Tag Archives: learning

BP wins ’2010 Accidental Earth Experiment’ Prize

Bill Chameides Dean of the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke awards BP his 2010 Accidental Earth Experiment’ Prize!!! on his blog the Green Grok.  His award recognizes that BP’s incompetence created a disaster that created novel conditions allowing scientists to learn how the Earth works.  He writes:

For the Environmental Scientist, the Ultimate Lab Is Earth

Science is at its core an empirical endeavor. You can come up with all the clever and compelling theories you want, but data gathered from experiments are and will always be the ultimate arbiters of truth. That presents a problem for environmental and Earth scientists. The only laboratory that accurately replicates the thing we study is our little blue planet.

As a result, environmental scientists are forever looking for real-world events that, like a chemist’s laboratory experiments, directly test specific aspects of the Earth system. For example, volcanoes that spew tons of small particles into the upper atmosphere and variations in sunspots provide unique experiments to test the accuracy of climate models built on the basis of our understanding of climate.

The Accidental Experiments

But natural events are not the only sources of environmental experiments. Humanity is now arguably the greatest driver of environmental change on the globe, and as a result is increasingly and inadvertently causing events that double as experiments for inquisitive environmental scientists.

Unfortunately these “accidental experiments” often carry devastating consequences, but nevertheless provide a kind of consolation prize in the form of unique data to learn about the Earth with.

Case in Point: The Oil Rig Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico Last Spring

We can all agree the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a mess. But let’s not forget it’s also a grand experiment. How else could we learn what happens when you dump billions of barrels of oil into the gulf roughly a mile below the surface?

For example, we’ve learned that some bugs that inhabit the gulf’s waters have been effective in gobbling up the stuff the blown wellhead spewed into their home turf. A paper published last year in the journal Science by Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues reported on the discovery of a heretofore unknown voracious hydrocarbon-eating microbe.

Just last week came another paper in Science, this one by John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues, which showed that other microbes had also made short work of most of the natural gas released from the blowout.

This is a great example of the natural system’s adaptability and ingenuity. Put a bunch of oil and gas in the ocean, and native bug populations swell to take advantage of it. I should note that we were somewhat lucky in this regard. The Gulf of Mexico was the beneficiary of an in situ population of bugs due to natural gas and oil seeps. Without these microbes the environmental consequences of the disaster (still the largest in marine history) would no doubt be worse.

Learning tools

Gilliam Martin Mehers provide a big set of links to different types of teaching/learning facilitation resources and methods on her blog You Learn Something New Every Day.  She writes:

I am currently working with a team focusing on biodiversity conservation and assessment to “makeover” an existing training curriculum into one even more interactive and learner-focused. As a part of this process I offered to put together a selected list of resources, from the raft of those available, that are particularly useful to me in this kind of work.

Gillian points to resources on Games, Discussion and Co-creation Techniques, Storytelling, Improv Comedy and Theatre, Visual Facilitation, and Systems Thinking. For Systems Thinking she writes:

This is one of my personal passions - using systems thinking tools for learning. We have experimented a great deal in applying an approach that might initially appear to be too complicated to introduce in a short workshop. It does have a specialised vocabulary, a number of graphic tools and a set of conventions. We have a tag on this blog devoted to using systems thinking (see: Systems Thinking) which features posts on using it for strategic planning (see: Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don’t Call it Training), and exploring ways to help learners pick it up and use it in experiential ways (see: Working With Systems Archetypes in Learning Contexts). Systems thinker Linda Booth Sweeney has an interesting site devoted to systems thinking learning and storytelling, and has developed a useful systems thinking resources room.

On her blog Gillian has written about trainings using systems concepts, for example learning with system archetypes and Making a systems thinking playbook for climate change.

FailFaire

That people need to learn in order to build a better world is a key idea motivating a lot of resilience projects, and learning requires failures that you can learn from.  In New York Times Stephanie Strom reports on FailFaire, an attempt to encourage learning from failure among the community of technology development professionals.  The article In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology’s Failures writes:

At a gathering last month over drinks and finger food, a specialist at the World Bank related the story of how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece.

The state phone company had donated a communications center that helped the women find buyers around the world, selling to places like the British Museum. Within short order, though, their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.

Technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures, until now, have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it. The experience in Guyana might never have come to light without FailFaire, a recurring party whose participants revel in revealing technology’s shortcomings.

“We are taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures,” Soren Gigler, the World Bank specialist, told those at the FailFaire event here in July.

Behind the events is a Manhattan-based nonprofit group, MobileActive, a network of people and organizations trying to improve the lives of the poor through technology. Its members hope light-hearted examinations of failures will turn into learning experiences — and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.”

On FailFaire’s blog, Ian Thorpe Reflects on Learning from Failure from a Failfaire Attendee:

A few shared lessons emerged which might also seem familiar to us in UNICEF: …

• People – not just technology – and process. Finding the right partners, listening to them and engaging them are critical success factors. A project that works well in one context might be ineffective in others if you don’t have the right partners and you don’t engage and make use of the skills and knowledge of the people you are working with.

• Make sure to pilot and test. Before scaling up a project, or before using it in a critical setting, make sure to have enough time to thoroughly test it and work out the kinks.

• Beware of “zombie” projects. If we are too attached to a “good idea” and have invested a lot of effort we are often unwilling to admit it is a failure and let go of it, and it keeps coming back from the dead, or it limps along unsuccessfully, not fully supported but still consuming valuable resources.

• Failures can lead to future successes. While a particular project might fail it can lead to new innovation and subsequent success. Look out for the learning and for the unexpected successful spin-off opportunities.

Some of these lessons might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight – but it doesn’t stop them from recurring in development work.

As to the idea behind the event, I’m a strong believer in the value of learning from our mistakes if people would be willing to admit them and share them with others. This is challenging within a large publicly funded organization that places a lot of emphasis on delivering results and holding people accountable for them, but if we don’t do it we are at risk of continually repeating the same mistakes and in keeping alive our zombie projects because no-one wants to admit they are failing.

Reflections on Obama and Science

Dennis Overbye writes in the New York Times essay Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy

To be honest, the restoration of science was the least of it, but when Barack Obama proclaimed during his Inaugural Address that he would “restore science to its rightful place,” you could feel a dark cloud lifting like a sigh from the shoulders of the scientific community in this country. …

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. …

And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be.

Arguably science is the most successful human activity of all time. Which is not to say that life within it is always utopian, as several of my colleagues have pointed out in articles about pharmaceutical industry payments to medical researchers.

Water in the American West: Learning from Crisis

Jon Gertner writes in The Future Is Drying Up a New York Times Magazine about Water in the American West. The articles is discusses how increases in population and decreases in precipitation are reorganizing the US inland west. It includes some insightful comments from Roger Pulwarty, a climatologist at NOAA who looks at adaptive solutions to drought. He sounds a bit like Emory University ecological management scientist Lance Gunderson:

You don’t need to know all the numbers of the future exactly,” Pulwarty told me over lunch in a local Vietnamese restaurant. “You just need to know that we’re drying. And so the argument over whether it’s 15 percent drier or 20 percent drier? It’s irrelevant. Because in the long run, that decrease, accumulated over time, is going to dry out the system.” Pulwarty asked if I knew the projections for what it would take to refill Lake Powell, which is at about 50 percent of capacity. Twenty years of average flow on the Colorado River, he told me. “Good luck,” he said. “Even in normal conditions we don’t get 20 years of average flow. People are calling for more storage on the system, but if you can’t fill the reservoirs you have, I don’t know how more storage, or more dams, is going to help you. One has to ask if the normal strategies that we have are actually viable anymore.”

Pulwarty is convinced that the economic impacts could be profound. The worst outcome, he suggested, would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture, farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado’s largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime. Already, warmer temperatures have brought on an outbreak of pine beetles that are destroying pine forests; Pulwarty wonders how many tourists will want to visit a state full of dead trees. “A crisis is an interesting thing,” he said. In his view, a crisis is a point in a story, a moment in a narrative, that presents an opportunity for characters to think their way through a problem. A catastrophe, on the other hand, is something different: it is one of several possible outcomes that follow from a crisis. “We’re at the point of crisis on the Colorado,” Pulwarty concluded. “And it’s at this point that we decide, O.K., which way are we going to go?”

For some photos see NASA, and a graph of the water levels in Lake Mead showing the longterm decline in water storage.