Welcome to another episode of The STEM Sessions Podcast. I am your host, Cody Colborn
And yes, I’m trying out a new radio name. Let me know what you think.
In summer 2023, enrolled in a California Naturalist program
- Designed and supported by the University of CA system, and taught by local environmental interest groups
- Intention is to develop more science educators to serve as docents and volunteers
- And to just increase the science aptitude of the general population
Motive for taking the class was first and foremost to learn about my state’s ecology
- Lived here for nearly three decades and have learned as I’ve went
- Thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from experts and their firsthand experience
- Secondary motive was to gain the California Naturalist certification for a project I’m working on
Unfortunately, Neither of those goals worked out
- I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know
- In some areas, I had more firsthand experience than the experts
- And because of all of that, the certification was cheapened in my eyes
That said, one lesson I took away was the importance of keeping a field journal
- I’ve always done this in varying formats and never consistently
- This class helped dial in the process for me to the point I’m writing entries at least weekly
Eventually, I’d like to convert collections of entries into episodes of this podcast as they are very much relevant to my theme of backyard science
- May also be an episode detailing how I format my journal
This episode is one such entry, but it isn’t about the plants and animals I observed or the weather
- It’s about why I quit the California Naturalist program
- It wasn’t the lack of learning that made me quit – I could have forced myself to finish if that was my only complaint
- Instead, what made me quit, and made me question the class’s merits, was a docent with very unprofessional science communication skills
- A docent the group teaching the class really talked up
- I felt if this is the kind of person they want certified, then this program isn’t for me
While I’ve remove details that could be used to identify the docent and group, the following is a near verbatim reading of the journal entry I wrote immediately upon returning from this docent’s tour
This is The STEM Sessions Podcast episode 24 – Political Shots and Shotty Science
Arrival time: ~9:00A
Departure time: ~11:30A
Weather: Sunny; upper-70s to mid-80s; inconsistent breeze
Elevation gain: redacted
This morning I attended a docent led tour, part of the California Naturalist program. This is tour #1 of a two tour pairing, after which we are to compare the presentation styles of the docents and the topics they covered. The point being to give examples of different ways of leading tours.
As such, this entry will focus on the docent, and less on the observations I made.
Our docent was name redacted. Per his introduction, he approaches his tours from the perspective of volunteer work, environmental topics, and leave no trace principles. All are topics I support, especially the latter.
Unfortunately, he also invoked cheap political heat to drive home his points. And that simply ruined the tour for me.
I am the first to admit my politics are atypical of someone interested in a naturalist program. I strongly support issues pushed by Democrats and I strongly support issues pushed by Republicans. Both parties annoy the fuck out of me, and I refuse to be assigned a party label. Thus, I feel disenchanted by the entire messed up system.
However, fanning the flames of polarization is not a value-added tool, in my opinion, especially when trying to teach. Taking shots at members of a “certain political party of science deniers” only serves to further alienate people. Plus, the docent should just have the balls to say what he means.
In two hours, our docent took five such shots. They served no purposed other than pandering to the echo chamber.
If the goal is to educate and nudge people to your way of thinking, why immediately put them on the defensive?
I lean right on some topics, left on others, and I feel the gross generalizations lobbed by both sides at the other are damaging to successful discourse.
Putting aside the cheap political comments, and the docents weird obsession of hating on Florida, I found a lot of his science to be questionable as well.
For example, stating that humans are the only animals who are greedy, short-sighted, and selfish is an absurd statement. Observations and logic show the opposite. Humans are perhaps the only animal capable of caring for the population beyond their family group.
Wolves take care of pack members, but still jockey for dominance. They also fight other packs to claim territory and resources.
Hell, my two rabbits, who are spoiled rotten and devotedly bonded to each other, still bicker with each other over their breakfast pellets every morning. They cannot understand their food is not a scarce resource.
The docent also told apocryphal tales of how and when black mustard arrived in California when he could have easily shared data and observations made in actual studies on the matter. Adobe bricks from Spanish missions have been analyzed. Bricks made during and after the late 1700s contained seeds and pollen from black mustard plants, while bricks made earlier in that century did not. This shows black mustard was likely introduced in the mid to late 1700s. Our docent’s tale of introduction involved settlers planting it along the trails as they headed west so their cattle had something to eat, which is simply illogical since very few settlers traveled all of the way to California in the 1700s. As a data point, the Lewis & Clark expedition took place from 1804-1806.
When our docent spoke of the famous Long Beach earthquake of the early 20th Century, he admitted he didn’t know the exact date, but placed it in the 1920s. When a visitor walked by our group and stated it was in 1933, rather than looking it up on his phone, our docent doubled down on his assertion of the 1920s. I looked it up. 1933. So I corrected him. He brushed it off as being not that important.
I also found his talk of Leave No Trace to be in conflict with his actions. While at a large sage plant, he encouraged us to break off a leaf or two and rub them in our hands to better smell the oils. I realize that sage is plentiful and in no danger of becoming rare. It often needs to trimmed back to keep it off trails. So a group of ten people each removing a sprig won’t harm the plant long term.
But what if the dozen or so people who observed us do the same on their next visit? And what if they share the process with others? What if they don’t limit themselves to sage, but pick a more sensitive or more rare plant? Or a toxic plant like poison oak?
There is absolutely personal judgement calls one makes when practicing Leave No Trace and engaging with nature. But the entire point of Leave No Trace is to prevent that type of compounding impact. Just because one has completed a California Naturalist program doesn’t negate the potential impact, as un-intended as it may be. This includes picking up wild animals for show and tell, which our docent admitted to doing frequently for groups of school kids.
I’m now debating whether or not to continue with the program. They already have my money, and it’s too late for refund, but I’m completely soured on it. The cheap political shots bothered me, and the shotty science bothered me even more. Should I tell the organization my thoughts on the experience? Or am I too heated in the moment to think clearly. I guess I need to chew on it.
OK, enough of the complaining.
The highlight of the tour was seeing a California kingsnake. I’ve only seen a kingsnake once or twice before, and certainly never as close as this one was. Based on size, it was a young one. It slithered across the trail, in no hurry, about two hundred feet from the bridge.
I also hosted a hitchhiker for a bit in the form of a figeater beetle. I allowed it to crawl on my pants until it tried to get under my shirt. How cheeky of it!
California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis Californiae)
Figeater Beetle (Cotinis Mutabilis)
Thank you for listening to this episode of The STEM Sessions Podcast; researched, written, and produced by Cody Colborn. Shownotes can be found at thestemsessions.com. Feedback and corrections are always welcome.
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Please remember, STEM belongs to everyone. We should not allow it to be siloed or gate-kept by experts, policy makers, or talking heads. Bias is found in every message, so always verify what you read and what you’re told.
Until the next episode, stay curious.