Friday, January 29, 2016

New Film on Stormwater and Green Infrastructure

I'm featured in a new film on stormwater and green infrastructure produced by the Nassau County Soil and Water Conservation District. Check it out below.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

First Day of Class Ice Breaking Exercise

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The first day of class is always weird. Students are usually uncomfortable because they don't know each other and they are nervous because they are unsure if they will like the class or the professor.

Most profs do some type of ice breaking exercise to remove the tension to get students talking to each other. Over the years, I've developed the one below that is based on tips I got from great teachers over the years.

I call this the business card interview ice breaker. Here's how it works.

After I go through the syllabus and discuss the main themes of the course (this gives time for stragglers to come in who are having trouble finding the room or parking), I hand out my business card and tell them that I do this so they will always have my contact information.

However, prior to coming to class, I write numbers on the back of each card. If there are 30 students, I write 1-15 on the back of two sets of 15 cards. Then, I shuffle the cards so that the numbers are mixed when they are passed out in class.

I then explain to the students that there are numbers on the back of the cards and that they have to find a student with a card with the same number. They usually start out tentatively, but after a while they have some fun with it.

Once they find their partner, I tell them that they have to interview their partner to get answers to certain questions. They then will introduce their partner to the rest of the class.

I usually use the following questions:

1. Name (this helps me as an instructor learn their names since it will be the second time I heard it in class--the first time being during attendance).

2. Year in school and major. I am always on the lookout for undeclared majors who may be interested in sustainability as a major.

3. What is the last book you read? I love this question because it reinforces the intellectual nature of university life and you get a sense of the interests of your students.

4. Why did you take this class? For many students, the course is some type of requirement. For others, they are deeply interested in the topic. Again, this helps to get a sense of the interests of the students.

5. Please tell me something interesting about yourself. This is also an interesting question because it gets students out of their walled comfort zone. They reveal who they are in interesting ways.

Before getting them started on the interviews, I go through the questions myself and answer them so that the students can get to know me a little better and so they have a model of types of answers I expect.

When the students are doing introductions, I usually ask follow up questions with each student. For example, if a student states that they are on a sports team, I ask them how their season is going or where they played last. These conversations further soften the first classroom experience.

Introducing the syllabus and the ice breaker exercise usually takes the entire first class period. I find it entirely worth it. When students come back the second day, they are relaxed and they know each other. They are talking with each other and they are comfortable enough to ask questions during the second meeting. It makes doing some higher risk classroom exercises (such as student mini lectures) much easier.

What ice breaking exercises do you use?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Most Interesting Thing You Will See January 27, 2016

More on utopian communities...

Fanny Wright and Hippietown

Fanny Wright
There are few characters in history as interesting as Fanny (Frances) Wright. She was born in 1795 in Scotland, but is known for her writing and speaking on a number of topics including advances for women, utopian societies, workers' rights, slavery, free love, and the United States. Newtopia Magazine published an interesting piece about her here in 2013 that is worth a read.

I first ran into her story years ago when I was doing some reading on utopian communities, particularly the famous New Harmony settlement which I visited about that time. Utopian communities were all the rage in the 19th century among those who sought escape from the strange combination of puritanism and destructive forms of capitalism (particularly slavery) that characterized much of the 19th century. Wright started her own form of utopian society based on transitioning freed slaves into northern culture. Nashoba, as she called it, failed, and she retreated to New Harmony and eventually settled somewhat permanently in Paris.

I recently ran into her story again in the midst of my reading of the Muller biography of William Cullen Bryant. I was surprised to learn that Bryant (and his paper The Saturday Evening Post) loathed her and found her lectures and very presence in the intellectual life of America abhorrent. Bryant, like other writers of the era, did not approve of female intellectuals--particularly irreligious radicals like Wright. 

What is so fascinating about Bryant's outlook on Wright is that they had similar connections, although Wright's were far more international and political during this era. Her social position as a Scottish wealthy aristocrat also put her in contact with people like the noted author Mary Shelley. Wright was good friends with the French hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette, as well as Jefferson, Jackson, and even Martin van Buren.

Bryant, who favored similar political interests as Wright, was also a champion of Jackson and worker's rights. Since they had many political overlaps, his distaste for Wright was clearly tainted by 19th century sexism and perhaps by a bit of his remnant New England puritanical character. Her views were too radical for Bryant's American vision of boot strap capitalism.

When writers discuss Wright, they always refer to her ill-fated attempt at a utopian community at Nahoba even though it only lasted a few years of Wright's 57 year turn on our planet. Many in the environmental world attempt these utopian communities. Back in the 1990's I fancied thoughts on the development of Hippietown within a part of Tampa called Seminole Heights. I owned a house in the community and hosted pot luck workshops on things like composting. Many of us were encouraging sustainability minded people to move into the neighborhood to try to infuse ideas of sustainability within a distinct geographic area. It was a much more informal notion of a utopian community than say today's Oregon compound of the Bundy's or 19th century New Harmony. Most of these communities, like Hippietown, fail to last. Yet they do provide fascinating examples of how like minded people strive to create connections and change societies.

Wright continues to fascinate for many reasons. Yet it is often her work in visioning a new way of living that draws many to her today.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hofstra's Updated Showstopping Alma Mater

I remember some dreary graduations sitting through some tough alma mater renditions over the years at various institutions. The alma maters are often melancholy hymns that speak of school loyalty. They often invoke learning, school colors, and college symbols. I've never liked them and generally find them distinctly out of step with the modern student. Most students first hear the song at graduation and it is quickly forgotten.

Alma maters for most universities were commissioned when the universities first opened. Thus, the songs are often nineteenth or early twentieth century tunes with languorous horns and doleful squeaky clarinets. Check out this one from my masters and Ph.D. alma mater, UW-Milwaukee here. It's a perfectly lovely song, but hardly a memorable piece of music to inspire today's student.

Hofstra had one of these older alma maters until recently. Last year a contest was held to find a new alma mater and the winner was one of our students, Robbie Rosen, who also was a semi finalist on American Idol.

Robbie performs his composition of our new alma mater below. I've sat through it live at the last two Hofstra graduations and it was a home run each time. Students, faculty, and parents all cheer and it is a great way to start the graduation ceremony and get everyone's interest up for the event.

Universities have tremendous talent in the student body. Why not change up the alma mater every ten years or so and build a musical archive representing the talent of the university? Based on Hofstra's experience, our alma mater is no longer an obligatory necessity. It is now an unforgettable showstopper.

(Bonus if you can find and name the U.S. Senator that attends each of our graduations.)

Back from Blogcation and a Call for Contributors

Are you ready for Spring Semester? Since I saw my shadow
this morning, I predict it will last 15 weeks or about 4 months.
This is the first week of classes at Hofstra University and I am back from my blogcation. So much has been happening in the environmental and sustainability world over the last few weeks that I feel as if I have missed some very important events. While many of us have been dealing with the monster storm that hit the northeast, other parts of the world have had other problems. Many of you have heard of the water pollution problem in Flint, Michigan, and water supply problems associated with El Niño in Latin America. As usual, there is no shortage of environmental material for this space.

While I was away from the blog I enjoyed my annual winter break spending time reading, writing, and enjoying my friends and family. I have been reading a new biography of William Cullen Bryant that I will review soon in these pages. I also have been enjoying the archives of the Bowery Boys New York History Podcast. If you are a New Yorker or enjoy American history, I think you will enjoy the podcast.

I am also looking for contributors to On the Brink. If you have anything you wish to contribute within the area of environment, sustainability, or higher education, please see the link at the top of the blog titled Write of On the Brink.

As usual, if you have any suggestions for topics or things you would like me to address on this blog, please send along ideas or tips.

A big thanks to all of the readers of On the Brink for continuing to be part of the growing audience of this space.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Marine Protected Areas Do Not Protect Genetic Diversity

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There is an interesting article in Nature that was published yesterday on the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPA's) in protecting the genetic diversity of ocean life in the tropics. As it turns out, the MPA's only protect a fraction of the genetic diversity. The news is particularly bad for corals. The article highlights what many have been saying for decades (thank you Jacques Cousteau for bringing this issue to the world's attention in the 20th century). Our oceans are in trouble and we are not doing enough to protect these important ecosystems. While we have made progress by developing marine protected areas, the management approach is not fully effective.

The article is particularly interesting in that it looks geographically at the entire range of genetic diversity in the tropical seas. Those who like charts and graphs will find the article particularly engaging.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best Thing You Will See Online January 12, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post...this video is a metaphor for how the Internet reacted to Bowie's death...

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best Thing You Will See Online January 11, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post....

Fort DeSoto Park

My series on local parks continues. Today, I focus on Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County, Florida. Links to other parks in my series follow the images and text.

Fort De Soto Park is a county park managed by Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast of Florida. It consists of a series of lightly developed barrier islands which hold some of the most pristine beaches in the state. The beaches are always ranked in the top 10 beaches in the world by many travel magazines.

Many visit Fort De Soto for the beaches, however, for many years, these islands served as a fort to protect the mouth of Tampa Bay, particularly during the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Teddy Roosevelt launched to invade Cuba from the City of Tampa and certainly visited the fort. The military left the islands in the 1920's. After the departure, a series of private operators tried to develop tourist attractions and it was briefly used as a bombing range during World War II. However, by 1948, the county owned the property and developed plans for a world class park. Fort De Soto Park was dedicated in 1963.

There is no doubt that the park design was influenced by Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. Guy Lombardo, who was a fixture in the Jones Beach Theater, brought his orchestra to dedicate the park.

The County maintains a museum that focuses on the military use of the land.

The Fort is no longer occupied, but some of the structures and cannon remain.

The park was dedicated in 1963. Present were various state and local dignitaries, Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, and Miss Florida.
The park has abundant amenities including several picnic areas. It is a popular spot for beach weddings and receptions.
An image from the dedication of the park.

The park has a space age mid century aesthetic. These are the UFO like restroom facilities.

A view of the north beaches from the Fort. 
There are miles of biking, walking, and paddling trails. One can rent kayaks, canoes, and bikes in the park.

It's a great spot for watching wildlife...

...or watching the waves... 
...or just relaxing.

The county has done extensive work to rebuild and protect the dunes.

Many go to this beach to collect shells.

It's my favorite beach for reading and relaxing.
Previous on the Brink Posts on Local Parks

Locally Managed Parks


Fort De Soto Park
Riverhills Park, Temple Terrace

New York

Eisenhower Park

State Parks

New York

Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park

Federal Parks


Lake Lanier Works Park

New York

William Floyd Estate

The Complete On the Brink Series on National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best Thing You Will See Online January 7, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post, Secrets of Penn Station...

Major Infrastructure Changes to the New York City Region in the Works

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The New York Times is reporting that Governor Cuomo is planning some very major infrastructure improvements to Penn Station.

Many of us in the New York area who utilize Penn Station regularly know that it needs an upgrade. It is crowded and has all the charm of a Baton Rouge trailer park and Rehab Centre. It stands in stark contrast to the glorious Grand Central Station.

Over the years there have been many failed plans to redo Penn Station. Hopefully this one will stick. It is definitely overdue. I'll be looking for it to be LEED certified.

Over the last week, the governor announced many new infrastructure projects including a bridge or tunnel from Long Island to Westchester County or Connecticut. This project has been in the works for decades and has never been built. We'll see....

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Best Science Rap You Will See January 6, 2015

In follow up to today's earlier post on the olive tree disease problem in southern Italy...

Olive Tree Disease Creates International Crisis in Southern Italy

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One of the problems with modern globalization is that it can easily spread disease. In the Americas we are very familiar with this issue due to the widespread devastation caused to native American populations upon contact with European colonists. Yet the spread of disease is also a challenge for other animals and plants.

Take Xylella, a bacteria that is a plant pathogen. One particular strain, Xylella fastidiosa (I know, it sounds like a Hogwart's spell), is doing severe damage to the olive trees in Europe. The bacteria is native to Costa Rica but somehow made it to Europe. Some believe it arrived in a shipment of landscape plants and others believe scientists intentionally imported the bacteria. In southern Italy, scientists are currently under criminal investigation in Italy as a result of this situation.

Regardless, the presence of the pathogen created a showdown between the European Union and the Italian government. The EU requires that all countries must take aggressive measures to control Xylella fastidious. These measures include cutting down infected trees and the use of pesticides. The Italian courts blocked these measures at the urging of farmers and environmental activists.

Similar problems are occurring with fruit trees around the world. In Florida, for example, a citrus disease is wiping out whole groves. According to this article in The Atlantic, it is unclear if the citrus industry will survive. The state has aggressively cut groves and backyard citrus trees to try to address the problem--with great controversy, just as in southern Italy.

Check out this interesting article on the southern Italy olive tree issue here in Nature.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Fastest Growing Cities in the U.S. in Thirsty Regions

Check out this list from Forbes on the fastest growing cities in the U.S.:
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

1. Houston, Texas
2. Austin, Texas
3. Dallas, Texas
4. Raleigh, North Carolina
5. Seattle, Washington
6. Denver, Colorado
7. San Francisco, California
8. Fort Worth, Texas
9. Charlotte, North Carolina
10. San Antonio, Texas

What is interesting about this list is that 6 of the 10 high growth cities have significant water quantity challenges. The cities with abundant water resources (such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis) did not make the list of high growth cities.

It is also interesting to note that traditional high growth regions of the past, specifically the midwest, the northeast, southern California, and Florida, are not on the list. Dry sunbelt cities continue to draw people for the warm climate, low taxes, and economic opportunity. How long will the unsustainable growth last? Will leaders of these communities be held accountable for growing their regions beyond their carrying capacity?

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online January 4, 2015

A unique program at Lake Superior State University, the home of the banished words list in today's earlier post...

Banned Words

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So check out this list from Lake Superior State University on words that they banished from 2016. I am writing this post so that stakeholders of this blog might want to join the conversation if they find the list of words problematic. While the post may break the Internet, I doubt that the authors of the list will walk it back and hold a presser to announce the secret sauce behind coming up with the words. I find that the list gives me life in that it allows me to consider the social price point of writing in different forms. One author of the list, while manspreading and vaping, used some extreme physicality in defending the list.

What words would you banish?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best Thing You Will See Online January 3, 2016

Bears at Admiralty Island National Monument...

Admiralty Island National Monument

Today I am starting my series on all 117 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will feature open access photos all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured National Monument is Admiralty Island National Monument in Alaska.

Click for photo credit.
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Full List of On the Brink National Park Posts

Here is a full list of links to all of the On the Brink posts on the U.S. National Parks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park

Saturday, January 2, 2016

OPEC Fumbles Renewables Ball

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Since we are in the midst of football-mania in the U.S., it seems appropriate to use the game as a metaphor for what is happening in the energy market lately. If we look at OPEC as one team and natural gas and renewables as another team, it seems as if OPEC is losing the match--at least according to this article in the Washington Post.

I've been following the oil price war around the world for the last few years. Basically, OPEC countries have been keeping the price of oil artificially low to drive renewable and natural gas companies out of the market. What this means is that in many areas, such as Venezuela which has low quality petroleum, oil is sold at a loss. Venezuela and other countries have been urging OPEC to raise prices since they are uniquely hurt in this policy. However, OPEC has not changed their policy. 

Many renewable and natural gas firms are thriving against the odds during this low-cost energy period. It seems as if the low-cost strategy for oil is not really meeting the goal of driving out the competition. This is good for consumers and good for the environment but not so good for countries like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela which rely heavily on oil to drive their economies. 

Which makes me wonder.

Did OPEC really fumble the ball or are they trying to influence the political situation in these problematic countries?

Perhaps OPEC didn't fumble the ball after all.