Budding Scientists Learn to Communicate their Research

Graduate students Lindsey Watch, Cameron Goble, Tony Mathys and Luke Bowman are learning to communicate science to school children and the public.
Graduate students Lindsey Watch, Cameron Goble, Tony Mathys and Luke Bowman are learning to communicate science to school children and the public.

Scientists are all wrapped up in their work. They wouldn’t be any good at it if they weren’t. But when it comes to communicating to the public what they’re doing, most of them fall short. It’s too complicated. Their words are too long, their hypotheses inaccessible to most people.

But it’s important to communicate scientific research—and especially its significance to people’s lives. Funding is at stake. So is generating excitement about science in the next generation.

A National Science Foundation-funded project at Michigan Technological University helps graduate students learn to communicate their research to school children and teachers and to the general public. As part of this program, led by Alex Mayer, professor of civil and environmental engineering and taught this year while Mayer is on sabbatical by Brenda Bergman, a PhD candidate in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science who went through the program herself in 2011, the students learn to write news releases that communicate some aspect of their research.

Jennifer Donovan, director of news and media relations in University Marketing and Communications, teaches the graduate students the mechanics of researching and writing a news release. This year, the students wrote about stream monitoring opportunities in the community, building awareness and capacity to deal with natural disaster risk, the value of native species restoration and scientists as activists. 

The news releases were sent to appropriate news media. The one about natural disaster risk awareness in El Salvador was translated into Spanish and sent to the media in El Salvador.

Here are some of their releases.

Disasters Don’t Have to be Natural—Get Involved Now

By Luke Bowman

The United Nations ranks El Salvador in the top ten most vulnerable countries to natural disasters year and after year. This tiny country is exposed to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, landslides, drought, flooding, tsunami, and wildfire. And within El Salvador, the national Environmental Observatory has labeled the San Vicente region the most likely to experience a disaster.

Four years ago in November 2009, torrential rains from Hurricane Ida triggered landslides, debris flows, and flooding around San Vicente volcano. The population was caught off-guard, and more than 300 people were killed. Future disasters can be prevented if communities get involved in raising awareness about disaster risk.

Fortunately, efforts are underway in San Vicente and throughout El Salvador to reduce peoples’ risk to natural disasters. Agricultural Engineer Rutilio Parada Galán, project coordinator for the Center for Disaster Protection, and his team of technicians work with the communities on the north side of San Vicente Volcano that were devastated in 2009. “Disasters are not natural,” says Rutilio Parada. He educates people about the long history of similar disasters at the volcano, and how people need to be more aware about where it builds infrastructure and housing in order to stay out of the volcanoes way. “If we can get out of the volcano’s natural pathways in time, then no one needs to die here ever again,” explains Rutilio.

Santiago Crespin, Director of Civil Protection San Vicente says, “Civil Protection is investing in communities by placing a trained technician in each community to help promote disaster awareness and life-saving strategies.” The organization needs community participation and volunteers to help with simulations, drills, emergency response and first aid training, school activities, and shelter organization efforts. These activities can significantly reduce a community’s risk to natural occurring events.

Even the University of El Salvador, - Paracentral Multidisciplinary Faculty, through a joint project with Michigan Technological University’s Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences Department, is getting involved by training students to work as liaisons between individuals and institutions to help monitor the volcano’s watershed and hazards. Professor Fredy Cruz, an agricultural engineer in San Vicente, urges communities to get involved with data collection efforts alongside researchers working in the area. “The more we understand the triggering mechanisms behind natural hazards, the better prepared we can be,” he says. Accurately measuring and reporting daily rainfall amounts, for example, is a key monitoring activity that can help scientists and institutions better forecast when emergency situations will arise.

Since the 2009 San Vicente disaster, national and international aid agencies and governments have poured millions into the region to help spur action and get at-risk communities involved in projects and monitoring efforts that will increase awareness and help with forecasting efforts. But San Vicente volcano is a large area, and institutions alone cannot monitor the entire volcano and all of its threats. It is up to the people living nearby to get involved, take action, and better prepare for events that will surely occur again during the next rainy season or earthquake event. The capacity-building needed to help save lives is spreading throughout the region—the time is now to get involved with your local Civil Protection technician to help prevent future disasters and reduce risk to the hazards that will continue to affect El Salvador.


Stream Monitoring Opportunities for Students, Right in Your Backyard

By Lindsey Watch

Huron Creek, a main artery through the City of Houghton that discharges directly into the Portage Canal, has seen its fair share of habitat destruction and pollution from human impacts over the years.  However, "the watershed has been a great ‘laboratory’ for educating citizens, teachers, and students about how watersheds work and the pollution and habitat degradation that threaten the creek," says Alex Mayer from Michigan Technological University, a major contributor to the Huron Creek Watershed Management project.  Schools can facilitate this education through stream monitoring activities, where students of any age can learn about human impacts to aquatic environments and experience watershed management first-hand and close to home on Huron Creek.

A stormwater ordinance is currently in the works for the City of Houghton, which includes the Huron Creek watershed, providing a perfect opportunity for students to see how the data they collect can directly contribute to policies being made right now.  With the additional commercial developments that are springing up along M-26 within the heart of the watershed, it will be important to track the impact of this growth on the creek. 

A new streamflow measurement system and weather station is being installed at the mouth of the creek and will be online this spring.  "The flow and climate data will tell us how the creek responds to rainfall now and as development occurs in the future," says Mayer.  Training sessions will be available soon for teachers to learn how to access the current watershed data in their classrooms "to educate students in hydrology and human-related impacts on the watershed" says Veronica Griffis, professor of water resources engineering at Michigan Tech.  Correlating online information with data that students collect in the field can help engage them in the activity because they develop a sense of ownership of the project, in addition to incorporating technology into the curriculum.

A watershed management plan was developed for Huron Creek in 2008 by Michigan Tech scholars and community stakeholders (plan available at http://bit.ly/17YhofF), funded by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  Kestner Waterfront Park, next to Chutes and Ladders, has seen significant improvement as part of the management plan, such as reinforced eroding shorelines and the planting of native vegetation. 

Much more can be done to help improve a watershed that encompasses a large portion of the City of Houghton and surrounding areas.  Watershed and stream monitoring opportunities are available for local science classes to participate in year-round.  Possible activities include collecting water samples to submit for analysis of copper and other trace minerals, which can be toxic to aquatic life; using probes to measure stream parameters like temperature, velocity, dissolved oxygen, and pH; and traversing the watershed to locate and remove invasive vegetation.

Huron Creek begins as a tiny stream next to Green Acres Road between Dodgeville and the Copper Country Mall.  It weaves its way through the landscape behind the mall and Wal-Mart.  Just behind Wal-Mart, the stream slows and collects in a small pond where remnants of a mining stamp sand dam line a portion of the shoreline.  From there, the stream meanders through a segment of reconstructed wetlands, installed a few years ago but just now becoming established. 

The creek then enters a large ravine, flowing past businesses such as Bambu, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.  It is in this narrow valley that a historical landfill exists.  "It was probably utilized in the early to mid 1900's, it is unlined, and not designed per today's standards - a 'dump' pretty much," says Linda Hansen, a major contributor to the 2008 management plan and now a local Water Resources Division regulator for the MDEQ.  The landfill has had major historical impacts on Huron Creek, including liquid draining from the landfill that contains various metals.  After a quick pass through a culvert underneath Sharon Avenue, Huron Creek travels through another culvert, this time under M-26, then flows a few hundred feet to the mouth where it discharges into the Portage Canal at Kestner Waterfront Park.


To become involved with the stream monitoring program, contact Alex Mayer (asmayer@mtu.edu).  To enroll in the teacher training sessions, contact Veronica Griffis (vgriffis@mtu.edu).

“Restoring Us to Wholeness:” the Value of Native Species Restoration

By Cameron Goble

Arctic Grayling, American Burying Beetle, Ironcolor Shiner, Lark Sparrow, Farwell’s Blue-Eyed-Grass. What do these five species have in common?  They are among the 64 native plant and animal species that are listed as extinct or possibly extinct in the State of Michigan by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (www.michigan.gov/dnr). Fortunately, there is something else each of these species has in common.  In a word, potential. These species are currently extinct in Michigan, but it may be possible to bring them back.

In February 2014 biologists Nancy Auer & Casey Huckins from Michigan Technological University and biologists Marty Holtgren & Stephanie Ogren with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians will complete a three-year research project to determine if the Arctic Grayling might one day be removed from the list of Michigan’s extinct species.  “There is a huge swell right now in native species restoration not just in Michigan but across the globe and it is an exciting project,” says Holtgren.  “This whole project is based on taking a really holistic view of an ecosystem and yes, we’re looking at the possibility of Grayling, but really we want to see what that ecosystem can hold and what the possibilities for that ecosystem are in the future” Ogren adds.   

One question that biologists are often asked when talking to members of the public about native species restoration is “Why would you do that?”  For Auer, a professor in Michigan Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences, the answer involves looking at the role of native species in an ecosystem.  “Native species are important, integral pieces of a whole ecosystem, and there are unique things that a native species does that its absence can really affect the whole system,” she explains.  Regarding Arctic Grayling she adds, “This was a species that had some pretty unique characteristics.” Huckins, an Associate Professor in Michigan Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences, explains that from an evolutionary perspective “native species had the potential to evolve in the environment around them, and the environment had the potential to evolve in response to native species so it is a co-evolved system.”

Holtgren has posed the “Why would you do that” question to groups of high school students and says one of the best answers he ever received was. “Well, why wouldn’t we want to bring it back?”  Auer provides us with another possible answer to that question, “to see such a beautiful organism returned I think really has a value. It restores all of us to wholeness.”  

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.