Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Matthaei, Children's Ed Is As Much an Education for Interns as for the Kids

By Matthaei-Nichols summer 2014 interns Genevra Galura and Diana Bach

 “Are all these plants real?” ”Do you live here?” “Look! An ostrich!” (Note: we don’t have ostriches at the Botanical Gardens but we did, on this occasion, see an osprey flying over Willow Pond.)

As children’s education interns, we hear a lot of cute, insightful, and just plain funny kid-isms from children that visit the Botanical Gardens. We’re constantly surprised by the acuity and knowledge of our young visitors, who soak up information and then love to share what they know, whether it’s that one time they saw a frog in their backyard or their detailed knowledge of the Venus fly trap.

Much of our time in children’s ed is spent leading guided tours for the many school groups, summer camps, scout troops, and families that come to visit the gardens’ conservatory and trails. Our groups range from preschoolers to college students, and everything in between. Aside from traditional tours, we also develop and run other programs with more specialized topics. This summer our programs have run the gamut from making recycled paper, teaching gardening skills, catching and studying insects, and cooking with herbs. We don’t come into the job as experts on all of these topics but learn a lot as we go. It’s a unique and challenging job, but we love the constant learning!

One of the most rewarding programs we’ve done this year was in conjunction with Scarlett Middle School and the University of Michigan MAC (Master of Arts with Certification) education program. We partnered with the school’s summer program to develop a lesson plan for 6th-8th graders studying ecosystems.
During two field trips to Matthaei, middle school students studied the aquatic ecosystems found here. 

Students learned about the water cycle, watersheds, and the ways humans affect these habitats. Most importantly, the kids conducted ecosystem assessments firsthand. Using Willow Pond, the constructed wetlands, and Fleming Creek at Matthaei, we collected water samples to test physical characteristics and complete a biodiversity count of the aquatic organisms found in each water body. It was high-level science, but the kids rose to the occasion and had fun while they were at it. The most rewarding part of this experience was exposing the students to hands-on science; some of them would never have thought they’d be catching crayfish, identifying dragonfly larvae, or sticking their nose in pond water to see how it smelled.

A constant challenge for us as educators is our ever-changing and diverse audience. Every day children come to us from different ages, places, backgrounds, and experiences. Some arrive already loving nature and full of excitement to be on the trails, while others have never experienced the woods and need some coaxing to realize the outdoors is not a scary place. While we do aim to teach these kids about insects or plant parts or whatever they might be here for, our goal reaches further than that. We hope to provide a positive experience in nature so that children grow up appreciating the outdoors and all the natural world has to offer us. This is core to the mission of Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum; as a living museum, we’re educating future generations to preserve and protect the beauty of the natural world.

Diana Bach, from Chelsea, MI, is a recent graduate and first-year master's student studying environmental engineering with interests also in sustainable food systems and environmental education.

Genevra Galura, from Saline, MI, is a junior studying cellular and molecular biology.

Diana Bach

Genevra Galura

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Record System in Translation

by Richard Bryant

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum works hard to keep meticulous records of all the plants in its possession. These records are compiled in a database which currently exists in Microsoft Access. I was recently tasked with finding a way to migrate our database from Access to a new piece of museum software called KE EMu, or KE Electronic Museum. This software would allow us to keep a more detailed catalog of our plants, forcing us to maintain records that are organized and up to date.

I knew immediately that this would be an incredibly daunting task. My first thought was, “Do I really have to copy every single one of our 17,000+ object records and paste them somewhere into KE EMu?” Thankfully, this was not the case; as it turns out U-M’s IT staff could program this kind of heavy lifting.

To migrate a database, there needs first to be a consensus of what information is worth tracking and what is not. A detailed design plan must then be drawn up. Thousands of records---some of which are incomplete or complex and can cause technical glitches---must then be copied and moved. Coming up with the design plan, then, was my job.

I opened KE EMu in an attempt to acquaint myself with its inner workings. I only became more confused. I couldn't figure out how to use the software, and it seemed clunky and disorganized. Matthaei-Nichols’ IT and curation departments were somewhat confused by the software as well. I wondered, if this software is so confusing to all of us, is migrating our database to it really a good idea?

I decided to give it a chance. I scheduled a meeting with Beverly Walters, Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Herbarium. They’d already made considerable progress migrating their database into KE EMu and knew that they were ahead of us here.

Meeting with Beverly and a U-M School of Information intern helped answer a lot of questions. They gave me a rough idea of how to use and customize the software, and they briefly walked me through the plan for their own database migration. After the meeting I realized that our own migration process would be simpler than I’d originally thought—I could follow the Herbarium’s plan as a model. I came up with a rough game plan and then scheduled another meeting, this time with John Torgersen, U-M Database Administrator Intermediate, who oversees the KE EMu project as a whole. After discussing our plan for migration with John he approved of my ideas, adding that the Arb and Gardens has a far less complicated database than the Herbarium’s. I then drew up a design plan for the migration and sent it to the university’s technology staff. Our migration is nowhere near complete, but my role in the project is over for the time being. Creating the design plan was my responsibility. Initiating the migration process is a task for U-M’s IT staff.

This project was very interesting to me personally. As an intern I was fortunate to be given the authority to act independently. Creating a preliminary design plan for this migration process was a massive task given to Matthaei-Nichols as a whole but I did it almost entirely by myself. The choice to meet with the Herbarium and U-M IT staff was my own and one I undertook to expand my understanding of the software and the migration process. I also had many engaging team discussions with our curator David Michener and information specialist Adam Ferris-Smith.

Many questions remain for future curation work on our databases. What information does Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum track now? What information do we want to track in the future? What are we missing in our current record system and how can we consolidate this information? All of these are valid questions for years to come when other staff or interns continue where we left off.

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, MI, is a master's candidate in statistics at the University of Michigan with Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and statistics.

Richard Bryant

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Love the Campus Farm

By Lello Guluma

Certain fragrances remind me of my childhood. I would wake up to my mother cooking special Ethiopian dishes in the kitchen of our home in East Lansing. The smell of spices and vegetables marinating under her watchful eye is a memory from my childhood. Years later, I can walk through the fields cultivated under the University of Michigan Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and smell my mother’s kitchen—oregano, thyme, Swiss chard, collards, onions, and garlic to name a few. Sometimes early in the morning at the farm, the noise of the trees rustling, the birds chirping, and the smell of the early dew remind me of the clear mountainside along my grandfather’s compound in Ethiopia.

One year and one month ago, I returned from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is my heritage, my culture, and Oromia—the land that the largest ethnic group (the Oromo) within Ethiopia occupies—is my ancestral home. This trip was my first time visiting Ethiopia and meeting a large number of my direct relatives. Ethiopia was an amazing experience, and I often long to go back. Nevertheless, it was my time in Ethiopia and what I learned about myself and about the country that inspired me to work at the Campus Farm this summer.

The first thing that Ethiopia taught me was about my heritage. In my life I’ve often heard stories about my heritage but to experience it first-hand was incredible. My father often told detailed stories of the village where he grew up. His grandfather owns a portion of land that he cultivates high up in the mountains of Ethiopia. I was able to travel to his village, even in the home where my father grew up many years ago. My grandfather and aunt were quick to point out a large mango tree. My mother translated and told me that over 40 years ago my father planted that tree. At that moment I looked toward my cousin, and his hands were full of ripe mangos. Ethiopia solidified my view on my identity; I say with pride now that I am an Oromo.

My passion lies in Ethiopia. Like many third-world countries, Ethiopia struggles with pollution, poverty, food insecurity, etc. After completing my first year at the university, I knew I wanted to incorporate my passion into my academics. This led me to the Campus Farm. Upon completion of Alternative Spring Break focused around environmental justice in the winter semester I meticulously searched for some summer position that would allow me to continue a similar path. I came across the Matthaei Summer Internship program, and subsequently the Campus Farm position. I could say the rest is history, but I know this is just the beginning. The Campus Farm is helping me further my interest in sustainability, organic/urban farming, and so much more. When I learn about another method of organic growing or natural pest control, I think of how my relatives abroad could benefit.

I am thankful for the opportunity to work at the Campus Farm and have learned more than I could have imagined. I am also grateful for the sights and sounds of working at the Campus Farm, and how they allow me to reminisce about my home.

Lello Guluma from East Lansing, MI, is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts majoring in Environmental Science.

Pictured, from top: Home of the author's grandfather in Ethiopia; a view of the land the author's grandfather cultivates; a mountainside outside of Ne’Kemte, Ethiopia; up close view of part of the land farmed by the author's grandfather.

Below: Lello Guluma

Friday, July 11, 2014

A View from the Front Desk

There's never a dull moment for visitor services summer interns working the front desk at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

By Grace Fricano

Working as a summer intern in visitor services and at the Botanical Gardens front desk in particular can be pretty eventful. This is my third year working for the Gardens but my first summer as an intern. Summers are really different from the academic year, when I've been employed as a work study. A typical day as a work study meant checking in, pricing, and displaying merchandise, helping with inventory, and decorating holiday trees in the conservatory for the annual winter exhibit. In the summer it’s much busier than I’m used to, with more going on around the gardens. From weddings to snake bites, we see a lot of different situations that we have to deal with at the front desk.

One of our many tasks is fielding questions that visitors may have. We get a lot of random and strange inquiries about plants, event happenings, and the merchandise we sell. This summer, the most popular question at the front desk is “Has that one plant bloomed yet?” While the American agave/century plant is taking its sweet time to bloom, many people are very eager and want to see it right away even though its bloom will last several weeks. We post regular updates about the agave on our website, Facebook page, and blog, and many local and national papers have covered the story of the agave getting ready to bloom. Even so, people want to know about the agave from someone on the scene and so we still get calls for daily updates. It’s fun to hear all the different pronunciations of “agave.” The most popular is “ah-GAYVE,” but we also hear “ah-GUAH-veh” quite often as well. The phone rings regularly with questions concerning the agave. It’s great to see all of the interest in the plant. 

Another recent happening that created quite a buzz at the Gardens was the snake bite. I worked that day with a Matthaei-Nichols staff person who handled the situation and quickly made the call for assistance. It’s a rare occurrence for something like this to happen, but we always have to stay calm, be prepared, and know what to do when it does occur. My co-worker did a great job responding to the situation!

The busiest days by far at the front desk are Saturdays. On summer weekends we usually host two weddings or more. There’s also very high visitor traffic and other various events like birthday parties/meetings/workshops. It’s not uncommon that the parking lot fills up completely at times. Days like that can be crazy! Between the three visitor services interns (Megan, Sydney, and me) we help host weddings, restock the gift shop, and deal with visitors. There can be large crowds that congregate in the lobby. Dealing with multiple people at one time has taught me to be very patient and to be a great multitasker.

I think one of my favorite aspects of working the front desk is all of the people that I get to meet. From employees and interns to visitors, I have interesting conversations with all types of people and learn something new every day. Even though I don't work directly in the garden most of the time, I’ve learned a lot about botany and other fascinating facts.

We can always handle the crowds and excitement but it makes for some challenging and exciting days. Being able to kick off my shoes at the end of the day feels amazing, but only to return on Sunday, our second busiest day of the week. The summer has been fun, busy, and flying by!

Grace Fricano

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Providing Kale to the Victors: GAP Certification and the Campus Farm

By Jake Kornfeld

In its second year as a bona-fide operation at the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the Campus Farm is back and better than ever. With a year of hard work developing the space up on the hill off the Matthaei service entrance, we’ve been able to move on to working out some of the details of the farm—legitimizing the operation in a sense. Now that we have the basics of growing down, we’ve been using our time to organize the farm and increase our efficiency. Thankfully, we have the noble goal of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to spur us on through this daunting task.

Volunteer work day at the Campus Farm
GAP is a USDA certification that assures restaurants or institutions such as the University of Michigan that a farmer or organization—in this case the U-M Campus Farm—uses safe and reliable practices. If we obtain the certification we will be able to sell our produce to the University’s dining services, allowing us to serve our local, sustainable produce directly to thousands of students and staff in the University of Michigan community. However, the certification itself requires jumping through a notoriously expansive set of hoops. Eventually the certification process will culminate with an extensive audit where a representative grades our operation against a 555-point checklist.

In order to pass this audit, we’ve had to tighten up the ship a bit. We’ve created record keeping systems for everything imaginable: planting, harvesting, injuries, maintenance, soil and water tests, etc. We have also compiled a collection of maps of the farm, written policies defining farm procedures, and created a traceability program for our produce.

Volunteers planting kale at the Campus Farm
Aside from the record keeping, the GAP certification has prompted us to make some larger changes to the Farm. Mostly notably, we have written a Campus Farm mission statement, which can be found at the University of Michigan Sustainable Food website. It outlines the three main goals of the farm: education, community, and production of sustainable food. We are also in the process of building a wash station to make sure our produce is clean and ready for the table. With all of these things in place, we’re confident we can pass the audit and begin spreading the work of the Campus Farm to the dining halls.

Early spring lettuce mix

Golden beets

Pink Beauty radishes

While it has been a big task, the GAP certification is just one part of what we’ve been up to this summer. We’re also preparing to expand our one-quarter-acre cultivation area to include some of the old peony beds and former storage space of the Great Lakes Gardens. At the moment we’re producing over 40 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and we’re working towards obtaining a hoop house so we can grow food year round. Until that food makes it into the dining halls, you can find it in the Botanical Gardens Store, in various student housing co-ops, at food gatherers, and going home with our dedicated volunteers. We’re also hoping to be featured by some local restaurants and businesses soon, such as Menna’s Joint, Argus Farm Stop, and the Brinery! If you’re interested in visiting the farm swing by any time or keep an eye out for information about our big Harvest Festival in early October.

Jake Kornfeld, from Norwich, Vermont, is a University of Michigan junior studying public policy. He is working this summer with Matthaei-Nichols education program manager Catriona Mortell-Windecker.

Jake Kornfeld

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fairy Village Debuts in Gaffield Children’s Garden

By Jackie Latham and Alex Peters

A little town of wonder has appeared in the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Hidden in the Sense-Sational Garden in what used to be a raised bed of empty dirt is a newly constructed fairy village put in just last week by the horticulture team of Judy Dluzen and her two summer interns Jackie Latham and Alex Peters.

A view of the center of the
village with tree stump house,
secret door, twig ladder,
and clothesline.
The fairy village makes ingenious use of commonplace items, recycled materials, and found objects to create a miniature magical living space for our resident fairy population. Jackie’s background in crafting miniature houses as a child proved to be helpful for creating innovative pieces such as a little clothesline complete with a small sweater and shorts. Other items include a bridge made of a broken pot, fences out of twigs, houses out of gourds, and paths made of pebbles and rocks. Take a closer look and you may even see a fairy doghouse, little campfire site, and a secret door.

An overview of the Fairy Garden. Remember: no humans allowed!

One of the many gourd houses,
complete with a dog house (beware!)
and various plants.

Horticulturist Judy Dluzen was responsible for the overall design and layout of the village. Alex placed forest groves complete with succulent trees and sumac fruits as well as a fairy-sized vegetable garden with picket fence. Horticulture interns Sarah Bertman and Joe Mazur helped with planting and creating the miniature items. Creeping thyme was planted along the outer edge of the raised bed to deter wandering hands and create a nice enclosing border. A surrounding fence made of bent saplings is currently under construction. The village will doubtlessly undergo a few changes in the weeks to come, but its flexibility makes it an exciting ongoing project.

The Gaffield Children’s Garden provides spaces for exploration and education aimed at young children. We hope the new fairy garden inspires children to look closely in their own backyards for hidden spaces and items as well as provoke a sense of imagination and wonder. Kids can practice plant identification looking for similar plants at home and maybe building a fairy garden of their own. Head on over to the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to see the newly added fairy village.

Jackie Latham is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Program in the Environment. She is currently pursuing a future in environmental education, and will continue her work experience in the Redwood Forests in the Bay Area of California in the fall. Jackie is from Brighton, Michigan.

Alex Peters, from Gurnee, IL, is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan in Plant Biology. She is attending the School of Natural Resources in the fall as a first year masters student in landscape architecture and conservation ecology. Both Jackie and Alex work under Horticulturist Judy Dluzen.

Jackie Latham

Alex Peters

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Hires Energize Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

By Joseph Mooney

Even with big shoes to fill at the University’s Gardens and Arboretum, Mike Kost and Yousef Rabhi are hitting the ground running. Kost and Rabhi were recently hired to manage Matthaei-Nichols’ native plant and volunteer programs. With their respective backgrounds in natural areas work and with city, county, and state agencies, they’re creating a lot of excitement at the Arb and Gardens.

Kost replaces staffer Connie Crancer, who retired in May. Most recently, he served as the lead ecologist and a senior conservation scientist with Michigan Natural Features Inventory at Michigan State University Extension. There, he oversaw and conducted research to provide land managers with information on managing native ecosystems and rare species. Kost is also the coauthor or author of more than 75 publications, including three books on the natural communities of Michigan.

Earlier in his career, Kost worked for The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois where he managed the adult natural history education program, taught courses in field ecology and monitoring, and oversaw stewardship of the Arboretum’s natural areas. He has also worked for the University of Wisconsin-Extension and at the Koenen Land Preserve in Milwaukee.

Native Plants Key to Matthaei-Nichols
With its new Great Lakes Gardens, Matthaei Botanical Gardens benefits from a native plants expert who can continue to build on and expand the organization’s efforts to steward the region’s natural heritage. Arb and Gardens director and University of Michigan landscape architecture professor Bob Grese was impressed with Kost’s record of research into and documentation of Michigan's natural ecosystems and his deep understanding of Michigan’s flora.

Helping the broader public understand the importance of stewardship is critical for the future of our natural heritage. Kost understands the role that institutions like Matthaei-Nichols can play in education and conservation efforts, Grese says, “and in helping people learn about our native flora and ecosystems through our various garden spaces.”

Kost will also contribute to natural areas management, including monitoring and protection of special habitats on the Matthaei-Nichols properties. “He’ll also be actively involved in serving as a resource for teaching and research and in helping us explore grant opportunities to support some of our stewardship programs,” Grese adds.

Building and strengthening university connections is a major institutional priority for the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, says Grese, and “Mike certainly brings expertise that will be valuable to University classes and researchers in understanding the ecosystems on our properties, in assessing and monitoring vegetation, and in understanding how our resources connect and compare with other sites around the state.”

Ask Mike Kost why native plants and systems are important and his answer is simple. “Everything is interconnected,” he says, and with a little practice, “one can begin to recognize the remaining native patches of this place we call Michigan. By restoring and stewarding native ecosystems, we are helping to ensure their survival for future generations. I also hope we can inspire visitors to take an active role in caring for their local natural areas and supporting conservation efforts to protect and steward our precious natural heritage.”

Volunteer Program Integral to Arb and Gardens Ecosystem
Just as native plants play a key role in nature, volunteers contribute greatly to an organization’s operational ecosystem. That’s especially true for Matthaei-Nichols, where more than 1,400 volunteers logged nearly 19,000 hours in the last fiscal year alone. As the Washtenaw County Commissioner and former City of Ann Arbor Natural Areas Preservation Workday Coordinator, new volunteer manager Yousef Rabhi is no stranger to shepherding hundreds of volunteers through dozens of workdays. Rabhi replaces former volunteer manager Tara Griffith, who left in May.

Inspired by his years in pre-school volunteering for the Adopt-a-Stream program, Rabhi went on to be an early volunteer for the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project in Ann Arbor. While studying at the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment, he spent all five of his summer terms working at the Arb and Gardens as an intern. After graduating, Rabhi went to work with the City of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation as the Workday Coordinator. He currently serves as the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and has served as a Washtenaw County Commissioner since 2011.

Five years as a summer intern at the Arb and Gardens made Rabhi a compelling candidate, director Grese observes. “Yousef is a people person with very good skills at making others feel valued and plugging them into meaningful activities—something critical in managing volunteers, he says. “As a summer intern working for us, he ably managed teams of workers.  Since graduation, he has shown similar leadership in working with teams of people in the city administration.”

Rabhi is also very interested in broadening the Arb and Gardens outreach to students on campus, Grese notes, “so I expect to see a strengthening of those ties.  And I see him continuing to build on the foundation that former volunteer manager Tara Griffith laid in recruiting a diverse pool of volunteers and running a well-managed program.”

Having devoted his life to helping people and working with the public to build a better community and better environment, Rabhi looks forward to meeting each volunteer personally. Among his many goals, he adds, “I hope to empower staff and volunteers to help build the capacity of the volunteer program. With so many great organizations in this community, there are also many opportunities for collaboration that should be explored.”

Mike Kost

Yousef Rabhi