocol.
During the remainder of my position, I hope to expand these place-based learning opportunities to other Flagstaff students. To achieve this goal, I will host a teacher workshop in the spring that focuses on stewardship, citizen science, and the Rio de Flag. This will give teachers the tools they need to connect their students to the Rio de Flag as stewards of their local river.
In order for the Adopt-the-Rio program to continue into the future, I also conduct grant writing and partnership building as part of my AmeriCorps STEM VISTA position. These tasks require a watershed-wide focus and long-term visioning with guidance and support from local government, residents, businesses and nonprofits.
The Rio de Flag is Flagstaff’s river, and it is our collective duty to protect it for future generations. My AmeriCorps STEM VISTA position gives students the chance to take the lead in protecting and restoring the Rio through citizen science and stewardship.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Rio de Flag, we welcome you to watch our new short film, “Ribbon of Life.” Produced by one of our volunteers, Brittain Davis, this film is about those who visit and love the Rio de Flag.
Guest Blog Post by Ben Koch, Senior Research Associate, NAU
Researchers at NAU’s Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (ECOSS) have partnered for the second year with one of Kathryn Wertz's 6th grade science classes at Sinagua Middle School in Flagstaff as part of the ‘Scientists in the Classroom’ program founded by Jillian Worssam, and assisted by STEM City. In November, ECOSS scientists worked with students to begin a 5-month-long decomposition experiment in the forest near the school. The students learned that decomposition is the process by which living things are broken down into simpler and simpler pieces, and that decomposers like invertebrates, bacteria, and fungi accomplish this feat by consuming dead organisms in order to get the energy they need to survive, grow, and reproduce. The students considered which kinds of dead organisms decompose quickly, and which kinds decompose more slowly, depending on their chemical composition (i.e., a deer skeleton will take longer to decompose than an earthworm because it is made of bone, not soft tissue).
The students are investigating these ideas with a field experiment in which they are comparing the decomposition rates of leaves from two different species of trees: Oak and Ponderosa Pine. The students deployed set amounts of each of these leaf species in mesh bags on the forest floor near their school, and they used bags with two different sizes of mesh: coarse (the black bags in the photos) and fine (the white bags in the photos). When placing the leaf-bags in the forest, the students made observations and predictions about which leaf type and which bag type will yield the fastest decomposition. In April, ECOSS scientists and the students will retrieve their leaf-litter experiment to measure the mass loss of the leaves in each bag. The students will then take a field trip to the ECOSS laboratories on the NAU campus, where, among other activities, they will be able to weigh their leaf-bags and create a graph of their experimental results.
Guest blog post by Julia Sullivan and Sally Henkel, AmeriCorps VISTA Members at the Grand Canyon Trust
Scientists in the Classroom is a STEM mentorship program that facilitates the collaboration between an entire class and a local organization committed to STEM education. For the Grand Canyon Trust, this partnership takes place once a month with sixth graders at Sinagua Middle School. Lead by Lisa Winters, Research and Stewardship Volunteer Coordinator at the Trust, this partnership is now heading into its second year. Americorps VISTA Members Sally Henkel and Julia Sullivan have joined the partnership as well. In October, students learned about the different types of public lands on the Colorado Plateau, how federal agencies work together, and that everyone has ownership in public lands. This month, they learned about uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region and potential changes to the present rules on the mining of uranium in this area.
Uranium mining is a complex topic. In order to break it down, we first discussed the differences between renewable and nonrenewable energy and the ways in which we consume energy on a daily basis. Then, students got a sneak peek of the Trust’s new film on the status of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. The film highlights the recent review of the 20-year moratorium on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon and gives voice to the communities that could be affected if the ban were to be lifted. After digesting the film, students identified some major themes and were encouraged to think critically about the issue and discuss further questions they would like to know more about. It was uplifting to see young people think critically about the use of public lands and to use their young voices to advocate for the places that they care about!
Melissa (Lissy) Enright, a graduate student in ECOSS at NAU, shared her research on the hydraulics (water movement) of giant redwood trees with the high school students in the iCREATE class at NAU.
Lissy shared some of her background with the students including working on an oceanographic vessel with the Sea Education Association, working for the National Park Service in Hawaii, and for American Conservation Experience as an AmeriCorps Member in both Flagstaff and Alaska! She also worked with Honko, an NGO (non-governmental organization) working in partnership with the coastal communities of Madagascar on mangrove conservation. She showed the students the website for the Student Conservation Association where you can search through their list of opportunities, including those for students under 18 years old!
Lissy's experience helped her to get a "real job" working with the US Forest Service in Alaska doing a Forest Inventory and Assessment. She also worked in Northern California where she now has her research area studying water stress at the top of Redwood trees.
Lissy illustrated how the stems of the tree branches can get embolisms (air bubbles) from high water stress. She climbs the trees using a jumar system and then brings the branches home to Flagstaff to study the hydraulic conductivity of the tree.
Lissy asked the students why the pine needles and branches might be ore water stressed at the top of the trees than down below. Even though the base of the redwood is in an often moist environment, the tops of the trees are more exposed to sun; but the primary reason is that water is pulled all the way up the xylem (water tubes) of the tree from the ground to 250-400 feet! So the top of the tree is more like a dry climate.
Lissy took the students into the laboratory where she measures the hydraulic conductivity of the branches. She had them assist her with several experimental procedures she uses to determine levels of water stress in the redwood trees.
She told us: We measure hydraulic conductivity on the hydraulic line, a system of tubes that connects a stem segment to an upstream reservoir of solution (water with a tiny bit of potassium chloride)suspended a meter above the sample, and a downstream balance. The water flowing through the sample is measured as it gets to the balance. We use this measurement to infer about the degree of embolism, or air bubbles blocking the flow of water, present in the xylem cells. If the conductivity is very low, for example, we presume that there are a lot of embolisms, and the tree the sample came from was subject to a lot of water stress.
In the image above, a student measures pressure for another experiment. Lissy explains: When a piece of a plant is clipped off, the water inside sucks back away from the cut surface. This is because there is tension in the water in plants. If the plant is more water stressed, the tension is greater. We can measure this in units of pressure with a pressure chamber. We first cut a sample, then insert it into the chamber with the cut end extending out of the hole in the top. When we turn up the pressure in the chamber, the water will be forced back to the cut surface. We measure the pressure at which the water reaches the surface, and know that that number is equal to the tension that existed in the water in the plant before we cut it. If it takes a lot of pressure, then the plant was very water stressed.
Thank you, Lissy, for the wonderful presentation and the engaging hands-on research in your lab!
Guest Blog Post by Erin O’Keefe, Events & Outreach Coordinator with Flagstaff's Open Space Program through the STEM Education VISTA Project
The Indigenous Youth STEM Academy Completes its Pilot Year
This past summer, the City of Flagstaff Open Space Program implemented a pilot year of the Indigenous Youth STEM Academy (IYSA) at Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. As Native Americans are one of the most underrepresented groups within STEM careers and among STEM degree-holders, I recognized a need for focused programming with Indigenous youth on these topics. As such, the goal of this program is to provide Indigenous youth in Flagstaff and the surrounding communities with an opportunity to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in connection to culture, community, and stewardship while providing resources for pursuing higher education and professional careers in STEM fields.
Programming took place at Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve as it provides a unique opportunity for learning about Northern Sinagua petroglyphs and habitation sites, has an outdoor classroom area, interpretive signs throughout the Preserve, and represents a place of cultural importance for many surrounding tribal communities. The Academy consists of daylong sessions with various Indigenous youth groups. The key components of each session include an interpretive tour of the Preserve, a panel discussion with local STEM professionals and students, followed by an interactive learning project.
This year, we programmed with three different groups: the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (Gallup, New Mexico), Native Americans for Community Action (Flagstaff, Arizona), and Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory (Flagstaff, Arizona). Youth participants ranged from middle school to high school age, and represented tribes including Navajo, Zuni, Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, Hopi, and Apache. The learning projects included rock art documentation and plant identification. Our panelists represented STEM fields from organizations including the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Natural Channel Design, Friends of the Rio de Flag, Museum of Northern Arizona, and Departments from Northern Arizona University including Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Communication, Forestry, and Applied Indigenous Studies. Panelists discussed their experiences in STEM, why they are passionate about their field and their advice for young people pursuing education and careers in those areas.
In order to gauge response to the programming as well as any changes in interest to pursue STEM in college or careers, our youth participants filled out pre- and post- survey questionnaires. The surveys included questions such as, “How interested are you in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) as a potential career?”, “How interested are you in going to college?”, and “How important do you feel it is for Native Americans to work in STEM fields?” One participant expressed, “It is extremely important for Native Americans to work in STEM careers. I feel Native Americans are extremely overlooked as we are seen to not be well-educated.” Another participant stated, “One of the biggest barriers [to Native Americans pursuing careers in STEM] is poor education in our home towns.”
Overall, we identified increased interest in pursuing college as well as learning more about various STEM areas and topics. There was a large number of positive responses to the programming activities, and many of our participants expressed that they found great value in the panel discussions specifically.
As this is the first year of the Indigenous Youth STEM Academy, we plan to incorporate lessons learned into year two of programming in 2018. We plan to focus on enhanced collaboration with a specific youth group in order to provide continuous and more focused programming to build upon each session rather than providing only one-time sessions with various youth groups. We will also be transitioning our program schedule from summer sessions to sessions taking place during the school year to be able to engage youth more consistently throughout the year.
It is extremely exciting and rewarding to have these types of experiences where we are learning alongside Indigenous youth and witnessing their strength, intelligence, leadership and potential. We greatly look forward to continuing these efforts into the next year and the future.
My name is Julia Sullivan, and I am currently working as the AmeriCorps VISTA Youth Engagement Coordinator at Grand Canyon Trust. I grew up in the beautiful Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts before moving to Washington, DC to attend American University, where I earned degrees in Environmental Studies and International Development. I also spent much of my time as a college student training and competing as a member of American University’s cross country/track team. I graduated in 2014 and, after a stint working on international policy with The Nature Conservancy and coaching high school cross country in my hometown, decided to join the Peace Corps. During my two years as a Community Environmental Conservation Volunteer in Panama, I lived in a rural coffee-farming area and worked closely with community members to bring a number of conservation projects to fruition. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with teachers at the community school to facilitate sexual health workshops, leadership trainings, and camping trips with local youth.
Now back in the States, I’m thrilled to have made the move to Flagstaff and to be working in a position that combines my two great passions – environmental conservation and working with youth. This year, I look forward to connecting diverse young people to the natural splendor of the Colorado Plateau, inspiring them towards environmental stewardship and advocacy, and creating opportunities for them to step into leadership roles in the field of conservation.
My name is Sally Henkel and this year I’m working with the Grand Canyon Trust as their Citizen Science Volunteer Coordinator. I will be working towards engaging underrepresented youth in citizen science and making conservation more accessible. I just recently found my way down to Arizona from Missoula, Montana. While Montana has been home for several years, I fell in love with the Colorado plateau on an impromptu river trip a few years back.
I graduated with a BA in forensic anthropology and mountain studies. I have since moved all around working as an international trip leader, a field instructor in Yellowstone, a wildlife biologist, a teacher, a beer slinger, and adventure snack extraordinaire. Upon moving to Montana roughly five years ago, I began to discover the depth of my love for conservation and ecology. I’m passionate about connecting people to the landscape, wolverine conservation, and teaching ecological knowledge as a means to understand systems. When I’m not in the office, I can usually be found running around the woods, telling corny jokes or seeking winter- usually they all happen at once!
Flagstaff STEM Coordinator