Educational Focus: Place Based Education
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
Book Review 4 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
The Earth’s rich biodiversity is almost lost on us. We live in partitioned communities, travel maybe once or twice per year, and rarely interact with anyone or anything outside of our own microcosm. Have you ever just stopped to watch an ant carry multiple times its own weight in dirt across the sidewalk? I once stopped to marvel at the little creature while I was in the middle of lugging heavy bags of groceries in from my car. I was even a little envious.
If I studied the little guy long enough, would I be able to figure out how he does it? Would I be able to mimic his strength? Benefit from his unique evolution? To be honest, probably not. But this book is filled with scientists and leading researchers who are doing just that. And not just with ants. They’re studying spider webbing, photosynthesis, mollusk feet, rhinoceros horns, and DNA to learn the secrets that animals and plants have harbored for centuries.
Each chapter revolves around a common theme. One chapter discusses ways to improve our agricultural system which currently depends upon fertilizers and pesticides. Every year tons of topsoil laden with these chemicals and nutrients wash down the rivers from our bread basket to the Gulf of Mexico polluting our waters and increasing the negative effects of hypoxic zones. Biomimicry author Janine Benyus writes of farmers all over the world who are drastically changing their methods in order to lighten the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Not only are these farmer-scientists supporting a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth, they are also reducing their overall costs, maintaining basically the same output, and strengthening their intuitive understanding of the earth they’re farming.
She writes about mussels and the incredible, naturally secreted super glue they use so they don’t drift off with the current. Biomimicry was published quite a few years ago. While most of it still reads as cutting edge, it’s interesting to look at where we were 20 years ago compared to now. The super glue she was just hinting at in her text is now a reality. Even though we’re headed in the right direction, scientists have a hard time truly replicating the mysteries of nature.
Biomimicry, biomimetics, and bioneers are three words you can use to dig into this topic further on Google. It’s worth exploring. One of my favorite websites for current information, videos, and examples of biomimicry is managed by The Biomimicry Institute. They offer a full array of educational resources to use in the classroom. If you want more up-to-date examples of biomimetics, check out this article from Science Focus Magazine titled Biomimetic Design: 10 Examples of Nature Inspiring Technology.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World - Book Review
Educational Focus: Service Learning - Our Impact on the Climate
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World
Book Review 3 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
In Central Pennsylvania, just north of State College, there is a beautiful little hotel nestled inside a state park. It’s one of the only hotels of its kind. The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle was “voted the #1 Eco-Lodge in the nation!” Watch this video to see it for yourself. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend here recently.
This past April our Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) Executive Council decided to have our annual board meeting in this location. We couldn’t have made a better choice! They held our meeting in a small library overlooking the lobby of the hotel. In that library, during one of our breaks, I discovered The Hidden Life of Trees - a tiny, soft covered book that held my attention for a full weekend. That was all it took for me to rip my way through this incredibly interesting text. I even stopped at Barnes and Noble that evening on the way to dinner just to purchase my own copy.
Written by Peter Wohlleben, a man who spent a good bit of his time as a German forestry worker, The Hidden Life of Trees goes beyond your typical nature story. When he began his “professional career as a forester, [he] knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” But over time that changed. The trees he describes take on human qualities of community, survival, grit. Trees, through his eyes, have an almost living presence. Much like a soul. And yet he writes of science and research. Qualitative first-person interactions with forests spanning decades. He doesn’t write about feelings, he writes about facts. But he does it in such a way that you can’t help but view trees in a different light.
One of the most surprising chapters in this book describes how the underground root system of trees act as a community network tying trees of like kind together. I had no idea that they use their roots to pass nutrients and sustain life like an underground electrical grid. When I think of their root system, I can’t help but imagine the synapses and network of neurons we have in our own brains.
“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”
Wohllenben excels at not just introducing the research that is out there, but also making us care about the topic. I’ll never look at a tree in a park the same way again. Since trees in parks and in city landscaping are typically planted by design, they are often completely cut off from this natural grid system. We surround their roots in concrete tombs so they don’t grow to crack the sidewalk or to wrap around underground water pipes. They have no way of extending their roots to their neighbors and therefore spend their lives completely cut off from the life saving bond of other trees that would otherwise pass nutrients and share water in dire times. For this reason, because the trees planted by us tend to be forced into fending for themselves, their quality of life and length of life are significantly thwarted. Like an orphan braving the streets alone with no social network or adults to help him thrive.
Reading this book also taught me other things like why the leaves of certain trees change color, how different species of trees reproduce very differently from one another, and how a seemingly dead stump can actually remain alive for quite some time. I learned how some trees use counter measures to ward off pests and animals that view the tree as a snack. I learned about sustainable practices for forestry management.
I appreciate that his many analogies to human life throughout the book made the science and study of trees so accessible to someone like me who has a relatively minor background in earth science. I never once thought about the science of trees before reading this book. Never. My mind works much more skillfully with words and language, but he made the research easy to understand. And enjoyable to read.
For anyone who enjoys hiking. Anyone that likes looking at pictures of forests. Anyone who has a backyard or front stoop with a tree that shades their property. Anyone who eats chestnuts in winter. Anyone who ever sat by a roaring bonfire. Anyone who has ever felt the smooth surface of driftwood on the beach. Anyone who enjoys breathing oxygen produced by, well, trees. Read this book!
Educational Focus: Submersibles and Ocean Navigation
Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage
Book Review 2 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is one of the quietest, if not the most quiet, fisheries research vessels in the world. One of the reasons for this is its propeller. The construction of the propeller is based on non-nuclear submarine technology. In order to avoid the constant vibrating drone normally translated from a mechanical engine to the propeller, which in turn makes noise in the ocean, the propeller is driven by an electric motor that is in turn powered by a series of four generators. The generators are just as loud and tremulous as a traditional engine, but since they’re not directly connected to the propellor, it keeps most of the vibrations from being transmitted into the ocean. Electricity from the generators, which produces far less vibration, is what ultimately powers the propeller.
This nod to submarine technology reminds me of a book I read last school year called Blind Man’s Bluff. The true life characters in this book jump off the page at every turn. Authors Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Drew do their due diligence by interviewing everyone they can find in the isolated world of submarine espionage - from general crew to Admiral, scientist to politician. Each chapter tackles a different story from an era that spans almost 50 years of American military history.
These submarine spies stood as lonely sentries on the frontlines of a war that was waged fiercely by both sides. Only in this war the most important weapons weren’t torpedoes, but cameras, advanced sonar, and an array of complicated eavesdropping equipment. And while these men rode some of the most technologically daunting craft ever built, their goals were deceptively simple: “Know thy enemy,” learn enough to forestall a surprise attack, to prevent at almost any cost a repeat of Pearl Harbor in a nuclear age. (Prologue xiii)
In Spring 2018, a Vice Admiral of the United States Navy (Ret) came to speak at one of the Civil Air Patrol meetings I attend regularly. The Civil Air Patrol is the official civilian auxiliary to the United States Air Force and is congressionally funded. The main purpose of this organization is trifold: to run an exemplary cadet program focusing on leadership and integrity, to promote aerospace education in our membership and in the communities we serve, and to participate in emergency services missions when assigned. While listening to Vice Admiral, USN (Ret) Daniel L. Cooper, I was given my first glimpse into the world of submarines. At the risk of sounding like a much younger version of myself - I had no idea how cool they were! It was at this event that I wrote a note in my phone for later. The note read: “Get your hands on Blind Man’s Bluff!”
There are two aspects of this text that I remember best. The first is a story about American submarines cruising in the black of night, silent, sneaking into Soviet waters. Their mission was to expel a team of divers from their submarine who would literally walk on the bottom of the Sea of Okhostsk to manually tap a communication cable. Of course, this intricate mission also involved getting that team of divers back on to the submarine before hightailing it out of there. No easy feat. The authors of Blind Man’s Bluff write with such exquisite detail that it feels like you’re riding along with US Nuclear Submarine Halibut during the mission. You can find some details linked here, but I’d definitely recommend reading the book for a more robust account.
The other aspect of this book that sits in my memory is how much the United States intelligence community was dependent at that time on information gathered by these submarine crews. Some chapters of the book read like an old time spy novel. Submarines were tasked with navigating uncharted territory in the Arctic Ocean amid sharp, sometimes undetectable chunks of ice. They also played dangerous cat and mouse games with ships, planes, and other submarines from other countries - sometimes coming to just within a few feet of another submarine risking not only detection but an underwater collision. And collide they sometimes did.
Portraying the lives of the military personnel involved in each mission is done with great care. Some of the submariners have never been able to share their stories with those closest to them. At the end of the book, the authors mention that while some of the men show up at their book signings and events to get “reassurance that [they] had taken care not to harm ongoing submarine operations” (p. 306), the authors still believe they are doing these men a service by sharing their stories so their loved ones can understand them better. They write in the Epilogue on page 299 that “No final analysis of the submarine war can ignore the human costs. These men traded months, years, and more to become what was for decades the country’s best defense against nuclear attack from the sea.”
Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook and you’ll learn that the missions from the Cold War era “...designed to change the very nature of submarine warfare…” (p. 3) and had a lasting impact on our military operations today. Some details in the text are based on interviews and the authors include enough research from declassified papers and other historical documents that it becomes difficult not to believe the description of the missions as they are portrayed in this text.
This summer I’ll spend close to three weeks on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker in the Pacific Ocean. The NOAA Teacher at Sea program - best kept secret - is a professional development adventure open to all teachers, professors, and community educators. Each week I’ll review a book that I’ve enjoyed reading and invite you to follow my NOAA Teacher at Sea Blog. Part of the program requirements include posting a blog entry a few times each week on the NOAA website to share educational connections to the trip. Hope you enjoy! I’m presenting more about NOAA Teacher at Sea during our PCTELA Conference this October in Penn State. If anyone wants to apply, let me know and I’ll help you through the process!
Educational Focus: Marine Debris
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
Book Review 1 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
While holding this book in my hands, I feel crinkled edges and a soft, worn cover. I see smudges on the pages and a sticker on the binding that reads “USED SAVES: Textbooks from YOUR BOOKSTORE.” The sticker is ironic given the content of this text. While I can’t remember which thrift store I was at when I purchased the book, I do know that it travelled on my shelves from at least one home to another. It’s been with me, untouched, for a long time.
I read this book for the first time last summer. At that point I had just barely grazed the surface of my deep water plunge into earth science. Reading Specialists don’t often have to understand science to do their job well, but throughout the last year I dove deep into the murky waters of sustainability, earth’s atmosphere and oceans, and environment. And you know what? My students seemed to enjoy the science connections we made to our lessons last year.
It is clear that Heather Rogers’ purpose in writing was both efferent and aesthetic. Louise Rosenblatt (Literature - S.O.S.!, Voices from the Middle vol12 n3) wrote that the Latin for efferent is to “carry away,” and I’ve certainly carried away knowledge after reading this book. But she doesn’t seem to just want people to understand the problem, she wants us to be angry about the problem. She wants us to do something about it. She is a skilled author. Her words both captivated me and compelled me to keep reading. It made me think about my own personal consumption practices and waste.
An Aesthetic Reading
Rogers’ word choice is almost poetic. She includes phrases like “...famous for gallivanting on his well-groomed steed…” (p. 52). She writes of clandestine operations of a garbage barge in the 1980s that illegally dumped “a third of its cargo of toxic incinerator ash on Haiti’s beaches before slipping away under cover of night” (p. 200).
Her stylistic rhythm and cadence lulled me into a woozy reader’s haze. It felt good to read this book. But no matter how much I enjoyed the reading of it, I couldn’t help but get carried away by the events and research she included to sound the alarm of impending environmental doom.
An Efferent Reading
She wants us to stop letting companies dictate our consumption of products. Rogers seems to be asking: Shouldn’t we be telling the manufacturers what we want and not the other way around? She makes a compelling argument midway through the book that shows how production of consumables skyrocketed in the 1950s and has been damaging our planet ever since. She writes on page 103 that “It was the age of the paper plate, polyester, fast food, disposable diapers, TV dinners, new refrigerators, washing machines and rapidly changing automobile styles. Most of all it was the epoch of packaging - lots of bright, clean, sterile packaging in the form of boxes, bags, cellophane wrappers and throwaway beer cans. The golden era of consumption had arrived, bringing the full materialization of modern garbage as we know it: soft, toxic, ubiquitous.”
This chapter sits with me still. She describes how we went from a society hell bent on reusing, repairing, and restoring to one that “began making commodities that intentionally wore out faster than was technologically necessary. And because of unprecedented production efficiencies, these commodities were becoming cheaper to replace than they were to repair.” (p. 104). We’ve somehow managed to root ourselves securely into an era that does not consider the long-term consequences of our actions. Instead of buying a glass container that we could reuse for years, we insist on buying individual use soda cans, plastic bottles of water, and brightly colored, individually wrapped candies. But where does all that leftover trash go? Rogers will tell you.
I found myself switching back and forth between the aesthetic and efferent with each turn of the page, each new detail, and sometimes with each new word. But it never felt abrupt or disjointed. The text flows.
One word of caution, though, is that her very passionate, almost extreme perspective on saving the planet did not creep up on me until the very last chapter. Because it was such an enjoyable read, it took me a while to notice the bias. Looking back through the text now, though, I can see layers of sarcasm and opinion blended with the historical facts and research. As long as you read it with that in mind, it’s an absolutely enlightening and enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone.
We hope this message finds you well, and enjoying the R&R that only summer can bring! Today officially launches a new project that has been a few years in the making! Realizing how we receive our information and news has evolved, we at PCTELA wanted to provide you, our professional family, with the best possible experience. Because of that we are thrilled to launch our new, PCTELA News Blog! A few questions you might have:
1. What is it?
This blog will replace the PCTELA Newsletter that you received as part of your membership.
We receive content throughout the year, and to limit it to periodical newsletters did not provide it you in the timely manner you deserve.
3. How often will content be published?
Previously, members were receiving approximately 30 pieces on content per year. We are committed to providing (on average) at least one piece of content per week, so our members can receive at the minimum, over 50 pieces of content per year!
4. What about the old PCTELA blog?
Our old blog and our old newsletter always worked to share content and ideas. Moving forward, this blog will be the single source for all content. Don't worry though, all the things you loved about the old blog will be forthcoming here, as well as your favorite entires from the past, which will make their way here as a "greatest hits classic"!
5. What about your contributions?
Nothing at all and PLEASE continue to send them in! We only become better educators by learning from each other, and this community is built by ALL OF US! Keep sending those book reviews, reflections, and research to us, so it can be included, posted, and shared!
Again, we could not be more excited for the future! Please send your feedback and submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and don't ever hesitate to contact us!