Summer Vacation . . . Here I Come! (Sort of, haha)

I know it’s been slow on my blog for the past several weeks, mostly because of the typical end-of-semester madness that descends. Today, however, I can happily report that the Spring, 2017 semester has been put to bed. Papers and exams graded, final grades assigned and entered into the official system. It’s nice to be able to sit down and take a breath after one of the busiest semesters I’ve had yet. (I’ll be teaching a summer session starting next week, so I’m not really on vacation yet, but I’m enjoying the week of downtime I have between the two “semesters”).

Why was I so busy? On the one hand, it’s not too surprising, as I was involved with five courses (teaching three of them solo; the other two were team-taught), and I did a lot of extra curricular work with the Copeland Creek restoration on campus, but I didn’t have a new course prep, as I’ve had every other semester I’ve taught. For that reason alone, I thought this was going to be a pretty relaxed semester. Looking back, however, when I think about at the rosters for my courses, I realize that I had more than 350 students this semester, altogether. That’s a lot of students, and I spent one-on-one time with a fair number of them – for a good part of the semester, my office hours (three hours a week at the start, and four to five hours total per week throughout the last half of the semester) were like a subway station at rush hour some days. (I’ll describe how I dealt with that in a separate post).

So yes, it’s nice to have a bit of breathing room, but at the same time, I loved having the chance to work with such a diverse array of students – from brand new freshmen to graduating seniors, across a wide spectrum of majors. Some of my favorite moments:

  • The spectacular success of the Entomology service learning activity I facilitated, for the seven students who participated
Come at me bro
Come at me bro
  • A hilarious Yellowstone ecosystem food web created by one of my Global Environmental Issues students that used internet memes to represent the organisms (primarily wolves, deer, and plants)
  • Drawings on the final exam of the bones in a human hand compared to the bones in a fin of a whale, to demonstrate one of the student’s favorite concepts during the semester
  • Having students come to office hours just to have a place to hang out between classes
  • Seeing my students’ final posters at the Science Symposium (and seeing them all dressed up in their fancy clothes for the event)
  • Receiving an adorable fairy terrarium from one of my Intro Bio students
  • One of my intro biology students coming to a creek workday, and being SUPER excited to discover that I knew her by name (she literally jumped up and down)
  • A student asking to take a selfie with me after finishing her final exam
  • Seeing the amazing transformation along Copeland Creek, as a result of all the work we’ve done throughout the semester
  • Receiving emails with links to interesting science stories that my students thought would be of interest to me (mostly I love this because it means they’re on the internet reading about science)!

And possibly my favorite:

  • Hearing back from a grad student whose CV and cover letter I helped edit, to let me know that she’d been offered the job!!

This is a very abbreviated list of favorite moments, and I have loads more things to post from this past month or so – stories to tell that have been neglected due to the flurry of activity associated with the end of the semester. But now I have time to sit down and tell them, so expect to see some new posts in the very near future.

Art Gallery Visit

Yesterday morning, we took the Science 120 students to this year’s BFA Exhibition in the university art gallery – a collection of works by students getting ready to graduate from the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. The motivation for this visit was to allow our students – who have spent the past semester designing, performing, and presenting scientific experiments – to get a feeling for the ways in which carrying out an art project may be different, or similar, to the process of science.

Our visit was graciously hosted by Art Department Chair Greg Roberts, along with three of the artists featured in the exhibition: Carley Herrera, Shannon Edwards, and Mindy Kral. The artists had agreed to speak with our students, to give them an overview of the creative process, from each of their individual perspectives.

When we arrived, we all wandered around the gallery for a few minutes. I’d never actually been inside the gallery before, and it’s a lovely space. Some of the pieces that stood out for me were a toothed ceramic jar (pictured below), handmade books that featured stunning images of a Mexican-American family and some of their family mementos, and a cascade of porcelain artifacts called “The Unrecognized Economy” (more on this piece a bit later).

After we’d wandered for a few minutes, Greg welcomed us to the gallery, and asked us to break up into three groups, so we could hear from the three artists who had agreed to speak with us.

Greg Roberts
Greg Roberts

I was part of the group that went with Carley Herrera, who told us about the inspiration for her installation, which focused on the memories that had taken place in her grandparents’ house. Along with blueprints of the actual house, and wallpaper which Carley had “stolen” from her grandparents’ garage, an array of white porcelain pots were hung, of different sizes, in a shape meant to represent a welcoming arch. In some of the pots, actual family memories were written on slips of paper.

Carley Herrera
Carley Herrera

I felt a connection to the story Carley shared about how important these memories are to her. The house my own grandparents lived in up until their deaths is so strongly tied with own childhood memories, and even now – 20 years after the last time I set foot in the house – I still dream about it frequently (actual nighttime dreams), even more so than the house in which I actually lived. I loved reading the memories that Carley had shared.

After the presentation, we had some time to browse the gallery again, and I returned to the piece that had caught my eye earlier: “The Unrecognized Economy.” I had been drawn to it earlier, as I found it aesthetically pleasing in many ways . . . the composition, the play of light and shadow, the delicate “blossoms” hung on thin wires. This time, I had the opportunity to speak with the artist, Shannon Edwards, and that’s when I really fell in love with this piece.

Unrecognized Economy
Unrecognized Economy

Originally, I had thought the porcelain pieces were meant to be poppy flowers, but Shannon told me that they’re not meant to represent anything specific – they’re meant to be non-specific artifacts, each of which represents some unpaid work performed by a woman. The piece as a whole highlights how all of these little things we do – unnoticed, underappreciated, and unpaid – add up to a substantial “unrecognized” economy. Red beads beneath each artifact represent the way our menstrual cycles can reflect the passage of time. As much as I loved the piece visually before hearing the story behind it, it means that much more to me, now. I hope very much that it is able to find a permanent home . . . it’s so, so lovely.

Shannon Edwards
Shannon Edwards and “The Unrecognized Economy”

When I asked her what got her interested in ceramics, we had a good conversation about the divide between useful items and “art” and how she wants to bridge that gap – by creating pieces that are functional, but also beautiful and meaningful in ways that our current disposable economy so often ignores. I have personally created a lot of useful items (in fabric or yarn), and putting her work into this context helped something to shift for me, as well. For example, the afghan that’s currently on my bed is something I made myself – I crocheted it out of my favorite colors, in a pattern that I thought was pretty – and now I sleep under it every night. I tend to think of it as nothing more than a blanket most of the time, but after speaking Shannon, I realize there’s absolutely no reason I can’t also view it as a work of art.

In watching the students interact with the artwork, and the artists, it seemed as though many of them really enjoyed this excursion, and learned a great deal from it. The thing I hadn’t expected was just how much I would get out of it, personally. I definitely want to make this a tradition in future years.

The BFA exhibit will be on display in the Art Building gallery through May 21st, 2017.

Field Trip!

Today, I took my Conservation Biology students on a spontaneous field trip, and it was wonderful!

We were talking about invasive species, fish in particular, and when a picture of a carp popped up in my powerpoint, I remembered that a few weeks ago, Director of Landscaping Sam Youney had mentioned to me that there are some huge koi living in the campus lakes. When I told the class that there are huge fish (2 – 3 feet long, at least) in the Art and Commencement Lakes, they were skeptical . . . so I decided that we’d go on an impromptu field trip, to see if we could find them. (We were hitting the point during lecture where I usually stop to give the class a stretch break anyway, so we just took a somewhat extended stretch break). 🙂

We left the ETC and made the short trek to the Art Building, where I sent them to fan out around the Art Pond to see if they could spot the (exotic! invasive!) koi.

In the end, we weren’t able to find any koi, although we did see a turtle (invasive red-eared slider), a turkey vulture (native bird), a lovely black doggie (domesticated, walking with its humans), and hundreds of teeny, tiny fish (center bottom photo). I’m not sure what they are – Gambusia (mosquito fish), maybe? As we walked, we also talked about overgrowth of algae and aquatic plants, invasive terrestrial plant species (of which we saw several), as well as the many native trees that form the canopy along the creek.

I’m still determined that we’ll find those koi, though. I’m offering a bounty (in extra credit points) to any student who brings me a picture of one of the huge fish* before the end of the semester. 😀


Loch Ness Monster
Loch Ness Monster

*Also accepting photos from anyone who spots a lake monster – I’m really thinking that SSU needs its own lake monster, wouldn’t you agree?

2017 Science Symposium

Jessi, Caroline, Jana, and Wendy
Science Symposium 2017
Science Symposium 2017

One of my favorite annual events happened today: the annual Science Symposium on campus, part of the campus-wide Symposium of Research and Creativity. I love it for so many reasons, but mostly to see my students – dressed up in their good clothes – standing with their posters and talking about the research they performed during the past year. There’s a great energy and excitement about the event . . . to be honest, I don’t even mind the last minute flurry of crises that inevitably appear as we’re all trying to get our posters ready to be printed in time for the symposium.

I’ve been involved with this event in some way from its very first year, in 2013, when it was created as a way for students in the Science 120 course (a freshman year experience for students interested in STEM fields) to showcase the independent projects they’d completed during the Spring semester. Back then, they all gave oral presentations, and the poster session was relatively small. Since then, however, the event has shifted away from being focused on Science 120, and opened up to the entire campus. Today, one of the ballrooms was opened up as large as possible, and the room was FILLED with student posters. (My Science 120 students no longer do oral presentations at the event . . . they presented posters in the main hall. We’ll be hosting a separate presentation event for them on the last day of the semester).

This year, I had 8 groups of Science 120 students presenting posters (some of whom I worked with very closely), and I helped a student in my former lab (working with western pond turtles) put together a poster comparing some of my previous findings with data she’d collected over the past couple of years. Finally, along with two undergraduate students and one of my colleagues (and dear friend) Caroline Christian, we presented a poster of our own, about the restoration we’ve been doing on Copeland Creek this semester.

First things first: getting our poster set up before the start of the event. Here is “Copeland Creek Restoration: a Model for Creek Restoration on a University Campus.” Considering that the whole thing came together in less than 48 hours (the poster, haha; the restoration has been going on for months), I’m really pleased with the way it turned out:

Once things got underway, I left Jessi and Jana to hold down the fort, and I wandered through the posters. My intention was to stop by each of my students’ posters and get back to the Copeland Creek poster. It didn’t work out quite that way, though . . . I wasn’t able to just walk past all the other posters, as so many of them looked genuinely interesting. I did stop at a few, and had great conversations with presenters. In the end, however, I did get to most of the Science 120 posters. Here’s a round-up of some of their projects (their posters all look fantastic!):

I stopped by to visit with Chelsey, and to see the poster that she and I put together the night before the symposium:

Several other current and former students presented their research, as well (although I didn’t have a direct role in most of these projects):

Dinosaur Stamps for Extra Credit
Dinosaur Stamps for Extra Credit

Another thing that was fun for me today was running into lots of my current GE students. In particular, loads of Introduction to Biology students were on hand. Since I am usually teaching that class during the time of the symposium, instead of just cancelling class, I asked them to come to the symposium, and ask questions of a few of the presenters. They were able to get a few points of extra credit by hunting me down in the crowd, and I gave dinosaur stamps to a whole bunch of students – they mostly seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot, and engaging with the presenters.


About half way through, all four of the collaborators on our Copeland Creek project were finally able to get together to pose for a photo:

Jessi, Caroline, Jana, and Wendy
Jessi, Caroline, Jana, and Wendy

So much love for these marvelous ladies!!!!!!! And loads of love to all my students who did such a great job with their projects. I’m so proud of them. Definitely one of the best events of the year.

Investiture of Dr. Judy Sakaki, Part 2

So many things have happened this week, and I have several blog posts to write (mostly about Earth Week events). I thought I’d post this one first, since I already posted Part 1, here.

I’d never attended an investiture before, and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, other than the fact that included a ceremony to confer the “authority and symbols of high office” to the new president, in this case a medallion presented by CSU Chancellor Timothy White. It’s a tradition that’s been carried down from the middle ages, meant to signal the beginning of a new era for the university and campus community. I was certainly happy to see this taking place, as I’m really optimistic and excited about having Dr. Sakaki as our new president, especially after meeting her face-to-face, briefly, last semester. That’s a story that’s probably worth telling, especially today . . .

I was in the Environmental Technology Center, teaching a lab session of Restoration Ecology (along with my co-instructor Caroline Christian). The students were working in small groups on their semester projects, and Caroline and I were each sitting with a different group, giving them some guidance. Two women walked into the classroom (somewhat unusual, although not unheard of – the ETC is a net-zero energy, green building, so people are often interested in touring through it). When I looked up to see who’d come in, I realized that one of the women was Dr. Sakaki, so I went over to greet them, and invite them to come inside. Turns out she had been on a walk-and-talk on campus, and was interested to take a peek inside, and we were happy to oblige. After briefly describing our course and what the students were doing on that day, Caroline and I had a quick opportunity to welcome Dr. Sakaki. I told her, quite sincerely, how glad I was that she was here, and that I was excited about the future. In response, she told us that this was a new day, and that we, as instructors, should feel free to think outside the box and not be afraid to explore in new directions. (Paraphrased, so those weren’t her exact words, but they’re in keeping with the spirit of what she said). After an era where I wasn’t pleased with some of the decisions made by our previous president, this was music to my ears.

Me in regalia
Me in regalia

Anyway, on the day of the investiture, I arrived early-ish, so I could pick up the regalia I’d reserved (I didn’t walk when I graduated with my masters degree, so I didn’t have my own regalia to wear). When it was time for the investiture to begin, one of the first things to happen was the procession of faculty (including myself) into the auditorium, accompanied by Beethoven’s “Pastoral” 6th symphony, played by the university’s symphony orchestra. Turns out that one of the perks of being on the faculty is reserved seating – I ended up in the fourth row, so I had a great view.

The ceremony itself was interesting. It began with a Coast Miwok blessing, offered by an elder from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, followed by a Buddhist offering of gratitude, offered by a CSU emeritus professor. There was taiko drumming, and poetry, and a dance performance. Several people addressed the audience with various welcome messages.

The keynote address by Dr. Michael Drake of Ohio State University focused on “The Power and Promise of Higher Education,” after which Dr. Sakaki was presented with the presidential medallion by Chancellor White. My photos aren’t great (much better ones are available from news sources online), but I thought I’d snap a few as mementos.

Dr. Sakaki’s presidential address was titled, “Dance With Change.” During her talk, she talked about the various people in her life who had helped to shape her life, including her parents, children, colleagues and community members. As she shared these stories, she ended each segment with “I am because . . .” It was a powerful, inspiring message of inclusivity and acceptance, and once again I was struck by the potential I see here for her to do some wonderful things on our campus, and move us in a better direction than our previous president did.

As an aside, “I am because . . .” was also the theme of the biographical exhibit in Schultz Hall on Dr. Sakaki’s life and family. I’d taken a walk through it earlier in the week, and found it profoundly moving. Not only did it chronicle the journey that brought Dr. Sakaki to SSU, but it shared information about her parents and grandparents, who had been sent to interment camps during the Second World War. In talking about her early life, both in the exhibit and in her presidential address, she mentioned going to the Obon Festival in Oakland every summer. This really caught my attention, as I grew up in an area of L.A. with a thriving Japanese-American community, and I attended our local Obon Festival every year, and performed traditional dances along with many of my friends from school. I know that our experiences mean far different things to us, but I like to think of this as some small connection, if that makes any sense.

After her address, the orchestra accompanied the SSU Chamber Singers in a performance of our school’s lovely new alma mater, “Sonoma State Rising”:

Our challenges we have faced and love kept us strong
Sonoma we celebrate how far we all have come
Though we live in different ways, we’re here together on this bright day
We thank you Sonoma State and now a new chapter starts
We’ll hold on to all your lessons like treasure within our heart

On the whole, I enjoyed the ceremony, and felt proud to be a part of this community. There is also a bit of uncertainty for me – as a lecturer with not a lot of job security from semester to semester, it’s a bit scary not knowing how changes might affect me, personally. But I am encouraged by the overall message of inclusivity, and dedication to providing a meaningful higher education for our students. I am certainly committed to that, and I’m choosing to trust that whatever happens in the future, I will be able to continue educating a new generation of young people, so they can live better lives.

Wendy St. John and Judy Sakaki
Wendy St. John and Judy Sakaki

After the ceremony, I returned the borrowed regalia, and went out into the courtyard, thinking I’d grab a quick snack from the reception buffet, and then head over to my office for office hours. In the courtyard, however, I noticed that there was a queue to have a photo taken with Dr. Sakaki, and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity – both to have my photo taken with her (again), and also to give her a quick personal welcome. The queue wasn’t particularly long, and I wished I was still wearing my regalia, but I hopped in line. A few minutes later, it was my turn. After taking the photo, I found myself a bit tongue-tied, but I told Dr. Sakaki how glad I was that she was here, and how excited I was to see the things she would do here in the future.


She took me by the hand and said, “The things we’ll do together.

Yes, I’m really happy to have her here as our new president. I think we will all have the opportunity to do great things together.

Investiture of Dr. Judy Sakaki, Part 1 – Morning Workshops

Today was a special day on campus, a truly historic day, when Sonoma State University held the investiture ceremony for our 7th president, Dr. Judy Sakaki. In the morning, a wide variety of mini-workshops were held, along with a poster session, to showcase the work and research of SSU students and faculty. in the afternoon, the investiture ceremony took place in the Green Music Center. It was pretty magnificent, all the way around.

Earlier in the semester, I’d decided that this was important enough that I wanted to encourage my students to attend, so instead of lecturing today, I asked my morning class (Global Environmental Issues) to attend the poster session and at least one of the mini workshops. For Conservation Biology in the afternoon, I let them know that I would be attending the investiture, and I strongly suggested that they do the same. There were two overall reasons I wanted to do this . . . first, it’s a special day on campus, and I think it’s nice for all of us to have a break from the regular schedule from time to time. But more than that, this was a day for the entire campus community to come together, and I wanted my students to know that they’re part of this community, and maybe make some new connections with people on campus.

Turns out, this was a good decision.
My day started off in Seawolf Plaza, where I happened upon a poetry reading in progress, “SSU Student Poets Reading: Resistance and Hope in our Current Political Moment. Among the presenters was one of my former students, who shared some powerful, profound things that he’d written about the current state of our world.

From there, I headed up to the poster session, where I got talking with the authors of some research about the effect of media and technology on students. Not only was it an interesting project, but in talking with the Psychology professor who’d done the research, I found out that they knew who I was, because several of my students had come by and inquired about the research (which was part of the assignment I’d given them). Apparently, my students were asking VERY good questions, and really engaged with the process. AHHHH YES!!!!!!!! This was exactly what I’d hoped would happen. 🙂

My next stop was a session by Dr. Jeff Baldwin, “What Does Sustainability Mean? Active Learning With and From Sonoma State Students.” Anything with “active learning” in the title grabs my attention, and after Jeff started talking, I realized this talk had even more relevance to me, as he was talking about some assignments and results from a course that I’ll likely be teaching in the not-too-distant future. He described some assignments where he sent students out to do things like calculate the carbon footprint generated by their transportation needs, and spend a day riding the bus. That alone was interesting, but the really cool part is the data he’d collected from them about these activities – looking at how much it changed their own viewpoints, and how much they now seemed committed to making long-term changes to their own behavior, and possibly supporting systemic changes, as well. You can read more about his research in his paper, “Sustainability Education Through Active-Learning in Large Lecture Settings: Evaluation of Four Out-Of-Class Exercises.” Afterwards, I chatted for a few minutes with a couple of other professors, and we had a good conversation about how to improve learning outcomes for students, while keeping our own workloads under control.

After a lunch meeting, I headed in the direction of the Green Music Center. Along the way, I decided to wander along Copeland Creek, and through the Butterfly Garden. It was an absolutely stunning day, and the sound of the water trickling through the creek never fails to cheer me. Here are a few photos I took along my walk:

Mossy Logs
Mossy logs alongside Copeland Creek


I’ll cover the actual ceremony in a separate post, as this one’s getting a bit long. Plus, I’m waiting for the event’s photographer to post some photos online.



Sampling For Benthic Macroinvertebrates

I had a great morning out on the creek yesterday, taking some Entomology students out to sample benthic macroinvertebrates in Copeland Creek. This project is a true win/win: I’m getting data for a long-term monitoring study of the creek, and the students are fulfilling a service learning requirement for their biology course.

Before I go into the details, let me take a quick step back for some definitions, for anyone who might not be familiar with some of these terms: Macroinvertebrates are animals without backbones that can be seen with the naked eye (“macro” = large), and benthic refers to the ecological zone at the bottom of a body of water, in this case the creek bed. Entomology is the scientific study of insects, and they were our primary focus, although we’re looking at other invertebrates as well, including arachnids (spiders, and their kin), worms, and maybe even some crustaceans, like crayfish, if we happen upon any of them.

What we’re doing is pretty straightforward: I’m having them follow the same protocols our Restoration Ecology students developed last semester, so we can add to that data set. Copeland Creek is seasonal, and doesn’t have running water for part of the year (including the period of time when last semester’s sampling was done), so I’m particularly interested in having data taken at different times of the year.

Copeland Creek
Copeland Creek

Yesterday, we reviewed the protocols in lab, and brainstormed some ideas about how to format our data collection forms. Then I sent them out into the creek to (literally) get their feet wet. They sampled for an hour, and we’re planning to collect at least one more set of data next week, and possibly a third set, as well. Right off the bat, though, we noticed a BIG different in both abundance and diversity of aquatic inverts, compared with what they found last semester. We sampled in the same general area, but in the fall, there’s just a small pool that holds water year round. This time of year, the creek is running quite nicely.

I really enjoyed being out on the creek, and my students seemed to enjoy it as well. It’s not a hard sell . . . getting to wade into the creek and catch stuff and get school credit for doing it? It’s a pretty sweet gig. 😀 Once we’d finished sampling, we preserved all our samples in alcohol, but we didn’t even try to ID most of them. We’ll key them all out at once, after we’ve finished all our collecting trips.

More soon . . . we’ll be meeting again next week!


Copeland Creek Work Day

After months of planning, on Saturday, March 25, a group of volunteers gathered on the Sonoma State University campus to start the “muddy boots” part of our project to restore the riparian habitat along Copeland Creek. Over the past couple of weeks, our SSU project team identified native plants that we want to keep, and today our work team pulled up invasive species around these natives, to give them the best possible chance to thrive, and to make certain they’re not accidentally pulled up during a future phase of restoration work.  (All photos © the author, except where noted).

Our collaborators, Nick and Callie from the California Conservation Corps’ Watershed Stewards Program arrived first thing in the morning, to set up for the workday. SSU project team members Jessi and Jana walked through our project area and flagged the native plants where the clearing was to take place.

Just after 10:00 a.m. we got started. To a group of both SSU students and community volunteers, I gave a brief overview of the history of the creek, as well as our goal for the project as a whole. It turns out that, historically, there wasn’t actually a creek running through this part of the landscape . . . the creek ran down off nearby Sonoma Mountain, and spread out across a floodplain. This area would have been mostly wetlands, not dry land with a creek. So, our goal isn’t to try and restore this area to some previous “natural” state. Instead, we’re working to restore native vegetation, and encourage a habitat that supports a wide variety of native species, some of which we saw while doing our work (see this post for some photos of lizards and salamanders and things).

Then, everyone got to work! And boy, oh boy, did they work! We did take a break for lunch (sandwiches provided by Callie), but other than that, our team worked from 10 a.m. until about 2 p.m.

Sometimes you’ve just got to crawl right in.

Some of my intrepid Conservation Biology students tackled a huge patch of Oregon grape that was being choked out by Himalayan blackberry. This invasive non-native species of blackberry is one of our main targets for this project. We want to replace as much of it as possible with native species, but we need to do this in a way that won’t disrupt the existing ecosystem too much while the new species become established. Removing the blackberry from this particular patch was a great place to start, and definitely above and beyond what we’d hoped to accomplish today. Hector, Paolo, Andrew, William, and Vince did an amazing job of “grubbing” out the blackberry.

The “Dream Team”

Oregon Grape, after blackberry removal:

We accomplished more today than I thought possible. Sending out a huge thank you to our team, and to all the wonderful volunteers who came out and helped us get out Copeland Creek restoration project started! We hope to see you again on Earth Day, when we’ll work on the the next phase of our project.

Photo by Callie Grant