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Digging Deeper: Making Cross-Curricular Connections

We are kicking off the start of the new school year with a guest blog post by Michael Torguson, a teacher in Medford, Oregon who spent the summer teaching school at a juvenile detention facility. He used soil as a jumping off point for his students to study the science, history and geography of locations across the globe, widening their world. 

Teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Teaching summer school at a juvenile detention facility, the challenge gets kicked up a notch (or two!).

When I asked the kids what they wanted to learn over the summer, they said they wanted to learn botany. So we did the usual: planted an herb garden, studied water ecology and how pollution affects the land (and by extension, plants), and the properties of soil. In a regular school setting, the usual procedure would be for students to scatter around the school grounds, locate their patch of soil, mark it on a school map, and do their analysis.

But how do you teach soil and plant biology when students cannot leave the building?  Answer: bring the soil from outside . . . in. I was originally going to take a weekend, drive around town, and collect soil from different areas. Then I had an idea: why not collect soil from all over the country? I reached out to various “famous places” and requested soil from their grounds for the kids to analyze. I got some very interesting responses, from “This is unprecedented!” to “You just want … dirt?”

Preparing for the soil tests.

Preparing for the soil tests.

Mixing the soil and chemicals.

Mixing the soil and chemicals.

I also got some happily unexpected responses, from “Soil from the Trinity Nuclear Test Site will always be radioactive” to the one from my new friend, Smithsonian Gardens’ own Supervisory Horticulturist Brett McNish. McNish said he did a similar project a while back and offered to send some soil that he was able to collect from overseas. So Brett sent me soil from the U. S. Embassy Grounds in Kabul, a Forward Operating Base in Iraq, sand from Omaha Beach, as well as from the garden near the National Museum of the American Indian.

In all, we received and tested soils from:

  • Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  • Central Park, New York
  • Dodger Stadium, California
  • Forks, Washington (We had a Twilight fan in class!)
  • Haleakala, Hawaii
  • Harvard Yard, Massachusetts
  • Los Angeles Coliseum, California
  • Monticello, Virginia
  • Mt. Vernon, Virginia
  • Old North Church, Massachusetts
  • Pike’s Peak, Colorado
  • The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Trinity Nuclear Test Site, New Mexico
  • Very Large Antenna Array, New Mexico
  • White Sands Missile Testing Range, New Mexico
Extracting the chemicals.

Extracting the chemicals.

Reading the results of the soil tests.

Reading the results of the soil test.

A Social Studies teacher by training (and excitable by nature), I decided not to limit the science project just to science; I decided to add geography and history to the mix.  The project was getting really interesting!

The project evolved, and ultimately each student:

  •  Learned the Scientific Method and proper observation and documentation methods;
  • Performed Soil Properties Classification (all students classified all soils);
  • Conducted Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (NPK) and pH testing;
  • Researched what each of the above tests mean in terms of soil health;
  • Researched the climate and geography of the region;
  • Researched the history of the location where they received the soil;
  • Created and presented their report to the class.

Best of all, the students rose to the challenge! Not only did they follow correct analysis procedures, but they also wrote very good historical and scientific summaries. As a bonus, they got to keep their dirt as a souvenir. (Except for the Trinity Soil – I didn’t want to have to answer questions about why I was giving radioactive material to students!)

In the end, the students had fun, learned a few things, and got to “visit” places they otherwise would not have been able to go. I also learned an important lesson about creatively teaching across the curriculum.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the student who analyzed the Smithsonian soil reports that:

 “The soil was dark brown, with lots of small roots. It was rich and healthy. The Phosphorous level was low (0-50lb/acre), there were trace amounts of Nitrogen and Potassium, and the pH level is 7.0.”

 

-Michael Torguson. During school year Michael is a substitute teacher at Central Medford High School in Medford, Oregon.

August 26, 2014 at 11:22 am Leave a comment

The Labrador Duck

Labrador duck sculpture by Todd McGrain

Labrador Duck sculpture by Todd McGrain.

Of the four birds currently on display as sculptures in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Labrador duck is the one about which we know the least. Despite this—or perhaps because of this— the bird has spawned different theories about how it lived and how it eventually became extinct.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

The Labrador duck lived along the east coast of North America, from Canada to the Chesapeake. A small bird, it was a good diver and swimmer. It had a flat, square bill that allowed it to scoop up small fish and shells, on which it lived.

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), USNM 61300. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

Unlike other birds that became extinct because of specific practices or even a single cataclysmic event, the Labrador duck declined for unknown reasons. Its meat did not taste good, so the duck was not hunted widely. Nor was its plumage unique or particularly desirable. There is some speculation that the number of ducks began to decline when their main source of nourishment, a specific mollusk, was depleted by overfishing. Another possibility is that its eggs were widely hunted by predators, thereby reducing the number of birds. The story of the Labrador duck therefore underscores the interconnectedness of the natural world: change in one element can trigger further changes, eventually jeopardizing the existence of unique species.

Interestingly, the extinction of the Labrador duck has inspired both research and whimsy. Biologist Glen Chilton embarked on an 82,000-mile journey to explore the bird’s history, which he captured in his book The Curse of the Labrador Duck  (2009). More recently, A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013), a movie starring Ben Kingsley, centers on a group of teenagers’ quest to find the duck, which they do not think is extinct.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

August 12, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

Ensete superbum

 

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum). Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

This monocarpic, herbaceous banana is a wonderful specimen in any garden. Monocarpic describes plants that flower, set seed, and then die. Ensete superbum, or cliff banana, is native to India and has a conical pseudo-stem made up of overlapping leaf sheaths.  Its bright green leaves, reaching six feet in length, drop during winter.  The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming.  The inflorescence (or flower head) is a curved terminal spike with triangular oblong fruits and reddish brown bracts that persist for some time to add ornamental value.  This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed.  In some extraordinary cases, plants in the wild can go into a three to four year dormancy period.

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

The cliff banana (Ensete superbum) in its current home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

This rare plant in now on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You can see it for a limited time just inside the west entrance to the garden, close to the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

August 5, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Butterfly Garden: A Haven for Wild Bees

A bumble bee (bombus sp) foraging

A bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

In major urban landscape such as Washington, D.C., a place like the Smithsonian Institution’s Butterfly Habitat Garden serves a valuable purpose as a rich and rewarding refuge, not only for butterflies, but also for bees. With so many flowers in bloom at the end of July, it’s easy to see that bees are very important for pollination. A bee moves from flower to flower searching for nutrient-rich nectar, which it laps up with its hairy tongue. In this process, pollen will collect on the bee’s body and be transferred from one flower to another, providing for the production of the seeds that sustain many gardens and wild-flower populations. On the hind legs of some bees, there are corbiculae, or pollen baskets.  These serve a function similar to suitcases, allowing the bees to pack lots of pollen into the baskets for the flight back home to their colony where they share their newfound resource with many others.  Solitary bees do not have pollen baskets, but species like leaf-cutter bees have very hairy abdomens, which collect a large amount of pollen.  Recently the Butterfly Habitat Garden was abuzz with a large number of bee species, including bumble-, leaf-cutter, honey, and sweat bees, all collecting resources and pollinating flowers.

-Lisa Horth is a Smithsonian Gardens Enid A. Haupt Fellow and an Associate Professor of Biology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she studies plant-pollinator interactions.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa)

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa) with full pollen baskets.

Bumble bee (bombus pennsylvanicus)

Bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) foraging.

Bumble bee (Bombus sp)

Bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

Bumble bee foraging

Bumble bee foraging.

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa)

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa).

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

 

July 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm 2 comments

Museum Pests

As a Structural Entomologist, I primarily deal with pests found in any typical urban environment, including cockroaches, ants, flies and rodents; however, working in a museum, I also encounter a completely different classification of pests that provide their own unique challenges.

Wood infesting insects, stored product pests and fabric and paper pests can destroy museum objects in a relatively short amount of time. A carpet beetle or clothes moth that might put a few holes in a $40 sweater could completely decimate an artifact like a wool cap from the Civil War. It’s important to identify pests correctly and to know the early signs of an infestation before an object is irreversibly damaged.

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths at the “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” conference at Colonial Williamsburg.

Museum pests are not a topic that is typically covered at pest management conferences or in industry journals or websites. This is why I was so excited to have the opportunity to attend “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” in Colonial Williamsburg, thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens travel grant program earlier this year.

There was an overwhelming number of presentations, workshops and tours to choose from during the two day conference including topics such as pest identification, treatment options, record keeping, Integrated Pest Management policy, and health and safety. Workshops that I attended included tours of the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and the Collection and Preservation Facilities.

Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles

A Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles at “Museum Pests 2014.”

It was reassuring to meet with museum professionals from all over the world and to learn that all of us experience the same basic challenges regardless of whether we work in large complexes or small, historic homes. The information that I gathered in two short days has been indispensable in my encounters with museum pests.

-Allison Dineen, Smithsonian Gardens Entomologist

July 17, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Explore Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Online!

At the end of April, after ten months of planning, coordinating, and troubleshooting, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) went live. No, we didn’t kill off all of the plants over the winter and revive them for this announcement . . . I mean live as in on-air, online, and freely accessible! SGOC is now available for the world to explore on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center and is the only living collection to join the multitudes of objects, specimens, and archival records that are contained within the site. Below is a snapshot of what an individual catalog record looks like:

Collection, Orchid record sample

Example of a Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection record in the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center.

Records are updated twice a month and contain basic information about each accession, such as scientific name, flower color, range (if a species), and taxonomy. One of the best parts of having the collection online is being able to peruse the beautiful images taken by our talented volunteers Gene Cross, Bryan Ramsay, and James Osen.  So far, about a third of the records have images associated with them. We only photograph the orchids when they are in bloom, but many of our orchids (especially the species) are either too small to bloom, or haven’t yet bloomed during their time at the greenhouses.

SGOC’s presence on the Collections Search Center is serving as motivation to improve Smithsonian Gardens’ collection records in BG-BASE and correct plant identification errors.  Our hope is that these records can be a valuable resource for educators, students, researchers, and curious individuals, and a source of orchid inspiration year-round.

-Julie Rotramel, Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Contractor

July 9, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Auto Vases: an Accessory Born from Necessity

Tiffin glass auto vase

Auto vase, probably manufactured by the Tiffin Glass Company, Tiffin, Ohio. Collection of Smithsonian Gardens.

Imagine yourself after a long day outside; you are driving down the road on a hot summer day with temperatures in the upper 90s. Now imagine there is no air-conditioning in the car; immediately a pungent odor of battery acid hits you and mingles with the stench of the other passengers’ sweat. This experience is not common today thanks to temperature controls that are standard in most cars, but it would have been the case whenever you rode in a car until air conditioners were installed in automobiles in 1939.

There were no pine-scented cardboard trees to dangle from the mirror during this time, and many car owners desperately wanted a reprieve from the foul smell. The auto vase, a term coined by auto magnate Henry Ford, was the solution to the problem. As early as 1895, small vases, which held one or two flowers that emitted a sweet fragrance, became the first automobile air-fresheners.

The auto vase is comprised of a small bud vase with a bracket that allowed it to be mounted inside the car either on the dashboard or by a passenger side window. Vases came in many designs and colors, in a variety of price ranges. They not only improved the smell but also added a touch of elegance to the car interior.  Pressed glass, cut crystal, metal, porcelain, ceramic, and even wood were used for the vases, which were often paired with brackets that were fancier than the vases themselves. The fixtures could be made of silver and some were even gold plated. Smithsonian Gardens preserves three examples of these auto vases in its Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. One of the three is made from Depression glass with a sky blue satin finish, and is encircled by a nickel-plated bracket.

Auto vases were sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores, and catalogs from companies such as Sears. Henry Ford was so pleased with these simple solutions that he offered them in his parts department and added them to his system of mass production. The service these vases provided made them a desirable feature to add to any car. With improvements in car batteries and air-conditioning becoming standard in vehicles, the auto vase was no longer necessary. In recent years, however, there has been resurgence in these novelties. Cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle revived these little vases for a fresh twist on their interiors, and drivers of other cars have caught on to the trend.

 

For more information about auto vases:

Steele, Evie. “For your Limousine.” Classic Car, vols. 23-25. Michigan: Classic Car Club of America, 1975. p. 22-23.
Stout, Sandra. Depression Glass Price Guide. Wayne, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1980.
____. “Origin of automobile bouquet holders.” Popular Mechanics, May 1913. Hearst Magazines, 1913. p. 678-679.
Lounsbery, Elizabeth. “Some Automobile Accessories.” American Homes and Gardens, Vol. 10.  Munn and Company, 1913.
____. “Flower-Decorated Motor Cars the Vogue.” Automobile Topics, Vol. 18. E.E. Schwarzkopf, 1909. p. 386.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 24, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

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