Posts filed under ‘Education’
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week? Every year organizations devoted to conservation celebrate pollinators and address the urgent issue of declining pollinator and plant populations. Pollination is the process of moving pollen within flowers or from flower to flower, allowing the plants to fertilize and reproduce. This movement can be done by wind, water, or a variety of animals, known as pollinators. Animal pollinators assist about 90% of all flowering plants in their pollination needs.
This year’s focus is on native orchids, which depend on a variety of animals for pollination. What is particularly interesting about the relationships between orchids and their pollinators is that while many insects and animals may visit orchid flowers, each orchid species often has a “preferred” pollinator. Unfortunately, if pollinator populations continue to decline, many species of orchids could be at risk.
This is true too for many of our own food sources, including coffee, bananas, and a variety of tree nuts. These plants are truly dependent on their pollinators and in turn, so are we. According to pollinator.org, “worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. In the United States, pollination by honeybees and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually.” However, the loss of habitat, chemical misuse, invasive plant and animal species, and various diseases have severely affected pollinator species around the world. Unfortunately, the true scope of damage and the status of pollinators is still unknown, which is why it is so important to work to conserve pollinator species, even the seemingly non-desirable insects, such as flies.
When we think of pollinators, we typically think of the glamorous ones: bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. However, many plants are pollinated by other animals and insects such as bats, beetles, moths, and even flies; each one has its own distinct attraction to flowers. For example, bees, birds, and butterflies prefer brightly colored flowers, while flies and moths prefer pale or dark colored plants. A diverse selection of native plants in your garden can help to support pollinator populations in your area and maintain botanical biodiversity. Pollinator.org has handy regional guides on what plants are native to your area and attractive to the different pollinators in your eco-system.
So what can we do to protect and encourage pollinator communities? In the Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian Gardens has committed to planting pollinator-attracting plants free of chemical-based pesticides. In all of our gardens too, an Integrated Pest Management approach is used, meaning that we monitor insect behavior and can then attempt to control insect populations rather than eradicate them. This method can better allow for pollinators to do their jobs, as they are not exterminated by chemical-based pesticides.
Even if you cannot devote a whole habitat to pollinating critters, you can provide a refuge or food source with even one plant. James Gagliardi, horticulturist in the Butterfly Habitat Garden provided a list of some of his favorite plants in the garden that are frequently visited by pollinators:
Hummingbird Mint (Agastache spp)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp)
Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
Salvia (Salvia spp)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp)
Verbena (Verbena spp, especially Verbena bonariensis)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
-Elizabeth Chenevey, Smithsonian Gardens Education & Outreach Intern
The Enid A. Haupt Garden is a symmetrical, manicured Victorian parterre gracing the Smithsonian Quad. While the design of the garden changes with the seasons, it usually has topiaries or tall urns in each of its four corners. This year, however, the plants have been replaced by four large bronze birds, each one representing an extinct species native to North America.
The birds, the work of artist Todd McGrain, are part of the Lost Bird Project. The project seeks to create awareness of the vulnerability of living things when they are hunted or their habitats are destroyed. The sculpture closest to the southeast corner of the garden is the heath hen, whose history is closely entwined with that of the areas where it once thrived, from Maine to Virginia.
A subspecies of the prairie chicken, the heath hen was considered a culinary treat. Indeed, some have suggested that it was the heath hen rather than the turkey that the Pilgrims consumed during the first Thanksgiving. Because they were a cheap food source, heath hens were hunted and eaten, and their numbers dropped sharply. By 1870, there were none in the US mainland; their dwindling population was confined to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. By the turn of the 20th century, only 100 heath hens were left and the island placed a ban on hunting. This measure, together with the creation of a sanctuary, increased their population to 800 by 1916. But a fire destroyed much of their breeding ground that year, and that, together with a harsh winter, disease, and the rise of predatory birds, once again imperiled the heath hen. By 1927, there were only 13 birds left. The last heath hen, known as Booming Ben for his distinctive and haunting hoot, died in 1932.
McGrain has depicted the hen with an open beak, as if Ben were trying to tell us something. The sculpture was made using the lost-wax method. The bird was first carved in wax, then covered with a ceramic material and baked in an oven. This burned away the wax, leaving a mold in the shape of the bird. The molten bronze was then poured into the mold, after which it hardened and assumed the desired form. The artist has therefore created a memorial to the extinct bird, both honoring the heath hen and reminding us of its extinction, an event that could have been averted with greater environmental knowledge and awareness.
-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer
Interning at the Smithsonian Gardens this winter has been an enriching and rewarding experience. Getting the opportunity to work on so many different projects with so many different people in an intellectually-stimulating environment makes every day exciting and gratifying.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist in The Lost Bird Project’s arrival at the Smithsonian. Sculptor Todd McGrain began The Lost Bird Project to bring awareness to North American birds that have become extinct within the last two centuries. Todd has made five cast-bronze statues to immortalize five extinct birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk. He has traveled across the country installing his statues at locations where the birds were last seen. His statues have also been displayed at various institutions across the country.
Smithsonian Gardens is proud to host Todd’s statues in the Enid A. Haupt Garden located adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The Passenger Pigeon statue will be on display at the Urban Bird Habitat Garden located at the northwest corner of the National Museum of Natural History as a companion piece to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America opening on June 24, 2014. The five sculptures will be on display through March 15, 2015.
The stories of these birds are tragic and highlights just how fragile nature can be. One-hundred years ago, massive flocks (numbering in the millions) of Passenger Pigeons flew across the Unites States. It was inconceivable at the time that the huge Passenger Pigeon population could become extinct. The birds became a stable food source across the country and as the demand for Passenger Pigeons grew, the birds were hunted to the point of extinction. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.
These two exhibits remind us of the importance of understanding how as humans we are intrinsically linked to our environment. Whether directly or indirectly, humans have a huge influence on our natural world and our every action affects many other organisms. These birds represent just a mere fraction of the species we have lost over the past two centuries. Pollution, excessive hunting and fishing, global warming, habitat loss are all anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the extinction of many species across the globe. By bringing awareness to this issue, we can work towards preventing such extinctions from happening in the future.
-Tammy Lee, Smithsonian Gardens landscape architecture intern
As part of its exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, the National Museum of African Art invited several African artists to do earthworks in the Smithsonian’s gardens. These are large sculpture works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. One of these is ”Ala” by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.
Ala is the Igbo goddess of earth, and is also associated with morality, fertility, and creativity. Although she is usually depicted as a voluptuous woman, El Anatsui has chosen shape and materials to allude to her powers. The pyramidal shape may be seen as emblematic of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. But for El Anatsui it reflects the ubiquity of mounds of earth in West Africa. There are termite mounds, and mounds may be used to mark the entrance of villages, serving as posts or guardians for those who live there. In addition, there are crops [e.g., yams] that are planted in mounds of earth.
The materials that sheath the pyramid are trade objects that come from the earth. The metal plates are graters made from flattened, repurposed large cans or drums. These are punctured with nails, leaving sharp ridges that are used for grating. These graters are used primarily for processing cassava, which is a staple food that was imported into Africa from Brazil. Cassava — also known by other names such as yuca, garri, manioc, and tapioca— is a very hardy and multi-purpose food which can be prepared in many forms: it can be boiled, fried, mashed into a paste, and ground into a flour-like substance. Depending on how it is cooked and used, cassava can be a main dish, a side dish, dessert, and even bread. Cassava has a long history as a trade object: it was carried on ships going from the western hemisphere to Africa and traded for human lives. It thus served as a kind of currency, with most of the cargo left in Africa. But enough was kept on board to feed those being taken as slaves to the Americas. Cassava therefore has a very mixed legacy: it was both the source of the slaves’ misery and the means of their survival and sustenance.
The graters are interspersed with mirrors, which comes from silica and therefore from sand. In more formal terms, mirrors break up the shape, giving what the artist calls ‘buoyancy’ or lightness to the structure. In addition to being trade objects, mirrors are used in transportation to reflect where we’ve come from. For El Anatsui, these mirrors are a visual pun: they allude to the sankofa bird, which twists its neck to look back and is associated with a variety of Asante proverbs and meanings, including the following:
(1) It is never too late to turn around and start on a new path once one has recognized one’s mistake.
(2) Look at your past and you will recognize your future.
(3) You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.
Combining different shapes, media, history, and metaphors, El Anatsui has created a tribute to Ala which brings her ‘down to earth’ and makes her accessible to many in a variety of ways.
-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian docent
Ghada Amer, (1963 – ), born in Egypt, based in New York
Earthwork in “Earth Matters”
Ghada Amer is one of a selected number of artists invited by the National Museum of African Art to take part in the exhibit Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor by creating an earthwork in the Smithsonian’s gardens. Earthworks are large sculptural works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. Several of these earthworks have been installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the vicinity of the Sackler and African Art Museums.
Amer works in a variety of genres: painting, sculpture, film, photography, installation. In much of her work she has appropriated two media that are usually associated with domestic arts or “women’s work”: embroidery and gardening. She therefore uses thread and plants to express messages that are highly political, focusing on a range of themes, including gender roles, women’s sexuality, and human rights. In the work currently on display in the Smithsonian Gardens, Amer has chosen the subject of hunger as her topic. She thus highlights a worldwide problem at the same time that she alludes to a specific issue: the fact that politicians in her native Egypt and elsewhere prey on the hungry by promising food in exchange for votes. Bags of rice and other edibles are therefore bartered for political support.
The current earthwork began with the delineation of large letters spelling the word “Hunger” along a strip of land at the north entrance of the Haupt Garden. Once the letters were outlined as furrows, they were planted with rice. The work has therefore evolved through different stages, reflecting the initial carving of the land and the growth of the ‘crops’ growing in the designated space.
Initially, the viewer could read the word “hunger” spelled out in earth. Then, the stenciled letters were filled in with small tufts of rice plants. Over the summer months, the plants grew very noticeably, and the edible rice began to emerge. This in turn attracted birds, who saw the grain as a bonus meal. As the plants grew and became bushier, the word was ‘hunger’ became less readable. The letters re-emerged once the crop was harvested. In keeping with the original idea of crop rotation, the letters will be planted with kale, which can survive colder temperatures. During fall and winter, the letters will become greener and denser.
In “Hunger,” as in some of her other work, Amer combines medium and message, and urges us to read both the ‘writing on the wall’ and the letters on the earth.
-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian volunteer