Field Work

STEM Tuesday Field Work — Interview with Loree Griffin Burns

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing author Loree Griffin Burns who wrote this month’s featured book about real-life scientific field work, Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island.

The book takes place on an Icelandic island that’s only decades old. Readers join the scientists studying this new patch of land and the plants and animals that are colonizing it. Loree Griffin Burns earned science degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Massachusetts. Since then she’s been writing books and articles that celebrate our natural world and the people who study it. To research these stories, she’s beachcombed on both coasts, cruised the Pacific Ocean in search of plastic, surveyed birds in Central Park, stung herself with a honey bee, visited the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly (on horseback!) and lived on a Costa Rican butterfly farm. Her latest book, Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island was named a 2017 best children’s nonfiction title by both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Loree lives with her husband and three nearly-grown children in central Massachusetts.

 Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about?

Loree Griffin Burns: In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel with my husband to Iceland. While we were there, we took a day-trip to the island of Heimaey, which is the largest of an archipelago off the southwestern coast of the country. It poured rain the entire time we were on Heimaey, so we toured by bus instead of on foot. At one point, as we rounded the southern end of the island, our bus driver pulled to the side of the road and pointed out to sea. “You see that island?” he asked. “The furthest one out?” We squinted through rain-soaked bus windows to see the rock he was talking about. “That’s Surtsey,” he said, “and I stood on the very spot this bus is parked, when I was a boy, and watched as it was born.” I knew the moment he said this that I’d just heard something incredibly special. I took out a notebook and started taking notes on everything he said from that moment on, including the fact that Surtsey was closed to all but the Icelandic scientists studying its transformation from a seething hunk of lava to an island that supported living, breathing organisms. As soon as I was home again, I began to research Surtsey’s story and became convinced it was the perfect subject for a ‘Scientists in the Field’ book. Once I’d convinced my editor of it too, I wrote to the Surtsey Research Society, the organization that controls access to the island as a research site, and pitched the idea the them. I was thrilled when they sent back an invitation to join an expedition the following summer.

MKC: Would you like to share a favorite part of spending time in the field researching this book?

Loree: I spent one working week, Monday through Friday, on Surtsey, as part of an expedition that included ten other scientists. Eight of those were Icelandic, and one was a Polish botanist who was living and working in Iceland at the time. Our team consisted of three women and seven men. Some of my favorite moments were getting to know the people I was with. As you’ll see when you read the book, I spent the most time with entomologists Erling Ólafsson and Matthais Alfredsson. But I got to know some other fascinating people, too. One of my favorite mornings was the one I spent with Lovisa Ásbjörnsdóttir, a geologist who has spent a lot of time on Surtsey. We hiked Austurbunki and Westurbunki together, mountains formed from Surtsey’s two volcanic cones, and spent several delightful hours sharing our work, our homelands, and what drew us each to Surtsey. Another highlight that didn’t make it into the book was my exploration inside the island. Underneath the hard lava crust of Surtsey is a network of lava tubes—tunnels through which molten lava once flowed but which now snake, empty and exploreable, underground. When botanist Paweł Wąsowicz first mentioned them to me, I didn’t believe him. And once I realized they existed, I was very nervous about checking them out. But I did, and it was an unforgettable experience.

Purchase a copy of  Life of Surtsey

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Loree: I do. I spent my twenties in a research lab studying the expression of genes in yeast cells and earning a PhD in biochemistry. So, science has been part of my life for a long time. I tell kids all the time that for me, science is not a subject, or a career, but a way of looking at the world, a way of asking questions about how it works, and then figuring out how to find the answers.

MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process by sharing how you’re tackling a current project?

Loree: I recently finished a picture book manuscript for older readers about fruit flies and how scientists came to realize they are a useful organism for studying DNA. I know. I know. It doesn’t sound like proper picture book material, does it? But it really is! The focus is entirely on the flies themselves, their bodies, their life cycles, their strange and adorable (!) laboratory habits, their easy to manipulate DNA. I think the right illustrator could have a great time with this book. (If you know one, send them my way.) While I try to find the perfect publishing home for the fruit fly book, I am working on another insect book: The Moth Ball. Coming from Charlesbridge in 2020, this book is an invitation into the nighttime exploits of the lesser-loved cousin of the butterfly: the moth. Right now, I’m reading up on moths and moth identification, and sketching out ideas for how best to structure a book that will excite readers about studying the moths in their own neighborhoods. The second spring finally arrives here in New England, photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I will start calling moths into our own yards, using black lights and special sugar baits, and we’ll begin recording every moment for our book. We’re both pretty excited! What you can see from these two examples is that my bookmaking process involves a lot more than just writing. I spend a lot of time researching my subjects, by reading the words of other writers and by having my own first-hand experiences with the topic. I also spend time getting my finished manuscripts into the hands of publishers who can help me bring them to readers. This variety is one of the things I like about making books.

MKC: Any recommendations for readers who loved Life on Surtsey?

Loree: Nonfiction books are my passion, and titles I’ve loved lately include: Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d by Mary Losure; The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman; Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins; Seeing into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright, Illustrated by Nina Crews.

More about Life on Surtsey:

Win a FREE copy of  Life of SurtseyEnter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, fellow nature geek, science nerd, and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids.

 

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STEM Tuesday Field Work — Writing Craft and Resources

This month we’ve focused on books about scientific field work. What about the field work of a writer? Whether their subject matter is fact or fiction, frogs or fractals, writers have important research to do out in the field.

We all know that sensory details help to create a more engaging read, but how do you craft those sensory details? Research in the field!

 

 

 

 

Here is an exercise to help you with auditory information. It will train you to become more aware of the ever-present sounds around you, will help you gather specific sounds on site, and will strengthen your descriptions of sound qualities.

Creating a Sound Map

The set-up:

  1. Place yourself “in the field.”
  2. On a plain piece of paper draw the largest circle that will fit.
  3. Put a dot in the middle of the circle. The dot represents you. The circle represents the furthest edge of your hearing.

Listen:

  1. When you hear a sound, record it on the map in relationship to the dot and the edge of your hearing.
  2. Record the sound as a word, color, shape or symbol – whatever represents it best.
  3. Try to indicate qualities of the sound: is it loud? moving? staccato? raspy? repeated?

Keep going:

  1. Continue listening until your map is full.
  2. Do you notice any trends in what you have recorded? Are there more human or natural sounds?  Are there more sounds on one side? Why? Were their sounds that surprised you?
  3. Try writing about the sounds of this place in a descriptive paragraph.

Sound maps have become one of my favorite tools for collecting sensory data. Try them in a variety of places and you will grow your ability to enrich your writing about scientific field work.

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com


THE O.O.L.F. FILES

This month, The Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files look at field work options for young people.

Want science you can do while fishing? Or at the beach? Or in a sports stadium? SciGirl has got you covered!

http://pbskids.org/scigirls/citizen-science

From tracking the seasons through tulips to tracking hummingbird migration, students can get busy collecting data with Journey North.

https://www.learner.org/jnorth/

If you prefer to do field work from the comfort of your living room – or classroom – Zooniverse is for you. Tons of opportunities to help scientists spy on cheetahs, count cute seals, or train an algorithm to detect plastic on beaches.

https://www.zooniverse.org/


STEM Tuesday Field Work — In the Classroom

Exploring “In the Field”

When you think of scientists working in the field, what do you imagine? I imagine them venturing to remote, possibly dangerous sites. Then again, some field work is closer to home, less rugged. And, as this month’s books reveal, modern field work can sometime mean anxiously awaiting data and video feeds while a specially equipped drone or other remote sensing device ventures far from home. No matter what the exact circumstances may be, this month’s titles transport readers to many places and offer exciting tales of passionate scientists eager to answer their questions. Let’s begin diving into this theme with a look at underwater archaeology.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSubmerge Yourself in a Science Mystery

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine is packed with possible science learning connections. Especially relevant to this month’s theme is the archaeological practice of studying objects in situ, carefully documenting and noting the physical relationships among the artifacts at a site. Readers witness  this practice as author Sally M. Walker takes them to the murky, underwater field where the 150-year-lost historic H.L. Hunley was discovered. Here scientists meticulously record the locations and orientations of the objects on the site before removing anything from the site. Later, scientists carefully record the sub’s interior objects’ spatial relationships before extracting them for study. The importance of preserving these details becomes clear when the data later prove important in answering scientists’ questions.

You can enhance students’ appreciation of the value of this information with a simple lesson involving different arrangements of a set of objects undergoing different events.

For example, imagine a site that includes a computer mouse, piece of paper, computer, glass, chair, desk. Ask students to sketch or create 3D scenes of these artifacts’ positions and orientations based on each of the following scenarios:

Scenario A: A left-handed person seated in front of a computer spilled a glass of water on a computer keyboard. Then the person jumped away from the desk, knocking over the chair.

Scenario B: A right-handed person seated in front of a computer fainted and fell out of the chair, knocking over a glass of water.

Scenario C: A left-handed person carrying a glass of water walked toward the desk, approaching it from the right, when a dog ran through the room from left to right, first toppling the chair, then bumping the person, which made the glass of water fall out of his/her hands.

Discuss how (and why) the layout of the artifacts varies in each of the representations, providing unique clues to each event. If you are feeling more adventurous, you might try either of these variations:

  • Before the activity, prepare secret assignment cards. On each card, print only one scenario but make sure A, B, and C are all represented in the class pile of cards. Randomly distribute the cards to student pairs, who must then sketch or use model artifacts to show the event. Next, each team can examine another team’s scene, making careful observations and beginning to make inferences about what happened to result in the objects’ arrangements.  After revealing the three scenarios, challenge students to infer which of the scenarios each student representation seems to match (and why). Discuss the observations and inferences that are related to the spatial relationships among the artifacts, and how they provide clues to a prior event.

 

  • For a more open-ended challenge, ask student pairs interpret other sketches as much as possible, without telling them what the three scenarios are. Support student thinking with questions such as:
    • What’s similar/different between the scene you are looking at and the one you just created? Do you think the scenario implied here is the same or different from the scenario that informed the scene you created? Why?
    • If different, what details about the event can you infer from the scene? What evidence supports your ideas? What is unexplained?

Looking at the entire set of scenes in the classroom, students might infer how many different scenarios are represented, using evidence to make arguments that support their claims. You might decline to tell students the answer, as archaeologists can never go back to the original witnesses and check their ideas.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgStudy Primates in the Field

As a biography of a groundbreaking field scientist, Anita Silvey’s Untamed, the Wild Life of Jane Goodall covers a lot of territory, including an exciting glimpse into this pioneer’s experiences as a field scientist.

Help students envision a primate scientist’s field work by comparing their own daily routines to their understandings (based on the text) of Jane’s early work in the field. Students might log where they eat, what they have to do to get their food and water, and where and when they sleep. They can break the day down into an hour-by-hour log of activities. For comparison, they can read about Jane’s early field activities on pages 28-33. Pages 71 and 73-77 address some ways that chimpanzee scientists’ field work has changed. They won’t be able to make exact correlations between their days and details about the scientists’ experiences, but they’ll get a flavor of the differences. Ask students to reflect on what aspects of being a field-based primatologist might be most exciting and challenging.

An engaging way to convey the lure of primatologists’ field work is watching videos of primates in their habitats. Show students one or more of these clips (with or without the narration) and discuss their observations (what they see and hear) and inferences (what sense they or the narrator/scientists make of what is observed). You might use some of the ideas in December’s STEM Tuesday In the Classroom installment, which focused on zoology.

Individual animals’ “personalities” and their relationships with other group members are important.  Field scientists often learn to identify individuals by sight. Your students might enjoy trying to learn the names and details about the chimps pictured on pages 84-87, perhaps by creating flash cards with copies of their pictures on the front.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgJourney into Meteorology and the Eye of the Storm

Of course, field studies extend beyond the bounds of biology, as you will see in Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code, by Amy Cherrix. While you might appreciate the extensive teacher’s guide  that offers many ideas for discussions and classroom activities, you might want to focus specifically on field work. If so, you might show NASA videos featuring drone missions to hurricanes, such as NASA Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HSE) – Studying Storms with the Global Hawk UAV. You can also sign up to connect your classroom to NASA’s airborne missions. If you do, you will gain access to the same video that NASA scientists see when they run the drone flights, and receive additional support.

As you might imagine, classic field-based weather observations make a great connection to this book. For example:

  • Your class might commit to participating in a citizen scientist group of weather watchers, (which may require modest investments in standard equipment), such as the CoCoRaHS Network.
  • For independent observing, students might build and use their own weather stations. Build Your Own Weather Station, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offers instructions.
  • If you prefer, challenge students to engineer their own instruments (based on designs that they research), as described in a free Integrated STEM Lesson Plan by R. Bruno.

 

The books on this month’s list offer many opportunities to jump into field work. How might you involve your students in actual or simulated field studies? What suggestions do you have to expand upon the ideas in this post? Please share your comments and questions!


portrait of author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofanoSTEM author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is also a STEM education consultant who supports teachers, librarians, schools, and organizations by providing curriculum development and professional development services. Find out about her books at http://carolyndecristofano.com and her consulting at http://bhstemed.us.