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July 2011 Archives

Fight the Power(point)!

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We've all been there: struggling to stay alert in a half-darkened room, listening to a voice at the front drone on and on while cluttered, confusing and sometimes illegible slides flash past on screen like the view out the window of a train speeding through an alternate universe populated solely by graphs and lengthy bulleted lists.
If you give PowerPoint presentations with any regularity, your fellow humans will enjoy - or endure - thousands of images of your work over the course of your career, according to IonE communications director Todd Reubold.

That's a lot of potential impact. Or a lot of wasted time if you don't get it right.

How can you make sure your talks work well? Reubold offers these top tips:

  • Start with a plan. Keep your audience members - and what you want them to take away from your talk - in mind. Use an organizing scheme so your material flows logically from beginning to end. If you tell a story with your slides, people will listen.
  • Pay attention to looks. When creating your slides, follow basic principles of good design. Enlist contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity to make images pleasing to the eye. Use high-quality, well-placed photos to reinforce your message.
  • Remember that simple is good.  Stick to one point per slide. Be stingy with words, graphs, data, etc. Limit yourself to just a few type fonts. Avoid clip art ad and comic sans.
  • Pursue confidence. Practice your presentation ahead of time. Arrive early for your presentation and mingle with your audience. These habits will calm your nerves and help you give your talk in a clear and confident manner.
  • Present with style. When you give your talk, speak with enthusiasm. Use a remote, and get out from behind the lectern. Describe, rather than read, your slides. Leave the room lights on and build in mini-breaks every 10 minutes or so - ask a question, do an exercise, show a video clip - to help your audience stay alert.
  • Wrap up well. Stay within your allotted time, and end slightly early if possible to allow for discussion. After the Q&A, restate your take-home message so your listeners leave with the most important points in mind.
Check out the slide show above for examples and additional ideas. Pay attention to others' talks, and incorporate lessons learned into your own. Your listeners will be grateful. And your messages will hit their mark - power(point)fully.

Will Trade: Taconite Tailings for Solar Tiles

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What to do with stuff left over from taconite mining after the iron ore has been removed? Years ago the answer might have been make a big hill, or dump it into a big lake. But tile casting.jpgresearchers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute have other ideas.
    
Among them: With the help of a seed grant from IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, NRRI project engineer Kyle Bartholomew is pilot testing the concept of using taconite tailings to make decorative tiles. The tiles not only look good, they also can function as part of a passive solar energy system, absorbing the sun's energy and radiating it as warmth to provide an efficient source of space heating for homes and businesses.

The process Bartholomew developed starts with a pile of tailings, which look like dusty gray gravel. Bartholomew heats the tailings until they melt, then uses molds to shape the molten material into shiny black tiles. In one test run, he arranged the tiles into a 5-foot by 9-foot array and measured the amount of heat it radiated when struck by the sun's rays. With air temperatures below zero, Bartholomew found the panel could heat its surroundings to 80 degrees.

tiles.jpg Used in a trombe wall-type array, Bartholomew says, the transformed taconite panels could add an artistic touch to a room and also help heat it on cold winter days. He's now working with a private-sector partner to move the tailings-to-tiles clean energy invention into commercial production.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Bartholomew

Booking It

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ACG class.jpgYou've heard of brainstorms. IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers, an assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences, has "rainstorms" instead - lluvias de ideas, deluges of out-of-the-box thoughts about things she can do to help promote stewardship of the subjects of her research, Costa Rica's tropical dry forests.

Two of Powers' recent lluvias are now becoming reality, thanks to her IonE resident fellowship. Both focus on helping local people and visitors appreciate the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica.

In one, Powers is overseeing the development and production of a coloring book for young visitors to the ACG. The Biological Education Program of the ACG brings 50-some elementary schools in Guanacaste province to ACG 12 times over three years tobook.jpg learn about its four distinct habitat types: coast, dry forest, wet forest, cloud forest. The coloring book, co-written and illustrated by Ph.D. biologist Damond Kyllo, will help students take their new knowledge home, where they can share with family members what they've learned about the uniqueness and interconnectedness of the habitats, organisms and humans of the region.

In her second book project, Powers is overseeing creation of "Notas de Campo," a field guide to some 80 species of plants of the tropical dry forest. Botanical drawings for the book will be contributed by Annie Rosenthal, a 17-year-old botanical artist from Minnesota.  The book taps the wealth of knowledge of long-time ACG naturalist Daniel Perez and will provide a much-needed guide for ecotourists and other visitors to the unique flora of the area.

Learn more about Powers' research and conservation projects here.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Powers. Top: ACG environmental educators
in action, talking to local school children about the coastal zone
. Above right: Artist Annie Rosenthal and biologist Damond Kyllo.

A Green Economy

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contour3.jpgBY KRIS JOHNSON

What does a vacant lot in Cleveland have in common with desert in southern Arizona? Or a farm field in the upper Midwest with a river in urban China? All of these different lands support human lives and livelihoods in often unseen ways. They provide important "ecosystem services" by filtering pollutants from our drinking water, creating habitat for wildlife or enriching our lives with aesthetic beauty and recreational opportunities.

Ecosystem services was a major theme at last week's U.S. Society for Ecological Economics conference at Michigan State University. The conference topic of "Building a Green Economy" emphasized the need to fully recognize environmental constraints to economic activity. Valuing ecosystem services that we otherwise take for granted is a critical part of making our economy greener and more sustainable.
 
Conference attendees discussed a number of emerging efforts to build a green economy by accounting for undervalued ecosystem services. For example, federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are working to enhance the ecosystem services provided by public lands. These agencies, and their state and county level counterparts, often have mandates to manage for multiple uses and need better information about how public lands contribute to the common good. Also, quantifying and valuing ecosystem services on public lands can help create new funding mechanisms to support conservation and land management. For example, the city of Denver is helping fund a $32 million venture with the USFS to protect forested lands that drain into the city's water supply.

Conference presentations also touched on how ecosystem services can improve management on private lands, which is important because most land in the U.S. is privately held, and much intensive land use takes place on private lands.

In particular, agriculture occupies nearly half of the land area of the lower 48 states, and agricultural practices can have large-scale environmental impacts. If ecosystem services were included in the agricultural equation, incentives for land management could change and farmers could get rewarded for practices that reduce erosion, improve water quality or enhance habitat for wildlife.

This already happens to some extent through the conservation programs of the U.S. Farm Bill. But research suggests that our agricultural landscapes and our farm policies could do even better. For example, an analysis colleagues and I presented at the conference shows that small, targeted reductions in agricultural area could generate improved water quality and increased carbon sequestration potentially more valuable than revenue lost from reduced cropping.

Despite huge uncertainty about the provision and value of ecosystem services, research suggests that agricultural lands could do more to support our well-being. Including often overlooked ecosystem services in the ledger could inform new payment mechanisms that reward farmers for producing not just crops but a full suite of agricultural ecosystem services. And better information about ecosystem services could also help improve policies like the U.S. Farm Bill, so that our scarce public dollars encourage agricultural practices that support the public good.

Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS

A Call for Cleaner Cookstoves

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stove.jpgPhoto by Chen Wei Seng

Women around the world tend smoky stoves as they work to keep their families warm and well-fed. For some, it's a health hazard. In a study just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, IonE global renewable energy leadership fellow Jill Baumgartner and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported a disconcerting link between indoor air pollution from stoves used for heating and cooking and increased blood pressure in older women.

Some 2 billion people in the developing world are exposed to large doses of small-particle air pollution when they heat and cook with a biomass fuel such as wood. Baumgartner and colleagues outfitted 280 women in a remote area of Yunnan Province, China, with a device that sampled the air they breathed. The women's communities have central, free-standing kitchens that often have both a stove and a fire pit. They found higher levels of indoor air pollution were associated with higher blood pressure among women aged 50 and older.

"I spent a lot of time watching women cook in these unvented kitchens, and within seconds, my eyes would burn, it would get a little difficult to breathe. The women talk
about these same discomforts, but they are viewed as just another hardship of rural life," Baumgartner says.

Improving stoves or changing fuels can cut indoor air pollution 50 to 75 percent. In this study, such a reduction was linked to a drop in blood pressure that the researchers estimate would translate into an 18 percent decrease in coronary heart disease and a 22 percent decrease in stroke among Asian women aged 50 to 59.

Baumgartner is currently working in India on an IonE Discovery Grant project in which researchers are measuring the impacts on air pollution and health of a program that replaces conventional polluting stoves with cleaner alternatives. Listen to Baumgartner describe the project:



Sylvia Earle: Envisioning Sustainable Seas

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National Geographic explorer in residence, deep-sea diver and ocean advocate Sylvia Earle brought a message of encouragement to the Twin Cities in May as  the third and final speaker in the Institute on the Environment's groundbreaking Momentum 2011 event series. Despite overfishing, climate change and other onslaughts, Earle is convinced that if we commit ourselves to the cause, we can help the world's oceans thrive in these uncertain times.

"I, for one, am a hope-aholic," she told a crowd of more than 500 at Ted Mann Concert Hall. "I ask you to join me in that endeavor."

View a 3-minute sneak peek of Earle's talk, "Sustainable Seas: The Vision, the Reality," above, or watch the full 40-minute video. Then check out her Hope Spots website to learn more about how you join her not only in hoping - but in making that hope a reality as well.


A Major-Impact Minor

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sustainability minor.jpgBY ALICE YONKE

Among the many other hats it wears, the Institute on the Environment is home to the University of Minnesota's Sustainability Studies minor.

The minor aims to broaden students' understanding of sustainability and its interdisciplinary nature by offering diverse educational opportunities. It's a 15- to 18-credit program for undergraduate students in any field of study. Students are required to take two core courses that introduce them to the many questions, conflicts and theories that arise in the development of a sustainable planet, as well as teach problem-solving skills and how to apply them to our communities.  Students then choose from a wide variety of electives offered across campus. These electives broaden their understanding of sustainability and demonstrate the interdisciplinary approach that must be taken to understand and solve many of the large-scale issues we face today.
 
Since its creation in 2006, the minor has educated over 500 students with a wide range of majors and has featured faculty from more than seven colleges.
 
Sustainability Studies offers diversity not only among disciplines, but also among educational experiences. This fall will be the fourth semester offering a Sustainability Internship course taught by Dave Wanberg, a practicing architect, landscape architect, and sustainability plan author. Students in the course have the opportunity to set up their own internship or are placed in a variety of local internships for the semester. At the end of the semester, they present their final work to the public.
 
There are also several opportunities for students to study sustainability abroad, including Environmental Issues in New Zealand, Sustainable Food Systems in Italy, and Sustainability in Northern Europe. Also in Fall 2010, some students from the sustainability special topics course on carbon policy taught by former State Senator Ellen Anderson and State Representative Kate Knuth traveled to Cancun to attend the COP16 international climate change conference. Another Sustainability Topics course will be offered this upcoming fall, providing students to attend this year's E3 conference presented by IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.
 
Editor's note: Looking for a reason to pursue a sustainability minor? Check out this article from the New York Times.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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