Category Archives: Education

Book Review: Material Value by Julia Goldstein

Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning ProductsMaterial Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products by Julia L.F. Goldstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book could be titled “Another Inconvenient Truth,” because it takes as a starting point what most polemical environmentalist literature does not: that we humans need fossil fuels, factories, manufacturing, and chemicals–even toxic ones. We also need corporations and jobs. The author accepts that these aspects of our lives are not going away, at least not in the absence of the environmental crash/catastrophe we are desperately trying to avoid. Once that foundation has been laid, the rest of the book can be built on it. The result is a largely even-handed discussion of what the built environment is made of, how it got that way, and a clear-eyed look at what steps might be taken to make the whole enterprise more sustainable, allowing humans to tread more lightly on the earth.

The author, Julia LF Goldstein, has a PhD in materials science and is a trained engineer and award-winning technical writer. This background molds her prose for better and worse. Her explanation of why and how the air has gotten cleaner since the 1970s is well-written, clear, and easy for the educated lay person to follow, as are her explanations of why and how it can be difficult to remove toxins from the environment. I hadn’t known the scope of the e-waste recycling problem until reading this book either, and I’m now giving myself two cheers for keeping my old cell phone a while longer.

This book also provides an interesting early-2019 snapshot of new companies and new technologies at work. Some of these new technologies are fascinating, and seem to be right out of science fiction. There is the sonic generator technology used by Ronin8, that uses underwater sound waves to sort materials by density. There is EcoSheep, a company selling a sheep oil lubricant that works better than petroleum-based competitors. And there is Mighty-O donuts, an almost zero-waste vegan donut shop. Reading about these companies gives me hope that entrepreneurship will indeed be a large part of the sustainability solution.

The writing is still quite technical, however, and is somewhat lacking in the areas of storytelling and reader engagement. To address this, Goldstein occasionally throws in an anecdote or two from her own experience. For example, she spends a few pages comparing the different kinds of tennis racquets she has owned, some made of carbon fiber. She also describes the milk she has purchased in glass bottles from a Seattle-area delivery service as delicious. Anecdotes like these can help to humanize her for the reader, as it did me, but they may backfire if the reader doesn’t share her biases or demographic. Millennials reading it might end up feeling lectured by their mother or teacher. People who can’t afford carbon fiber tennis racquets or milk delivery may feel condescended to. Environmental activists may be impatient with the incremental and halfway progress that these measures will bring about. And as someone who has studied molecular biology and genetic engineering, even I thought that her willingness to imply that the controversial agricultural weed killer Roundup is a public health menace on a par with Radium or Tobacco was unnecessarily hyperbolic. But that there is something there to annoy people on multiple sides of the political landscape probably only means that she has gotten the tone about right.

Goldstein makes extensive use of interviews of CEOs and founders of companies who are implementing green policies. This is an inspired idea, and these interviews are promising for reader engagement. But here too, more vivid language would be helpful. Instead of being written in a standard book or magazine interview format, with an introduction, questions from the author, and answers from the interviewee in his or her own voice interleaved, the interviews are summarized in their entirety in several paragraphs of the author’s workmanlike technical prose. I found this format confusing enough that I didn’t even realize that I was reading the first “interview” before I was halfway through it.

The exception is the interview with Smokey Peck, of Interwest Paper in Salt Lake City UT. His interview comes the closest to the type of interview I would expect to continue reading in a magazine. Although it is not written in his voice, the interview provides several stories of Smokey overcoming obstacles or making prescient decisions; for example he has been ahead of the curve on inventory control for years, and he convinced a resistant Utah state representative to support curbside recycling. Smokey also provides the author with some well-chosen quotes and his is the only name I remembered while writing this review without having to look it up.

The other interview subjects are similarly well-chosen to illustrate the author’s points; I only wish she had fleshed the subjects out a bit more and given them more of their own authentic voices. I believe this would help further humanize these business leaders and give a face to the corporations that remain anonymous and all-too-easy to scapegoat.

I will end this review by saying that I think every American adult should read this book, and that more authors should write even-handed, non-hyperbolic books like this one. Material Value is occasionally slow going, but overall it is a refreshing and practical antidote to the polarized sound bites that dominate so much of our political discourse about climate and sustainability.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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April #WATWB: 10 years of Little Free Libraries

In 2009 Todd H. Bol created the first Little Free Library book exchange and placed it in his Hudson, Wisconsin, front yard in tribute to his mother, who had been a teacher. Ten years later, his idea has snowballed into a worldwide book-sharing movement. There are now more than 80,000 Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and 90+ countries, from Argentina to Zambia. Sadly, Todd passed away last year at the age of 62. This article remembers him and the movement he started: “A Tiny Library that Changed the World.”

Having just installed a Little Free Library in my own front yard, I thought this would be a perfect topic for the We are the World Blogfest. May 17 is the official 10th birthday of the Little Free Library organization, and here are some ways to celebrate.

In addition to mine, which we bought from the LFL organization, painted, and installed ourselves, here are some pictures of other Little Free Libraries around or near my home. The orange one to the right belongs to a friend of mine. They can be made out of repurposed furniture or containers, or built from scratch!

The “We Are the World Blogfest” (#WATWB) shares positive news on social media. Cohosts for this month are:   Shilpa GargInderpreet UppalPeter NenaLizbeth HartzEric Lahti.Please check out their WATWB posts and say hello!

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Thursday Doors: My Little Free Library

I have wanted a Little Free Library at my house for about as long as I have known there were Little Free Libraries. I may have been first introduced to them via geocaching. Or at church. I have blogged about Little Free Libraries for Thursday Doors before, just not my own.

Last December, for my birthday and Christmas, I asked for a Little Free Library. My husband obliged, but that was only the first step. The unpainted, unfinished library (and its post) sat in the entryway to our house for months and were threatening to become a permanent fixture.

I bought some paint that was meant for outdoor deck furniture, in colors that looked like they went together, and in the store near the paint there were some stencils. At the time, the stencils seemed like a good idea, so I bought them, hoping to make the library look cute.

I took off the sign, and the door handles, and eventually the hinges, while I was painting. My 15-yo son painted the post, as we took over the garage for a weekend.

I enjoyed using the stencils to paint designs on the library itself. I liked the idea of painting a wise owl and a fantasy dragon on the library. Books have introduced me to both wisdom and fantasy.

But ugh, I guess I didn’t get the memo about how to use the brush, because the end result of the stencil painting wasn’t very good. Some paint oozed underneath the stencil and blended together in a mess. (I didn’t document this in pictures.) I had to fix the pictures freehand. This was a little daunting at first, but I warmed to the task and decided that it looked okay, even charming.

Close-up of the back panel of the LFL, after I fixed the mess I made with the stencils
Close-up of the back panel of the LFL, after I fixed the mess I made with the stencils

Even more daunting than the painting, to me, was digging the hole for the post. If I’m being honest, I think that was my main reason for putting off the installation this long. I wasn’t even sure if I could dig a deep enough hole. Fortunately I had help. I borrowed our neighbor’s post-hole digging tool, my husband and son both pitched in along with me, and we had the necessary 2-ft hole in about half an hour.

Then there was attaching the library itself:

All of this was a long process that happened over several hours. While I was out there, I met two sets of neighbors who were interested in the same thing. One said he had his own library still sitting in his garage. The other offered some books.

Most of these books are mine. I got some free with the library, and I have a stash that I brought along from MA of old books that I and my kids will probably not read again. There’s something I like more about putting them in the LFL rather than selling them or even donating them.

I was a little concerned about book theft, since I have a friend with an LFL in a busy area of Philadelphia, and she has had her LFL cleaned out more than once. I stamped the books so that they will be less attractive to used bookstores. You may also note the presence of one of my books, Geocaching GPS!

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The stamp: Always a gift, never for sale

I even put a geocache in there: LFL 69535, named after its charter number. Since we bought the library from the official organization, it came equipped with a charter number, which means you can find it by searching on this map. The First-to-Find (FTF) was none other than our neighbor Rich, owner of the post-hole digger!

If you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by and say hello! If you’re not, check the map for an LFL near you.

My library's charter sign
My library’s charter sign

 

For Norm 2.0’s Thursday Doors. Since this is supposed to be about doors, I’ll highlight some of the doors’ features. They are held closed by a magnet. I painted the handles to be like flowers. And I put a couple of pockets on the windows to put in bookmarks and orchestra cards. There are flowers on the outer edges and a “lawn” across the bottom.

LFLOrchCards

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments at Norm’s blog

February #WATWB: Bicycling for the Climate

We are the World LogoI’ve written about adventure cycling for the We are the World Blogfest before, when I wrote about my friend Jasmine Reese, who is cycling across the country and around the world with her dog and her violin.

This month I want to call attention to another adventure cyclist, local resident Tim Oye, who is riding for Climate Ride, a nonprofit that organizes events to raise awareness and support for “active transportation” and environmental causes. Tim’s ride will take him through Death Valley this coming week.  Tim will also be giving a presentation at my church on Saturday night.

Environmental advocate and Sunnyvale resident, Tim Oye, is biking across the US to talk with adults and kids about Oceans, Plastic, and Climate Change. While bicycling 4500 miles from San Francisco to Boston, he will stop to give a talk about bicycling across the continent, how day-to-day human activities affect our oceans, and what we all can do to save our environment for our kids. With a degree in Chemistry from Harvard and after more than 30 years in high tech doing product development at Apple, Sun, and Adobe, Tim switched careers to pursue environmental advocacy and public service. He is a certified bicycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, a coach instructor for the American Youth Soccer Organization, a 4-H leader, and on the cutting edge of going zero waste.

I worked on “Anything But a Car Day” at my son’s school last year. It is an initiative to promote kids biking to school safely. My son biked to middle school. Now, in high school, he lives close enough that he can walk.

GrahamABCDay

I like to bicycle and I used to ride my bike to work when I had a shorter commute, but I am not as hard-core as these adventure cyclists. We can’t all do everything but we all can do something!

Bike

The “We Are the World Blogfest” (#WATWB) shares positive news on social media. Cohosts for this month are: Inderpreet Uppal Shilpa GargSylvia McGrath , Peter Nena, and Belinda WitzenHausenPlease check out their WATWB posts and say hello!

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High School, Again

It’s 6:45 am but it might as well by 1:45 am. Or 2:45. It’s dark as night out and i have to go to work.

I started a new job in January. I am a teaching fellow in a highly academic, STEM-focused school, training to become a Biology teacher. I’ve spent the last 5 years teaching science part-time with a small educational non-profit. While this was good for my family life and my music-making, it was time to go back to work full-time again. My daughter is in college and my son is in high school. They are both pretty self-sufficient now.

As I walk through the noisy hallways of the school, which is located in a converted office building, I am surprised and a little dismayed by a feeling of deja vu. This is a private independent school (which means I can teach here without a teaching credential) whereas I went to a public school in a more typical public school building. But it’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy high school very much the first time around. I was 2 years younger than my peers and a social late bloomer. I have realized in retrospect that I was suffering from at least social anxiety, math anxiety, and their granddaddy, performance anxiety. Awareness of all of these, as with many mental health issues, is much better nowadays, as is treatment. But this time of life can still be fraught for many teens, especially here in hyper-achievement-oriented Silicon Valley.

Some folks have even asked me, why do this at all? I have a PhD, so perhaps I could get another biotech or project management job. Perhaps. But when I did work in those fields I felt like there was something missing: a human connection, a child-like joy in learning new things. I felt that joy intermittently in music, and with my kids, but rarely at work. I was stuck forever looking for my “passion” in all the wrong places.

Teaching, though, makes sense. In a weird way, it’s like coming home. There is something very primal, and comforting about having a bell schedule and class periods that are the same every day. The subjects are familiar too. While cutting-edge science has marched ahead, high school physics and math remain much the same. They are learned at younger and younger ages though; the AP Calculus I learned as a senior is taken here by sophomores and juniors. And, as Christa McAuliffe said, it touches the future. I’m here now as a teacher in midlife because I wasn’t ready before. I only came to like teaching after I became a parent and taught in a number of informal, non-school settings like church and Girl Scouts. It’s time, after all those years, to face down that anxiety and defang it.

Tomorrow is another day. The alarm rings at 5:45.

Motion

December 20th 2018 was my last day at my old job. I worked as an instructor at the educational non-profit, Science from Scientists, for over 5 years. Fittingly, my last day took place at Lipman Middle School, the same school I started in when I moved to CA in 2015.

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View from the Lipman parking lot, my first day, in 2015

Nestled on the side of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane CA (pronounced “Briz-bane,” not like the “BRIS-bin” in Australia), Lipman is in an idyllic environment. Like many public schools in CA, it comprises a collection of smaller buildings, which students walk between and among to get to classes. (One aspect of school I always disliked when I was a student was the “closed campus” rule that students couldn’t leave the grounds during school hours. If they did, even to go to, say, the pizza place across the street for lunch, they faced severe consequences. Suspension for getting a slice of pizza—a strange prison-like mentality.)

parkinglot2016
Almost the same view, a year later

Lipman, though, has an outdoor classroom the woods, and we were able to do some of our SciSci lessons outside. Beanbag tossing with prism goggles could get a little rowdier than usual outside, and no one would mind.

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Tossing beanbags at a target while wearing prism goggles. “Altered Reality”

Other days, we fished, we looked at the moon, we made DNA origami, and we built models of brains.

Our last class before Christmas break was a lesson called “Rover Restraint.” Many schools do this: students have to build a contraption to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a height of around 8 feet. In our version, we compare it to landing a Mars rover like Curiosity.

And to keep expectations in check and the playing field level for everyone, we limit the planning and building to one class period, using only the materials we bring with us from SciSci. I stand on a stool and drop each entrant from the same height. This procedure usually leads to a nice mix of some eggs cracking and some surviving, and a range of designs and budgets, making it relatively straightforward to pick a winner. (The winning group gets a nice set of SciSci pencils!)

Onward and upward! I’m going to miss Lipman, and Rover Restraint. This post is 2 weeks late for Dr. KO’s Mundane Monday prompt, Motion.

parkinglot2018
View from the parking lot in 2018 during the devastating Camp Fire, 180 miles away

 

Thursday Doors: Mural

I started a new full-time job last week. I’ve been too busy with it to blog about it in detail–too busy to blog at all, in fact. But I wanted to get started again with this week’s Thursday Doors.

Behind the school where I work, there is an astroturf “lawn” and a basketball court. There are also some picnic tables for the students to eat lunch. And a door.

sciencemuraldoor

Students painted this mural, with names of famous cultural figures, next to the back door last year. I like how they included two genders and several nationalities. I spend a lot of time looking at this mural when I’m supervising student lunch.

I have showed a school, with murals, in Thursday Doors before. That school was a more typical California public school, with a lot of separate buildings.

treepainting

My new school is different. It is located in a former office building in San Jose. Architecturally it is unusual for a school too, with a lot of windows but not much in the way of athletic facilities. These students are more interested in science than sports anyway.

sciencemuraltable

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Thursday Doors: Birthday Library

For my birthday this year, I got my own Little Free Library. I’ve wanted one for almost as long as I knew that they existed, but I had been a little intimidated by the cost or by the thought of having to build one myself. Then I was also not sure about how to put it up in the yard. It seemed like a lot of effort.

But I really like these little libraries, and I’ve included a few in past Thursday Doors posts, for example here.

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This library sits outside the UU church of Palo Alto, which I have attended a few times. There is another outside Brewer Island Elementary School (where I taught about photosynthesis this morning), painted blue like the school.

And I recently found a geocache in this Little Free Library in Redwood City, in a neighborhood near Roy Cloud Elementary, where I am teaching tomorrow. It kind of looks like an elf lives there.

ElfLibrary

I wish I’d been more systematic about taking pictures of all the libraries I’ve found, especially the ones where I’ve found geocaches.

Because finally, I am going to have my own! I got an unfinished one for my birthday. Right now it is still sitting on the floor in the front entryway, next to the shoe rack.

LFLUnfinished

But it is pretty close to being ready to go. And, because this is Thursday Doors, notice the nice doors on it! My husband ordered it from LittleFreeLibrary.org. The post came the next day. It is extremely tall (I include some of the room furnishings for scale):

LFLPost

I’d like to paint it with some kind of music theme, or space/sci-fi theme. But the picture hasn’t quite crystallized yet. And it looks like I will have to dig quite a deep hole for that post!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Mundane Monday: Assembling the Bones

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is “bones.” For this theme, Dr. KO has a nice picture of an alligator snapping turtle skeleton, which you should definitely check out (also, raise your hand if you knew before this that there was a such thing as an “alligator snapping turtle.” My hand is not up). At first I was concerned I wouldn’t have anything for this week, and then I remembered. This is a great lead-in to the topic that’s been on my mind recently: Back to School!

I have not had much time for blogging lately because my teaching job has started up again. I teach middle-grade science with a non-profit organization called Science from Scientists. Regular school, including my kids’ high school and college, started already a while ago, but SciSci gives the teachers and students a week or two to get settled in before we start our visits. This year I have two completely new schools and two new co-Instructors to work with. I’m also going back to two schools I worked with last year and liked.

One of our most popular lessons at SciSci includes the dissection of an owl pellet. Most of my prior exposure to owls has been via children’s fiction, and I first learned about the pellets as an adult when I taught this lesson.

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Mr Rogers’ neighborhood had an owl in it!

Owls don’t poop. They eat their prey whole and digest it in the gizzard, a second stomach. They absorb nutrients like we do from the soft parts of the prey, and eventually regurgitate a pellet containing the indigestible bits (mainly fur and/or feathers and bones). This is a YouTube video of the process that we show our students. It was taken in Ontario in 2014:

Will you ever look at Hedwig quite the same way again?

harry_potter_and_hedwig

One of the many cool things about owl pellets is that you can dissect them and find out what the owl has eaten. If you buy the pellets from Carolina Biological Supply like we do, you usually find a mouse skeleton, maybe two, in the pellet. Occasionally you might find a bird. The prey animals can be identified by the skulls, and sometimes a large portion of the skeleton can be reconstructed.

AssemblingBones
Students dissecting an owl pellet and reconstructing a skeleton

These bones are quite small, but very interesting!

BirdSkeleton

 

Amazing New Brain Map of Every Synapse Points to the Roots of Thinking

Dave Wolf is on a roll this month with posting cool neuroscience articles! This study, from a team at the University of Edinburgh, is a real tour de force that takes advantage of modern technology in neuroscience. I can imagine that some day that we will be able to map the human synaptome, non-invasively, and in real time. Then we would finally have the tools to address more fruitfully questions such as the nature/nurture debate, how mindfulness changes the brain, even the nature of consciousness and transcendent experiences. Check out author Shelly Fan’s other work too!

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By Shelly Fan – Aug 14, 2018*

Imagine a map of every single star in an entire galaxy. A map so detailed that it lays out what each star looks like, what they’re made of, and how each star is connected to another through the grand physical laws of the cosmos.

While we don’t yet have such an astronomical map of the heavens, thanks to a momentous study published last week in Neuron, there is now one for the brain.

If every neuron were a galaxy, then synapses—small structures dotted along the serpentine extensions of neurons—are its stars. In a technical tour-de-force, a team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK constructed the first detailed map of every single synapse in the mouse brain.

Using genetically modified mice, the team literally made each synapse light up under fluorescent light throughout the brain like the starry night. And similar to…

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