Posts Tagged ‘field research’

Welcome to Eureka sign on U.S. 6

Welcome to Eureka sign on U.S. 6

It’s time to take a break from recounting my tour through Colorado’s mining towns last summer and catch you up on what we’ve been doing this year at Walden School of Liberal Arts.

Maples in the fall near Eureka, Utah - with junipers and rabbit brush.

Maples in the fall near Eureka, Utah – with junipers and rabbit brush.

As mentioned earlier, we received a grant from the American Chemical Society to study lead contamination in the soils in Eureka, Utah and the surrounding area. The grant provided funds for travel, equipment, chemicals, and supplies. It took until early October to receive the money, so our first trip down had to wait until mid-October. It meant we wouldn’t have much daylight, but we’d have to do our best.

Canyon of Fire: Maples in the East Tintic Mountains

Canyon of Fire: Maples in the East Tintic Mountains

I’ve been gradually documenting the history of the area, collecting historical photos, taking photos around the town myself, etc. Back in 2009, I took a group of students with me to interview June McNulty, President of the Tintic Historical Society. He showed us through the museum and we videotaped the tour. Now, with this grant, we can tell the story of recent events in Eureka, especially the history of the EPA superfund project over the last ten years that cleaned up or covered up contaminated soils in the town.

TIntic HIgh School from the Godiva Mine site

TIntic HIgh School from the Godiva Mine site

My science research class researched the history of the area during first term while we were waiting for the grant funds. They identified 20 collection sites outside town using GoogleEarth. Some of these are old mine waste dumps, some are around smelter or concentration plants or leeching piles. Others are control sites outside the district. We were going to collaborate with students at Tintic High School, who were to collect from sites in town. Unfortunately, our collaboration fell through, so my students eventually collected from sites inside the town as well.

Valley of maple trees from a mine dump in the East Tintic Mountains

Valley of maple trees from a mine dump in the East Tintic Mountains

In preparation for our sample collection trips, I traveled down to the area to get some photos of fall foliage on Saturday, Sept. 22. I got there just at the right time, when the maples in the canyons were at their brightest. I photographed some areas along Highway 6 leading into town and filmed the maples in the canyons along the road leading over the top to Dividend. I then took videos around town by attaching a Flip camera to my left rearview mirror with a small claw-style tripod. I drove up to the Godiva mine site and took photos down toward the high school, then drove further up the canyon past the Knightsville site and hiked around some mine dumps further up. I had seen that there was a valley nestled inside the East Tintic Mountains from GoogleEarth and my 3D models of the area. There was a road leading along the edge of the hills, and I walked around as far as the site of the Iron Blossom #2 mine. The headframe there has recently collapsed. It was a nice trip and the photos turned out well. I also saw and photographed several deer.

Doe a Deer: A mule deer  doe in the East Tintic Mountains

Doe a Deer: A mule deer doe in the East Tintic Mountains

Ruins of the Irom Blossom #2 Headframe

Ruins of the Irom Blossom #2 Headframe

I took four students to the area on Oct. 19 and we collected samples and explored the area, including the road over Silver Pass. We first collected from some old evaporation ponds near Elberta where hot water pumped out from the Burgin mines was allowed to cool and settle before discharging it into Utah Lake. During the early 1980s, as I drove home from college to my hometown of Deseret, I would pass through this area and see the water steaming as it passed down the gulley to the ponds. This was the last time they had attempted to open the mines at Burgin. We sampled from two locations inside the old ponds, which can be reached by a short walk from Highway 6.

Collecting samples at the settling ponds near Elberta

Collecting samples at the settling ponds near Elberta

We then collected from the bottom of the wash at the mouth of the canyon leading up to Burgin. The soil here looked healthy and contained a combination of sand and humus. We then stopped at the old Burgin concentrator and took some pictures. I talked with the men at the main office of the Chief Consolidated Mine operations there about getting some samples from the tailings piles (they corrected me when I mentioned “tailings piles” around the headframes themselves and said those rocks were more properly called mine dumps or waste rock; tailings are the actual ore that has been processed).

Silver ore concentration plant at the Burgin mine

Silver ore concentration plant at the Burgin mine

We took photos around the Trixie headframe, then drove on up the canyon over the top of Silver Pass, which I had not done before. This was the opening of the deer hunt, so I didn’t want to venture too far from the road without orange clothing.

Headframe at the Trixie Mine above Burgin.

Headframe at the Trixie Mine above Burgin.

We also collected at a mine dump next to the road in Ruby Hollow, which I later identified as the Tesora Mine. The soil there had a bright yellow color and contained obvious sulfides. Part of the shaft is still there without much protection around it.

Collecting samples at the Tesora Mine dump in Ruby Gulch

Collecting samples at the Tesora Mine dump in Ruby Gulch

I also showed the students Silver City, the leeching pile from the 1980s when much of the waste rock and tailings were heaped up and cyanide solution was sprayed onto it, chelating the silver and gold out of the rocks. We stopped at the Bullion Beck headframe for photos and walked around the Tintic Mining Museum. It was late afternoon by then and time to get the students back.

Waste rock pile at the Swansea Consolidated Mine near Silver City

Waste rock pile at the Swansea Consolidated Mine near Silver City

Altogether we collected six samples from three sites and the students had a chance to get to know the area. I knew that we would have to be more productive on our next trips. Back at school, we did some simple pH tests and found the first two sites (Elberta Ponds and Burgin Wash) were near neutral pH, but the Tesora Mine samples were quite acidic, at a pH of about 3.5. Other tests would have to wait until we ordered the testing supplies.

Historic churches in Eureka, Utah.

Historic churches in Eureka, Utah.

Belt-driven drill press at the Tintic Mining Museum

Belt-driven drill press at the Tintic Mining Museum

Downtown Eureka, Utah: 2012Belt-driven drill press at the Tintic Mining Museum

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Soda springs palms

Palms planted at Soda Springs on Zzyzx Road

In this blog, I have been reporting on activities we did during the Mojave field study that have to do with chemistry and the elements, but since the purpose of the field study was to look at Earth analogs for possible Martian organisms, much of what we did is and will be recorded on my other blog site (www.spacedoutclass.wordpress.com). I will do much more with that site in late July as I prepare to teach astronomy this fall. At that point, the “wordpress” portion of the URL will be eliminated and the site will go “live” so to speak. I have many topics that need to be written about, including more on the Mojave experience.

Preparing the weather balloon

Chris McKay (in denim jacket) and CSU students preparing the weather balloon for launch.

But meanwhile, our last day in the Mojave was Friday, March 23. We prepared and launched a weather balloon, then each group presented their interim reports on the results of the study. I helped Mary Beth talk about the geology and soil chemistry analyses, and I also presented the 3D model of the test soil sample I worked on with Geoff Chu and his group (more on this in the other blog). I plan on having students at Walden School take the grayscale images and the actual altitude data and create 3D models and textures for each crust site which can be manipulated online.

I also took the opportunity to interview Dr. Rakesh Mogul, who was with CSU and is the organizer of this event, but is now moving to the NASA Office of Planetary Protection. He talked about the protocols that NASA uses to determine now clean a space probe needs to be so as not to contaminate a planet with our microorganisms and so as not to mess up our science results when looking for life.

Weather balloon

Weather balloon after launch.

Once I had packed up my video equipment and other gear, I drove back to Utah, stopping in Las Vegas to drive through on the Strip. It has been about 15 years since I’ve actually done this, and it’s changed quite a bit – gotten larger, more crowded, and not very enticing for me, since I don’t gamble (I’ve taken too many operant conditioning classes in college to ever do that). It was a long drive back, but the trip was very much worth it. All told, I took about 15 hours of video, which will now take some time to capture and edit. I hope to do at least some of it (the interviews) this summer.

I wasn’t home for long (about four days) before I flew out to Indianapolis for the annual National Science Teachers Association conference. Much of what I did there was related to space science and astronomy (including attending a luncheon where an astronaut spoke; the awards ceremony for this year’s Mars Education Challenge, where I was asked to be the official photographer while Bill Nye introduced the winners and handed out the awards; and my own presentation on the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program). However, I did attend a number of excellent sessions that were related to chemistry and the elements.

Above the clouds

Above the clouds on the way to Indianapolis

On Thursday, March 29 I had to take the local buses from my motel out by the airport to downtown, and I was slightly late for the bus and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one, so I was a bit late getting into the conference. I went to the first session I could find in the booklet that was near where I was standing in the convention center and that sounded interested. It was a presentation on an activity that introduces the periodic table to students. The room was packed and I had to sit on the floor while the presenter talked. Something about him looked familiar, and suddenly I realized that the presenter was John Clark, a fellow SOFIA AAA. I had seen his photo on the discussion board.

John Clark and the SOFIA team

John Clark and the SOFIA team from NASA Ames and the SETI Institute

His activity is done early on in a chemistry class, and involves handing 3 x 5 index cards to each student. They decorate their card, choose a name for their personal element and a symbol, then decide on properties of their element that describe their own personalities from a list, such as “science nerd” or “techy” or “drama king.” Other properties could be chosen from a list, such as number of electrons, etc. The students group themselves into “element” families according to the properties they selected, such as the colors they choose. From this they create a type of periodic table of their class, which the class as a whole has to discuss and justify. Not only does this get the students thinking about elements, properties, symbols, and other aspects of the periodic table, but it helps the teacher get to know the students better.

cloud chamber

Cloud Chamber

I also attended a session by April Lanotte on how to build your own cloud chamber, which worked quite well. I’d tried to do this with a kit in the past, but could never get it to work. The secret is to not allow any air in or out as the internal air must be saturated with alcohol fumes and cooled with dry ice before stray cosmic rays can be seen or radiation from an alpha or beta source as vapor trails in the alcohol gas. She had built hers out of an aquarium that was carefully sealed. She also showed us amore sophisticated digital cosmic ray counter. She is an Einstein Fellow this year, and I also attended a number of sessions on that program and on the Presidential Award program.

Another session I attended was by L. Diener (I didn’t catch her first name) on the science of chocolate. Since my students and I just finished videotaping a tour of Amano Artisan Chocolates in our town (more on this later), I was interested in attending and she presented a simple activity about solubility and chocolate. Take a piece of chewing gum, such as candy coated Chiclets, and chew it for a few minutes until the flavor begins to decrease. At this point your saliva has dissolved all the sugars and flavors that are water soluble. Then take a Hersey’s kiss and chew it with the gum. Suddenly the remainder of the gum dissolves in your mouth, because the chocolate’s cocoa butter will dissolve the remaining fat soluble portions of the gum. But as soon as the chocolate has melted and dissolved in your mouth, the gum will start to re-solidify, although there will be less of it. It can be a big gross to feel this happening in your mouth, but it is a great way to talk about food science and how various substances do or don’t dissolve in each other.

David Black by the NSTA sign

David Black by the NSTA sign, Indianapolis Convention Center.

It was a busy conference. I walked through the dealers’ room and priced sensors and probeware for both the Vernier and Pasco systems, hoping that I’ll get some grant money to be able to use sensors with an iPad. I ran into old friends, such as Martin Horejsi (we were on the same flight going to Indianapolis, as he has to fly to Salt Lake from Missoula to pick up most connections) and Eric Brunsell. They were the only people from the Solar System Educators Program that I saw. But I did get to know some of my new associates, the SOFIA AAAs.

Downtown Indianapolis

Downtown Indianapolis


I did get a chance to do something quite unusual. I was selected (how I don’t know) to sit in on a panel discussion on NSTA’s The Science Teacher journal and on the NSTA website. We were given a nice luncheon, then were asked a series of questions by Tyson Brown, whom I had known before back when I was doing the NASA Explorer Schools program. It was a fascinating discussion, and I put in a plug or two for Martin and Eric’s column (Science 2.0). There were several people in the back of the room writing notes, and one looked familiar. Once we opened up the journal and started going through it, I realized who he was – Steve Metz, the editor. I have decided that I really must submit an article as soon as possible. But my schedule has become so crazy that I’m not sure when that will be or which of several possible topics to write on. For our participation in the panel, we also received a $50 certificate to use in the NSTA bookstore.

Dealer room at NSTA conference

Dealer room at the NSTA conference. Eric Brunsell is in the black shirt at the left of the photo.

Much of what I did and learned will be written (eventually) on the other blog site, as it is more related to astronomy than chemistry. There is, however, one other presentation I went to that I want to discuss here, and that was a lecture on ingenuity and creativity given by author David Macaulay. He is writing a book on how ingenuity has brought about marvelous ideas and inventions through the ages, and he basically walked us through his own creative process in developing the book. When I first started teaching in California, I taught world history for several years and used films based on his books Cathedral and Pyramid in my classes. They were very well done, and he has since created such books as The Way Things Work.

Between this lecture and the panel discussion luncheon, I did a lot of thinking while waiting for the bus on Sunday morning (only to find it doesn’t run on Sundays, so the motel’s shuttle van driver took me downtown instead). But while waiting, I thought of several ideas for books and series of books I could write for NSTA Press, such as how to use authentic science data in the classroom. I’m doing more of this all the time, and many of the sessions I chose to attend were based on real data analysis. I realize that in some ways what I am doing is unique, since I blend science and computer graphics/3D animation technologies. Yet the one session I attended Sunday morning was all about this – the art of science, and Randy Landsberg of the U. of Chicago showed examples of collaborations between artists, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, and the Adler Planeterium, including an incredible animation taking the viewer to the edge of the universe and another showing cosmic ray showers from the Pierre Auger data. I scribbled notes as fast as I could, and I still need to check up on all the possibilities. It was invigorating to see that others are pushing the edge and blurring distinctions between art and science, which is one of my goals as well.

It was an incredible conference. I was very involved, learned much, brought back many ideas, and made good connections.

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Chlorophyll analysis

Dr. Rakesh Mogul and students conducting chlorophyll analysis of soil crust samples using IR absorption

On our fourth day at the CSU Desert Studies Center on Zzyzx Road, we continued our analyses of the biological soil crusts and began to put together the results of our studies. The CSU students extracted chlorophyll from the crusts and the soils underneath, then measured amounts by looking at infrared absorption lines at several wavelengths that are characteristic for chlorophyll.

GPS data for soil samples

Mapping the GPS coordinates for our samples


I helped Mary Beth start mapping out the trends we saw in the various chemical analyses of the soils at the three main sites. She did most of the work, looking up geological maps of the area around Baker and the various types of rock outcroppings and unconsolidated valley fill deposits, then located all our sample sites from the GPS coordinates we’d recorded on Monday and created gradient arrows across the maps showing how the various elements and compounds trended between locations.

geologic map of area

Charting soil chemistry changes onto a geological map along Kelbaker Road

Most of the trends were to be expected, but a few were surprising. For example, there was more aluminum and calcium in the soil at the low density site than at the other two. We joked that all the pop cans left as trash scattered around the low density site (which was near Baker) might have been the source, but of course that would be impossible – it would take a huge number of cans, completely oxidized away, to leave any kind of aluminum residue. So we looked at the maps for possible sources. This site was in more of a playa lake bottom and probably has more clay in the soil (which we can confirm with the soil mechanics group), and clay is an aluminum silicate. The calcium could come from nearby limestone deposits.

Desert Studies Center

CSU Desert Studies Center on Zzyzx Road in the Mojave National Preserve. Baker, CA is in the distance.

Overall, our project is a good example of how field research is carried out –you start with a question and a site to test it at, consider the possible ways to isolate the data you need from all the other variables in the environment (such as pop cans), come up with experimental procedures and protocols, then travel to the site, collect the data, conducting both field and laboratory analyses, then analyze the results and try to make sense of it all. It isn’t quite the formal scientific method we teach in middle school science classes. Often the statistics aren’t as strong as you would like because you’re using ANOVA (analysis of variance) or MANOVA (multiple analysis of variance) techniques. Since many different conditions are being tested, and you have to see how they all stack up and compare, often there are only a few data points per data set.

Soda Lake playa

Soda Lake playa in the Mojave Desert

It’s not as neat and predictable and controllable as a lab experiment, but it’s a lot more fun. For us, our biggest problem was trying to draw conclusions from the tests we ran, which were more qualitative and less reliable than we would like. The one test kit was designed for gardeners to use, and had test strips that only showed low, medium, and high results without any kind of ratio data. We also had some more individual tests for specific elements and compounds (such as chlorides or sulfates) that were a bit more numeric (at least they had scales) but not much more reliable. Often when we tried to do a sample a second time, the results weren’t very consistent. So we’d have to run the test a third time, or try to filter the soil better, etc. For our final results, we can’t rely on these inaccurate field tests. We’ll have to send the samples in for detailed lab analysis to find out the precise percentages of different elements. It will be interesting to see if our field results match up.

Borax stripes

Stripes in salt falt where borax and soda have been scraped up.

I also took the opportunity to climb a low hill behind the lab with my camera equipment to get a good look at the surrounding desert. From up there, I could see back to Baker and I-15 in one direction and toward the Kelso Dunes and deeper into the Mojave National Preserve in the other direction. This research station was originally a way station on the overland stage route, then eventually became a center for borax mining. On the other side of the hill, parallel trenches can still be seen where the borax powder was scraped up and piled, to be shipped out by the famous 20-mule teams. This is the low point in this valley and a salt flat/playa lake surrounds the Soda Springs area. It probably looks pretty barren and inhospitable to most people, but this is the kind of scenery I’m used to growing up in the Pahvant Valley of western Utah, with Sevier Lake and frequent evaporated alkali deposits to the west of my father’s farm. The weather has gradually warmed up from the freezing wind that greeted me on Sunday night.

borax minerals

Borax minerals and a model of the 20-mule teams that hauled the borax.

The commons room has some displays showing borax crystals and brief descriptions of how the mining was done, as well as the natural history of the station with local flora and fauna. The boron compounds (usually borates such as sodium and calcium borate) are generally known as borax, and have many uses. Borosilicate glass is highly heat resistant and is used in chemical lab ware, where we know it as Pyrex. It is also being used to contain and store radioactive wastes; since glass is highly stable chemically, the spent nuclear fuel rods are mixed with the glass in the form of marble-sized spheres or as sheathed glass columns. Borax also helps to extend laundry detergent, and provides the green color for fireworks.

History of borax mining part 1

The history of borax mining, part 1

I use borax to create the cross-linked polymerization when I make “gak” in my chemistry classroom. Here’s the recipe: take two paper cups. In one, fill it about ¼ full of warm water and ¼ full of white glue, plus a little food coloring. In the second cup, fill it about 1/3 full of warm water and about 10-15 grams of borax powder. Stir it up well, then mix the two cups together and keep on stirring. At first it will be a sticky mess, but in a minute or so the cross-linking between the glue strands will begin and water molecules get trapped in the borate links, making the whole thing into a fun, gloopy concoction that can be kneaded and molded.

I am including here two photos of the poster that describes borax mining, which you can read to find out more of the history. I’ll create a dedicated post later on going into more detail after I do some more research.

Timeline for Soda Springs Station

Timeline for Soda Springs and Zzyzx station

History of borax mining part 2
History of borax mining, Part 2

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