Thursday, 27 March 2014

FoodCrowd: creating a new app

Creating a new app. (

We, the inter disciplinary DE:FT team of computer and social scientists are making steady progress with the three apps we have although GradeBack has now been replaced by FoodCrowd, an app which we are developing with help from Archbishop Sentamu School. One of the aims of the app is to provide a creative, innovative and educationally orientated digital tool which has been designed in conjunction with the revised National Curriculum in England for Design and Technology 2014, aimed at pupils at Key Stage 1 to 3. The programme of study puts more emphasis on seasonality and where and how a variety of ingredients are grown, reared, caught and processed. With this in mind we have been working on an app which aims to connect schoolchildren with the food they are growing in their school garden and the impact that the environment can have on the way the plants grow.

The images below are simulations of how we envisage the app working. Pupils will open up the app to add a new entry on a particular plant they are growing in the school garden.

In this way the app will allow pupils to monitor and record the growth of the plants they grow in their school garden.  They will be able to monitor weather conditions, temperature, speed of growth and yield to mention just a few of the parameters that are being incorporated.  Hopefully any produce they grow will be used to prepare themselves a hot meal, again one of the objectives of the programme of study at KS3.  Apart from becoming competent in a range of cooking techniques the data the pupils have collected will help them to understand the principles of nutrition and health as well as mapping across into other areas of the National Curriculum, such as Numeracy.  The image below illustrates how the app will have the functionality to create graphs based on the data pupils have collected.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Geographers' gadgets: notebooks
Sadly this image doesn't come on a notebook...
by Jane Bunting

This week is kind of quiet around the Department - the second years are away on their overseas field study weeks, along with just over half the academics, the first years have mostly gone home for a break (hopefully with plenty of reading to catch up on, since it is technically reading week for them) and the third years are working away on their dissertations.  Watching the different teams get their equipment together and listening to students (and colleagues) swapping the usual "my trip will be more work/more fun/sunnier than your trip" banter reminded me again of just how varied our subject is.  We study... well, pretty much anything that comes our way.  Geographers don't just study the world, we poke our noses into every corner of the world of study.  However, the field trips also point up things we have in common.  The students are going overseas to experience places on their own terms, to try to observe objectively what happens, to compare it with what happens in other places, and then to understand something of why and how it happens, whether "it" is a piece of public art, a type of agriculture or a distinctive rock formation.  Observation, then trying to understand what we see, then trying to explain that understanding to other people, lies at the heart of the business of being a geographer.

Stationery lust objects.  I WANT THEM ALL.
Asked to write a post at short notice, I decided to write about some of the tools I use as a GEESologist, then realised that just the list would take up most of the post!  So perhaps we can have a series, along with the "my story" series... we all have our favourite pieces of kit.  I get that "ooooooo, Jane waaannnnttttt" reaction some women get at the sight of Jimmy Choos to a really well-made collapsible quadrat, to almost anything in the latest Nikon microscopy catalogue or Van Walt field soil sampler catalogue... and to a really decent notebook.  Last week one of our colleagues arrived at the Departmental Meeting with a brand new Moleskine notebook - a rich red, A5 one.  At least half a dozen people watched with varying degrees of envy as he removed the plastic, snapped back the elastic, and smoothed open that first all-important page. One of the nice things about working as a GEES-ologist is being around other people who share some quirks with me!
 As a youngster, I had a bit of an obsession with stationery, and would regularly spend my pocket money on notebooks, pens, stickers and so on.  I especially liked notebooks, and often made my own by cutting scrap paper to size, sewing a binding, making and decorating the cover...  Actually that should be in the present tense: I like notebooks.  There are about twenty empty notebooks of various kinds stashed in a drawer in my house and another 30 or so around the office at work.  Notebooks are neat, and I like to know I'm not in danger of running out any time soon.  I'm clearly not alone: in searching for images for this post, I came across a blog devoted to notebooks - oh dear, another procrastination location for me!  

One essential supply item for the undergrad field trips is the issuing of the Field Notebook, a.k.a. Field Diary.  This emphasised to me that, like all scientists, our most basic toolkit consists of our ability to observe what is actually there in the world, and to record our immediate observations for later consideration.  I find myself frequently telling students that they need to have "something to write ON and something to write WITH" for classes, field trips, meetings etc. and the same is definitely true of the professional GEESologist, even if some are beginning to transfer these functions to a virtual electronic notebook.
A page from Lyell's 1840 field notes

a page from Darwin's field notebook
The notebook tradition is quite well established - the picture on the right is a page from Darwin's notebooks kept during the Voyage of the Beagle, and on the left a page from Lyell's 1840 notebook.  Clearly the tradition of quick sketches and crossings out has a decent history!  Darwin wrote:
'Let the collector's motto be, "Trust nothing to the memory;" for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.'
Technology, I'm pleased to say, HAS moved on a little - the mechanical pencil (removing the need for carrying a pencil sharpener in the field), the gel or cartridge pen  (ink without the bottle!) and best of all the waterproof notebook all make it easier to take notes under field conditions - but observation, and the recording of observation, is still and always will be at the heart of the GEES-ologist's toolkit.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How do you become a volcanologist?

Researcher profile: Dr Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist)

How do you get to be a volcanologist? That’s a question I get asked a LOT. And a question that I’m happy to talk to anybody about, because I think it’s the best job in the world. It’s a question that I never had anybody to ask it to, when I was thinking about what career I might want to have. Through my GCSEs I got more and more interested in physical geography and my rock collection at home was growing (on the journey back from a Girl Guides camping trip, the coach driver asked me “what have you got in here, rocks or something?!” as he loaded my bags. He was stunned when I replied “yes, actually”). For a GCSE project we did an information pamphlet for the people of Naples about the volcano Vesuvius. Could you do this as a job?!
Pantelleria caldera lake - studying volcanoes means travel to some beautiful places.
But when I met with the ‘careers guidance’ teacher at school, they didn’t know what you could do to study volcanoes and geology. “Perhaps you could be a geophysicist?!” Well that was a word I’d heard of, being an avid Time Team watcher, so I thought that it sounded like a good idea. I chose my A levels based on that careers advice and started collecting university prospectuses based on who offered geophysics, but found myself narrowing down my UCAS choices by who emphasised volcanology on their courses.

Working at HVO as a gas geochemist.

The promise that ‘some of our undergraduates have volunteered at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO)’ made me head off to Royal Holloway to do a BSc in Geology. By that point I’d had a Nuffield Science Bursary and been awarded a Gold Crest Award for a summer’s work experience at TGS-NOPEC, where I discovered that geophysics probably wasn’t for me. But I knew that studying Geology would be ace, and I wasn’t wrong. My degree instilled a love of fieldwork, a sense of travel and adventure and a never ending curiosity about rocks: where did they come from? how they were formed? I entered my 3rd year not really knowing what career I’d end up having, but knew I wanted it to be geology related. I applied constantly to the HVO until they finally offered me a placement. So, a week after graduation I flew to Hawaii where I worked as a gas geochemist for 6 months. This was not only an amazing experience (walking on lava flows, contributing to important science, hiking across volcanic terrain, snorkelling at the weekends) but also the moment when I realised that I could be a volcanologist as a career.
My path to volcanology wasn't always linear. For a while I worked as a PADI Divemaster.
On return from HVO I spent a year and a half working at the Hydroactive Dive Centre as a PADI Divemaster. I spent this time saving up and applying for Grad School so I could get a Master’s degree in Volcanology. I was awarded a teaching assistantship to study at the University of Buffalo in the USA. Here, my interest in hazardous volcanic flows developed, starting with my Master’s research on lahars.  Developing and driving my own research was something I’d really enjoyed so I then searched high and low for a great PhD project so I could continue doing volcanic research. I returned to the UK to do my PhD at the University of Leicester on pyroclastic density currents.

Logging volcanic deposits in the field
After my PhD I sailed as an igneous petrologist on an IODP expedition, and held a series of short-term teaching contracts at Leicester. This post-doc time of anyone’s life can be tough – when you’re never sure if that holy grail of an academic job can be found. I stuck it out, worked hard, juggled a part-time job as a teaching fellow and a part-time research job and gained some invaluable experience. Then, a year ago I made the move to Hull as a lecturer in geology, undertaking research in volcanology and now hold a permanent position. I made it. I’m a volcanologist. Now, I'm training up a new generation of budding geographers, geologists and hopefully, a volcanologist or two.