Let's talk for a minute about generational collaboration in research.
This morning, before going back to coding, I met with two younger research scientists and their boss, a senior professor. They do ecological systems modeling in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, one floor down from my office. One of their projects tries to understand the seasonal movement of the Invasive Sugarcane Aphid, a bug that damages crops, with the goal of creating forecasts and warnings for farmers who can then apply pesticides more targeted. Their work is not too different from what we do, so they were interested in learning about what we do. We had a wonderful, three hour long conversation about our project and theirs, and only stopped because, despite the jaffa cakes they brought, we eventually got hungry for lunch.
The way the three described their work made me think about how different generations often approach problems differently. The two researchers are much younger than their boss and probably grew up in a time when computers were ubiquitous in colleges and maybe even schools. They know who to code, run models, and build web interfaces for users to get information over the internet. The professor, on the other hand, did his early research using punch cards (if you're under 20: punch cards). A simple calculation of data, not more than a few lines of code in today's world, would require a stack of punch cards that needed to be inserted in a machine and took minutes to process. The obvious comparison for me – thanks to this week's 50th anniversary of the moon landing – is that of the Apollo spacecraft computer to the super computers we carry around today in our pockets as smartphones.
Their situation reminded me of my own. They're are young tech wizards, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. The professor, much like my supervisor, has decades of wisdom and the accumulated expertise of thousands of books and papers he read and wrote over the years.
Much like interdisciplinary teams, inter-generational teams, in my opinion, can be incredibly innovative and efficient, but only if we allow ourselves to admit that we need each other. Us young(-ish) folks are tech geeks, fluent in R, NCL, Python, and GitHub, and full of ideas for tools and gadgets, but often lack the experience and context what to innovate for. We like to make cool stuff for cool stuff's sake. Our supervisors, on the other hand, might lack some technical skills, but they know much better what problems need to be addressed.
And that's a wrap. This was one week of work, and it was fun for me to write. If you found it insightful and/or fun to read, please feel free to drop me a note, and I might do this again in the future (maybe during a conference or workshop).
Once a month, I get a special email from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Communication in Washington, D.C. As a federal agency, part of NOAA's job is to provide environmental information to the public. To do that, NOAA has data portals, like ncei.noaa.gov, and issues forecasts, warnings, advisories, and general press releases, for example through its website www.noaa.gov and via email, which are often published by media outlets. NOAA also holds press calls with their own scientists for journalists to learn about and discuss current topics that relate to weather and climate. And that's what this special email was about. This morning was such a press call, and I attended as listener.
Today's call discussed the recent heat wave in Europe (June set a new record there as the hottest recorded June ever, surpassing the previous record by almost 1ºC or 1.8ºF) and conditions and outlook in the U.S. For me as a researcher and science blogger, these calls are really interesting. They're a good way to learn about current developments in the fields of weather and climate, and they're great to experience how scientists and journalists interact, what vocabulary, jargon, and graphics are common, to track what information makes it into the news, and to understand the news cycle in general.
Clear graphics are essential, and ahead of time NOAA publishes a PDF with presentation slides that their researchers discuss on the call. These figures could end up in Tweets or Facebook posts (with citation of course), so communicating a clear message is key. Short summary statements in the slides can also get copied into tweets, or make headlines or highlights in an article. Here are some examples:
But good graphics are only half the story. Answering essential questions with confidence and good language is also key in these calls. What, where, when, why, who cares, and so on, without diving into methodological details or listing all the limitations of the results (although, touching on them might not be a bad idea).
Being too much of a scientist (i.e., going on and on about minute details and using too much jargon) you could run the risk of "losing" a person, or even worse, make them misunderstand and misinterpret important information, and then unknowingly misinform millions of people. One of the journalists on the call, Seth Borenstein, writes for the Associated Press, and his reporting from today (all accurate by what I could tell) was published by the Washington Post, several regional news organizations in the U.S., and even an Italian news website.
After 45 minutes, I got back to my own research, made some more progress, and at the end of the day (literally, 5.45 pm) finally got some graphic results myself. They're not quite ready for sharing, yet, but they generally suggest that in the next decades, drought years similar to 2011 or 2012 could occur much more frequently, with extremely dry or wet years representing up to five years per decade in the Southern Plains, especially after the 2050s, and one to two years in the Northern Plains.
I still have a lot more analysis ahead of me, most importantly to understand what this means for ranchers, but this is a very important and valuable step.
Here are Friday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. And if you wonder what this about, here is the intro blog post.
Getting my script from yesterday to work almost went into day three. Almost. At 5.17 pm, after writing, testing, and debugging 983 lines of code, all errors and typos were corrected, and the script worked like a charm. Sadly, there is not muchto show, yet (also because I have to double-check the results). So in place of graphs and maps, this is what my two monitors looked like for most of today and yesterday.
The one the left has Safari running R Studio, which I use to write code and manage files. The one on the right has three blue Terminal windows up and a data viewing app. Terminal is a Mac OS tool that emulates a command-line interface, which I use to tell the computer which files to run and to see some results. The fourth window, the data viewer, is Panoply, a very handy app by NASA to view NetCDF data, the type of data I work with. It comes in handy when I check results.
Despite the looks, my computer doesn't actually do much work. All of my commands and every line of code are sent 360 miles north to the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Oklahoma. There, all our data and most of my code is stored on a data server. Folks there also have NCL and several other programming languages, which makes our life here a lot easier.
A good day always becomes better when it ends well. On the third Wednesday of every month, the Texas A&M Postdoc Association organizes a "networking event," a fun hangout with fellow postdocs to chat over snacks and drinks at a bar or restaurant in town, courtesy of the organization. It's a good way to meet peers and make friends, to bring up workplace problems, or just to talk nerdy to fellow nerds. I always enjoy these gatherings! However, today I had to pass it up for something even better – a dinner at an Italian restaurant with my wife.
Here are Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday. And if you wonder what this about, here is the intro blog post.
A quick note about the heatwave that is bound to hit many parts of the U.S. starting Thursday. If you live between Oklahoma and New England, it will get much warmer than usual in the next few days. Please avoid staying outside for long periods of time, and if you do, make sure you take a water bottle, put on a cap, and try to stay out of direct sunlight.
If you want to know how climate change is changing the odds for heatwaves like this, check out yesterday's episode of the "Got Science" podcast by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I join a group of colleagues for what we coined "The Write Stuff," a writing group. We meet down the hall from my office in a conference room with large windows that overlook a beautiful garden, and spend two hours not chatting (mostly), but working on whatever everyone is working on. It sounds banal, but it's incredibly effective. The peer pressure of "Everyone else is working!" really makes you push through and avoid distractions. Also, the room is a pleasant change from my windowless office situation.
My goal for today was to write a script that analyzed rainfall projections for the next 80 years (2020 to 2099) and find years with extremely high and extremely low amounts of rainfall in the Great Plains. We found previously that rainfall variability is very different across the Great Plains. For example, in the Southern Plains, annual rainfall can vary a lot more than in the Northern Plains. Now we were interested in whether these super dry and super wet years will occur more or less often in the future. Specifically, we wanted to see if the frequency of years and the number of consecutive years with rainfall of more than 20 percent above and below the decadal average will change over time.
Two assumptions were important for us going into this. We assumed that ranchers are used to some degree of year-to-year variability - they could handle some wet and dry years. But the really bad ones, especially when several occur back to back, like the droughts around 2012 or in the late 1980s, would be a real challenge. Because of that, we chose a threshold of 20 percent above or below the decadal average. It's an arbitrary value, really, and we'll change it once we find a more meaningful number that's based on previous studies. But for now we'll run with it. We also used an average that will change every decade, instead of one that runs from 2020 through 2099. Why? Because of our second thought: whichever way things will change, even if it continues to get drier, ranchers will find ways to adapt to a new normal over time, just like they have in the past. Using something like a running average will account for this.
Now, of course a drought is more severe the hotter it is. So looking at rainfall without temperature will only give us half the picture. But for now, it is the first step to understand the effect of climate change (and climate variability) on ranching. We will repeat this process with temperature, and eventually with a suitable drought index that combines temperature and rainfall.
Once we had this figured out, the real challenge was writing the script, telling the computer what to do. I am using a programming language called NCL, which stands for NCAR Command Language (and NCAR is short for National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado – we really know how to make things complicated). NCL is a programming language specifically for climate and model data, and widely used around the world. I had written a script a few weeks ago that did something very similar, only with monthly data that were compared to rainfall observations, and three thresholds, 10, 20, and 40 percent, instead of one. So this should be similar, but simpler. It's always easier to have a foundation to work from than to start from scratch, because some parts stay almost always the same. Most scripts have three parts: (1) open a data file and extract the necessary variables, (2) process the data in a certain way, and (3) save the result in a new data file. Some scripts create graphs or maps instead of data files, or in addition to it.
Writing a script is like giving a blind person directions for where to go. The computer knows basic operating rules, but it doesn't know what you want to do. It knows pre-defined commands that are hard-wired into the language, like how to open one or more files and how to add or subtract, and basic rules, for example don't divide by zero. But from there it is up to the programmer to make sure the computer does what it should. The smallest typo, a comma instead of a period or a space where there shouldn't be one, can crash the program, or worse, give out incorrect results without anyone noticing. I went step by step, wrote some code, ran it, checked the result, debugged if necessary, ran it again, checked again, wrote some more, ran it, checked it, and so on, until eventually, the script was complete.
Or rather, will be complete. This process can take all day, or longer. After 687 lines of code and eight hours of staring at a screen, I was square-eyed and decided to call it a day and unwind on a long run.
Tomorrow is another day.
Here are Wednesday and Monday, and if you wonder what this about, here is the intro blog post.
The nice thing about working at a big university is there is always something happening, even during summer break.
This morning, a professor from Ethiopia, Dr. Seifu Tilahun, who was visiting the college, gave a seminar about irrigation challenges in Ethiopia at the Borlaug Institute, one building over from my office. It's always fascinating to learn about research in other countries, and to discuss common ideas and challenges. Similar to the U.S., water quality in agricultural areas is a big problem in Ethiopia. Heavy rainfall washes crop fertilizer into streams and lakes and pollutes the groundwater, often the only source of drinking water, especially in rural areas. Practices that can reduce erosion and over-fertilizing, like no-till farming, are known and available, but adoption in the real world takes a long time, no matter how much they make sense to ecologists and economists.
Back in my office, I had to sort out two things before I get started with coding. The first involved paperwork and some physical exercise, two things I got used to quickly in a large department like mine. I needed to register for a coding workshop on campus in August, but I didn't know how pay for it. Most faculty have work credits cards, but for some reason I didn't. So, a quick walk to our business admins in another building, and a few signatures later I had a temporary credit card and could register for the workshop (sadly, I'll have to return it tomorrow).
The second involved Dr. Cait Rottler, a fellow postdoc in Oklahoma with the Agricultural Research Service, the research branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cait and I are planning a science communication workshop at a rangeland conference next February in Colorado. Good communication is important in research, so that scientists from different fields understand each other and work well together. Cait and I both work in climate change adaptation and know what a challenge this is. More than probably most areas, climate change is one where collaboration between disciplines is key to get things done, from engineering to social sciences to economics and ecology. And our workshop will help with that – or at least that's what we think. Today was the deadline to submit proposals – and with most things that have a deadline, we submitted it in time, but only just :-) We should find out in September if our workshop concept got accepted.
Eventually, after a late lunch and much later than I had hoped, I sat down to work on my data analysis. I only had about three hours before my day was over, which isn't enough to start coding. But that was enough time sketch things out and get started. It's important to know the bigger picture and to develop smaller goals, before starting to write the code to get there. That's what I did today, and tomorrow I will home in on this more.
Here is Tuesday. Wonder what this is about? Here's the intro blog post.
High school students on Skype a Scientist have asked me a few times what an average day looks like for me. But it's hard to find an "average" day, so what I'll do instead is describe an average week. This week should fit pretty nicely.
If you read my About Me page or my Research page, you know I study how climate change affects cattle production in the U.S. Great Plains, a large agricultural region in the central US, between Canada, Mexico and the Gulf Coast, the Rocky Mountains, and the Mississippi. I study data to understand how future changes in temperature and rainfall affect where and how well natural vegetation grows in the Great Plains. Because we're concerned about ranching, I'm not so much interested in shrubland and forests, but mostly grassland, which ranchers use as feed for their cattle.
I'm mostly a data analyst, and our first goal is to publish our work in scientific journals so other researchers can read about it and use it in their own work. These journals are like newspapers for scientists, except they're much harder to understand. We also go to scientific conferences a few times a year to present our work, meet colleagues, and learn about their research (and we get to see some fascinating places, too). We just finished working on two papers, about how past droughts have affected cow numbers in the Great Plains and how grasslands in the Great Plains will change in the future, and we submitted them to two journals for review. It'll probably take a month or so until we hear back from them.
As one of the leaders in our project, I am also interested in the bigger picture, and I am responsible to determine what to do next. Last week, after we finished our second paper, my postdoctoral advisor and I brainstormed about what to do next.
One thing we are trying to understand is what our projections mean for ranchers and their operations. Our data are really just millions of numbers, for every year from 2020 to 2099 arranged in a raster grid across the Great Plains. They can be really abstract if you don't organize them in a smart way.
That's what I'll do this week, plus dealing with smaller things that occur each day.
Every year on the last Saturday of September, the University of Oklahoma hosts a five kilometer run, the Fun Run. Every year around 650 runners participate, and each of them have their own goal. Some just want to push their strollers in more of a five kilometer walk and have a good time, some enjoy the community of runners and maybe push themselves a little. And some switch to race mode, eat pasta the night before, put on their Dri-Fit running clothes and their GPS watches with heart rate monitor, and run like they’re trying to set a new world record.
I fall into this last category.
I’ve been running for about 13 years now, ever since I started college and my class schedule and homework made it difficult for regular wrestling practice. Running is something I can do on my own, at my own pace, whenever I like it, and wherever I like it. I most enjoy running in the morning, through parks and side streets, when the air is crisp and cool. There is nothing more beautiful than to start the day with a run. I like hearing birds chirp, and I watch the world around me slowly wake up. It motivates me, it floods my brain with fresh air and energizes me for the day ahead.
I didn’t use to care much about pace, or technique, or food, or racing, until I realized I was actually quite good at it. Four of my five Fun Runs I finished among the first ten. My first half marathon in 2015 I finished twelfth out of over 1,100 starters. And in my first marathon this year, in Oklahoma City, I finished 37th out of 2,200. I only signed up to run a half marathon, but because Mr. Geography lost his sense of direction … whatever. I ended up running the full marathon.
Finishing my dissertation and applying for jobs is all I can think about these days. And as I was running this year’s Fun Run, I noticed it felt a lot like working towards my defense and applying for a job. Think about it: You learn new things, delve into new techniques, push yourself to the limit, practice and improve for a really long time, and eventually it comes down to meeting expectations and doing better than your competition.
At the Fun Run, I lined up at the front of the race with a group of other fast runners, and we quickly pulled away from the rest of the field. By the first corner, I was in ninth place. I overtook a guy who started out too fast and couldn’t keep his pace, and another one who also couldn’t keep up with the rest. About two miles in, another runner, let’s call him Dr. Evil, came breathing up my neck. I tried to shrug him off, but he slowly inched his way past me. Energized by him, though, I up’d my pace and was now breathing up his neck! He overtook another person in a blue long-sleeve jacket, I followed. Why do you wear long-sleeve in a race?! Eventually I caught up with Dr. Evil, and we ran side-by-side for like half a mile, unable to pull away, unwilling to give in. Things stayed that way until the final stretch when both of us were overtaken by our fashion genius from earlier. Dang it! What’s more, Dr. Evil suddenly unleashed his last reserves, pulled away, and finished 10 seconds ahead of me in fifth place.
Losing on the final stretch, I’m sure we’ve all been there. But even more than outpacing our competition, running teaches you a lot about life and mastering challenges. I was disappointed that I wasn’t as fast as Dr. Evil or Calvin Klein, but in the end trying to keep up with them made me run faster and improve my time from last year by 30 seconds. This challenge made me become better. In grad school it’s often easy to be disappointed by comparing ourselves to others. But the key is to recognize our own personal growth instead of being put down because we didn’t finish first.
Other people’s victories are not my losses. And my losses don’t mean I’m unfit.
Running a marathon is no small thing, but neither is finishing a thesis or getting a job. It requires perseverance and a lot of outside support to achieve either of these. You have to manage your resources to make it to the finish line. Just like a cheering crowd can incite me to keep running when my feet hurt and my muscles are on fire, so can friends and family help us get through hours of tedious number crunching or stressful job interviews.
Running my first marathon was a unexpected challenge that I really wasn’t prepared for. But that’s life sometimes. Things can take unexpected turns, be harder and take longer than we anticipate. My dissertation certainly is, and getting into the job market will be, too. But knowing that I’m good at what I’m doing, that I enjoy running and believe in my own abilities, combined with the encouragement of those around me, made me achieve something that I had no idea I was able to do.
For the last two years I have been studying decision making in winter wheat farming in the Southern Great Plains. I want to help forecasters provide seasonal climate forecasts for farmers that do a better job of warning farmers of bad conditions, such as drought, extreme rainfall, or heat.
Now, seasonal forecasts are nothing new. The National Weather Service has been issuing them for decades. But farmers don’t use them very much because they are hard to understand and overall don’t contain the sort of information farmers need to make decisions.
So all we need are better tailored forecasts and crop failure is a thing of the past? Unfortunately that’s not quite the case.
Hailey Wilmer, a Ph.D. graduate from Colorado State University who currently works as a postdoc at the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and María Fernández-Giménez, a professor at CSU, studied ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to gain deeper insights into the social dimensions of ranching decisions related to drought. The two researchers found that besides the weather forecast, decisions are often shaped by many factors, for example traditions, personalities, relationships and interaction with fellow ranchers, risk aversion, or financial goals of the individual rancher.
Conducting 38 interviews with male and female ranchers, Wilmer and her co-author found four reoccurring patterns of how these social factors affect decisions and adaptive actions to mitigate drought on the ranch.
1. Security over profit
Some ranchers, learning from peers and past experiences, prioritized maintaining a financially viable ranch over the long run by not overstocking their ranch in good times and maintaining feed and a minimum number of “seed cattle” even through bad droughts. “If you will stock conservatively when the severe droughts hit you will be able to stay longer and maintain your seed stock to where everyone else has already sold their seed stock or they are all leasing additional pastures somewhere else,” as one New Mexico rancher put it.
2. Facing drought with efficiency
To prepare for bad times, some ranchers use good times to build financial buffers that would carry them through droughts. During drought, they reduce the number of cattle or change grazing patterns so that existing grassland vegetation lasts longer. Although these ranchers tried to avoid risk, if they saw other ranchers succeed with a risky decision, they were inclined to try it, too. In times of need ranchers also help out each other, share expertise, or find additional forage. When the quantity of cattle went down, improving their quality was the top priority for most of these ranchers.
3. Diversified income
Not all ranchers were ranchers all their lives. Some bought ranches after retiring from another career, knowing it is a great risk. During drought, they relied on a range of income, for example on their pension, and they seem to prefer playing it safe. “I think we’ve decided that we’re going to play defense as far as the climate risk goes, as opposed to try[ing] to maximize stocking or to continue to grow or expand the operation,” explained one rancher. They also plan ahead, for example by using weather and climate data to bump up or reduce stocking rates. “We don’t like to do crisis management. We like to sort of prepare.”
4. Living with the “new normal”
The largest group of ranchers, thirteen, seem to have mastered the art of drought management, and was not shy to show it. They boasted experimental approaches to drought management, savvy business management practices, emphasized their successful careers as quality cattle producers and natural resource stewards, all while not relying on consultants or agricultural extension. “Trying something new” and “not being stuck in a rut” were their guiding principles. If drought forces them to reduce their herd, these ranchers, like many of their peers, try to improve quality. “If drought is going to cut me back two hundred calves or three hundred calves, or whatever the number is, I have to make that up with quality.” All this, however, seemed to be essential, as many of these ranchers said living in drought for them is the “new normal”. “Well, we kind of been in a drought ever since we’ve had this place.”
These findings show that decisions in the real world are often a lot more complex than we as scientists think. And it is a particular struggle for those of us who work in boundary organizations understand both scientists and users and to help both sides understand each other and facilitate collaborations. “This paper pushed me toward looking at how different groups ‘know what they know’ and how that influences not just management practices, but also how we interact and set goals,” says Wilmer.
Despite the limitations of this study — small sample sizes, for example, always make it difficult to generalize results to a larger population — it showed me how diverse and complicated the world of agriculture is, and how little we understand of it. Quantitative or technological approaches are not always enough to make a positive change in agricultural decision-making. If we want to help farmers and ranchers, not only do we need to know how to create better forecasts, but also how important these forecasts are among everything else that plays a role in the real world of farming and ranching.
Hailey Wilmer and María Fernández-Giménez (2015): Rethinking rancher decision-making: a grounded theory of ranching approaches to drought and succession management. The Rangeland Journal, 37, 517-528.
Photo: Toni Klemm
This article was originally posted on the Early Career Climate Forum in June 2017.
We’ve all heard the phrase that science should be explained on the level of sixth- to eighth-graders to be understandable for a general audience, right? But who has ever tried to explain science to actual sixth- to eighth-graders? I can proudly say now I did, and I’ve only suffered minor bruises.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a middle school in Norman, Oklahoma, where I live, to talk about climate change. Laura Vaughn, the school’s science teacher, and her social studies colleague had organized a two-hour guided inquiry lecture for their 280 seventh-graders, investigating with little guidance from teachers how climate change affects our lives and what we can do about it. Me and 11 other researchers and city employees had a table each in the school’s gym where we set up demonstrations to show, for example, how CO2 increases air temperature and causes ocean acidification, what tree rings can tell us about the earth’s past climate, and how clogged up stormwater runoffs can increase flood risk. I wanted to explain how climate extremes like drought, flood, or heat impact our agriculture, what climate change does to this, and what farmers can do to maintain a good harvest. Or, I should say, that was my plan.
Explaining my work to peers is often hard enough. But talking about it to non-scientists — policy-makers, managers, or the general public — always seems infinitely more difficult for me. To help me become a better science communicator, I recently started a course with Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. (I blog about my experiences with Toastmasters on my personal blog.) In every meeting, I throw myself into situations that improve my ability to speak clearly and coherently, to spot unnecessary jargon and then avoid it, whether it is a prepared speech or an spontaneous answer during a round of questions. I also participate in discussions with students, talk to people outside my discipline, and of course present my own research to people outside my field. But unlike these situations, Toastmasters feels like a more safe environment to make mistakes. We evaluate each other, comment on grammar, use of fill words, applaud what went well and give suggestions for what didn’t. No one is perfect, and everyone is there to improve.
At a geography conference in Boston, I recently learned about the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The ten-week long program, which run every summer, funds travel and housing for its participants, many of which applied at an REU program at a different university. The program doesn’t focus on collaborative research or communication per se but is meant to give undergraduate students a general taste of research and let them explore other disciplines, for example for graduate school. That said, some schools do run programs in which interdisciplinary work and communication are very much part of the deal. The REU program at the University of Central Florida, for example, sends student from different fields in groups to coastal communities in Belize to work with locals on environmental problems, like disaster management and ocean waste. Not only do students have to speak Spanish to participate. These supervised projects also train students to be open about their work and to avoid jargon when communicating with the public. A similar approach takes Clark University in Massachusetts with their REU program called HERO (Human-Environment Regional Observatory). Undergraduates study the impact of a tree planting program on wildlife, noise pollution, or air quality through tree surveys and interviews with residents, and present all their findings to the public, improving their own knowledge about human-environmental interaction and qualitative analysis, as well as their communication skills. At the University of Oklahoma (for example at the South Central Climate Science Center), REU students from any discipline can study weather and climate topics, like tornados, severe weather, or societal impacts of weather and climate extremes.
Back to our middle school event. With 280 rambunctious students roaming around my station for two hours and throwing questions at me, my brain was constantly in the ropes trying to answer questions like “What part of climate change do you work with?” or “What are some solutions to prevent climate change or even reverse it?” Often I just didn’t know what to say. Not that I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know how to simplify it enough. To reassure myself I often ended with “Does that make sense?”, upon which one student admitted “Well, not really…” throwing the ball back at me for a second attempt. Convoluted sentences with more than 15 words seemed to confuse students, and most jargon whatsoever threw them off immediately. To buy myself time I often kicked the question back to them: “What do you think how we can reduce climate change?” — which made magic happen! They would suggest reducing pollution, I asked them how we could do that, and together we went from talking about air quality and eating more veggies to biking to school instead of being driven by their parents. It was mentally exhausting but instead of preaching the monologue of bad fossil fuels and polar bears far away, I used their knowledge and focused on solutions they can contribute to. It was mentally exhausting, but what they eventually wrote down were not my answers but theirs. Laura Vaughn, the science teacher, later emailed me to say that some of her students told her my station was their favorite.
Two weeks later I got invited again for presentations by the students. Each seventh grade science student designed a poster or powerpoint presentation of their favorite topic, and their social studies colleagues evaluated them. Many used the websites and online databases I had shared with the teacher, and some chose agriculture as their topic. One girl told me irrigation can be both be a blessing for farmers in times of drought but also a curse because it depletes the aquifer if farmers irrigate too much. I was delighted about how much they learned, and I was surprised how much I had learned, too.
All photos by Toni Klemm.
Welcome to part two of the series.
My overall goal of being at Toastmasters is to be less nervous about public speaking. And while the study book is great at teaching me all kinds of things that help me be less nervous, there is nothing more effective than to actually doing a speech. You don’t learn to swim if you don’t get in the water.
The ice-breaker (which I did several weeks ago, sorry about the delay) is a gentle way to get your feet wet without fearing to drown. It’s the first prepared speech everyone gives, and it’s by no means impossible. My assignment was to introduce myself (in four to six minutes), something we’ve all done over and over, but to create a talk with the basics of any speech: a beginning, body, and ending.
The key was to not get carried away in details be selective to create an interesting theme, like unusual jobs during college, places you lived while growing up, or stories about boy- or girlfriends in school if you feel brave. Some dry (self-deprecating) humor also never hurts. And thankfully, notes are totally fine.
I drafted my speech somewhere between midnight and 2 am (just like this blog post), read it aloud to my girlfriend to make sure things make sense and I stayed within four and six minutes, got her feedback, and improved over time.
I decided to talk about growing up in East Germany (communism always seems like an interesting topic in the U.S.) and what traveling around Europe and the world meant and means for my family and me after the end of the wall. You can read the final version below.
I’m happy to report that not only did people enjoy the talk (and asked me lots of questions after the meeting), but I was glad to see my jokes working and people laughing at the right moments. After four minutes and 32 seconds, everyone applauded and I sat down again, happy and relieved.
Presenters, me included, often make the mistake of speaking faster or skipping slides when their speaking time runs out. We can never present all the information in as much detail as we would like to. Even if we had all the slides and all the time, our audience would just stop listen. But simple steps like focusing on a few things and keeping a basic structure can help people remember what’s important about my research. And if they found it interesting, maybe they’ll ask me for more.
Toastmasters Lesson #1 , Feb 13, 2017
Growing up Behind the Wall
I grew up on the third floor of a farm house, surrounded by big trees and lush fields of green on the edge of a small town in East Germany, called Pausa. Making hay, feeding sheep, and walking to school, much of growing up for me and my younger brother meant being outside. My hometown claims to be at the center of the earth, the place that everything else spins around, proudly symbolized by a huge, rotating, stained-glass globe on the roof of our town hall and proven by the earth’s axis sticking out of the ground in the basement underneath it. We even have an organization that takes care of lubrication, the Erdachsendeckelscharnierschmiernippelkommission. (I’m going to make that the word of the day one day!)
Being at the center of the entire world, naturally there is adventure lurking in every direction. Sadly, our mode of transportation was far from ideal for long-distance traveling. This Trabant [holding up the Trabant model car] was literally one of two car models in East Germany, and with four people inside it felt about as small as this model. Of course, traveling in East Germany was also limited for another reason. Without formal invitation from a relative or friend “in the West”, there was no way we could get past the Iron Curtain. My mom remembered that every time her parents would take her and one of her three sisters on a vacation to Hungary, my grandma would point to the right as they went through Czechoslovakia and say to my grandpa: “I wish we could go to Austria.”
When I was in second grade, someone decided, for reasons that were beyond my little mind, to combine East Germany and West Germany, which I liked because it meant I didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays anymore. With no wall to keep us from traveling (and soon better cars, too), my family started exploring the rest of Europe. Five years later, when I was 12, I had seen Florence, London, and Stockholm and most countries in between, some of them even two or three times. In 1995 — maybe because we ran out of places to see — my parents decided to book plane tickets for all of us across the pond to North America. I had never been inside of an airplane before, so I was very excited. In fact, all of us were, so we kept coming back, and the next few summer vacations were filled with road trips through national parks, gorgeous landscapes, and buzzing cities with skyscrapers and lots of people. We were stunned by the Grand Canyon, which looks even grander when you’re little, we watched Old Faithful in Yellowstone, we drove across the Golden Gate bridge and around the Great Lakes, visited Plymouth Plantation, and saw New York City from the top of the World Trade Center, twice. The second time during a visit in 1999, but the first time we managed do get up there and back to the airport despite only having a three-hour layover at JFK. German precision planning. By the time I graduated from high school, I had visited Canada, Mexico, and 39 out of the 50 US states.
Exploring places must be in my family’s DNA. A few years later, before my mom went on a one-year journey across the Asia-Pacific region, my cousin and I hiked through a remote national park in Australia, with 40-pound backpacks and nothing but a small map with a dot that marked a cabin in the woods where we would spend the night. After finding our accommodation, by a pristine lake surrounded by mountains, we spent a night literally in the middle of nowhere, enjoying tranquility after a long day of travel.
I eventually studied — no surprise — geography, like my mom did, because I wanted to learn more about this complex world we live on. After seven years in classrooms, though, the travel bug bit me again and I ended up here in Oklahoma, with a lot more geography to study and a lot more places to explore.
As I am nearing graduation, I am reminded of the glass globe on our town hall slowly turning and watching the little dot that marks Pausa as it moves around, and being amazed by just how much of our world there is that I haven’t seen yet.