First day of classes as a Ted Scripps Fellow: Wow!

Date posted: August 24, 2009
Posted in: Culture & society | Science and Research | Science education | Travel & exploration
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Top row, from left: Jim Mimiaga, Suzie Lechtenberg and Michael Kodas. Bottom row: Anne Minard (that's me), Robert Frost (emeritus?) and Laura Frank.

Top row, from left: Jim Mimiaga, unnamed person and Michael Kodas. Bottom row: Anne Minard (that’s me), Robert Frost (emeritus?) and Laura Frank. Photo by Dona Olivier.

I couldn’t have known how weird it would be to return to the classroom. It’s only been about nine years, after all, since I left it. It hit me when I was standing in the school supplies aisle at the supermarket yesterday, because I realized I should have a notebook, one with multiple sections for the different subjects. I hadn’t shopped for such a thing in a long time, and I found myself befuddled: recycled, or sturdy and divided? How much money should I spend on a notebook? How much writing space will I really need? The purchase took a silly amount of time.

As Ted Scripps Fellows at CU Boulder, we don’t get credit for the courses. We audit classes that we hope will deepen our knowledge of environmental issues and support a major journalistic work of our choosing (we were selected in part on the project idea). Because of that, and because I’ve been out in the working world for a while, my approach is different than it was when I was a credit-seeking student. I’m really here to learn. Before classes started, I understood that in my business (science and environmental journalism), knowledge makes for better stories because it allows for deeper understanding of the science and the issues surrounding the science.

What I didn’t realize until I started reading for these classes, and then visiting them for the first time today, is that they’re going to give me (and my writing) something else: new perspectives. It’s already started. I’m blown away by this realization, and unspeakably excited.

Artist's concept of planet formation around a new star.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s concept of planet formation around a new star. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This reality first dawned last week, when I began reading a paper for a planetary science seminar in the astronomy department. We’re looking at a recent review on the dynamics of terrestrial planet formation, by Jonathan Lunine (et al.), who I met when I was a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

I thought this class would count as my “fun” class, unrelated to the book about phosphate that I’ve come here to write. But then things from the Lunine paper started jumping out at me, especially the fact that the distribution and concentration of minerals on Earth and the other rocky planets are determined by the millions-of-years-long series of collisions between dust grains and eventually larger bodies around new stars. And I thought: Eureka! This is where it all begins! This is where the book begins!

Charles Wilkinson taped this wonderful, tattered United States map to the chalkboard at the start of class. It notes major land acquisitions, rivers, public lands and Native nations. We're going to cover all of it this semester.

Charles Wilkinson taped this wonderful, tattered United States map to the chalkboard at the start of class. It notes major land acquisitions, rivers, public lands and Native nations. We’re going to cover all of it this semester.

I got treated to more of the same today. I’ve been to two classes so far: Nuclear West, with Len Ackland (the Scripps program co-chair), and Foundations of Natural Resources Law, with Charles Wilkinson. Ackland has enjoyed a long career as a journalist and wrote a book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West,” in 1999. Wilkinson, an accomplished attorney, wrote, among other things, a 1992 book called “Beyond the 100th Meridian.” Both of these guys are experts; I have already learned volumes from the readings and each first class. I’ll resist the urge to put too many details here, but for example: I didn’t know that France gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, but next door Germany is decommissioning all of its reactors. Ackland teams up with a physicist to deliver the class, so I’ll finally get a real working understanding of fission and fusion! Through Wilkinson’s readings, I’ve started my exposure to some of the first United States environmental case law, as well as some of the initial ideas that fed it: for starters, the contrast between the dualistic manifest destiny doctrine of European settlement, and the more biocentric worldviews of the people who were already here. I knew a little something about manifest destiny, but through the readings I’ve picked up new information I’ve long craved about the other side: Native, especially Lakota, perspective on the natural world. The perspectives of the other students are the icing on the cake. Ackland’s class has drawn two physicists, an attorney, an engineer, several journalism students and three other fellows, including a couple of people who possess nuclear expertise of their own.

I hope one thing is abundantly clear so far: I am thrilled to be here! I’ll be checking out a lot of classes throughout the week: photojournalism, data mining and advanced video editing along with another law class (mining and energy law), a basic mineralogy class and possibly a course in environmental economics. Sadly, I’ll have to make some choices, as I’ll need time to do all the reading and work on my book. I promise my blog posts won’t all be about the fellowship itself, but will include some of the science and environmental issues we’ll be exposed to here. Stay tuned!

Oh, and one final note: there are other enlightening aspects to being back on a college campus, and my perspective will surely broaden in many ways. I’m just saying …

Auditions!

Auditions!

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