Friday, June 20, 2014

What the Banjo has Taught me about Learning Curves

Learning Curves

My friend Sam once told me in a conversation about the subject of philosophy, "There's a steep learning curve."  Understatement of the century.

But the aphorism has surfaced again in my flailing attempts to produce music with the banjo.

Generally speaking, a "learning curve" is a progression of difficulty in learning a skill or subject over a course of time.  A steep learning curve means that you have to learn a lot, pretty quickly, in order to learn the skill.  It can be represented with a graph.

Region A represents the slope in the first period of learning.  Region A may take a few minutes, or maybe several months.  It may be steep, as indicated, meaning that the learning rate is initially grueling.  I interpret this phase as being when the learner is at the highest risk of quitting.  In the case of banjo, a suite of skills need to be picked up.  Obviously chords, a few things about scales, and- most importantly- right-hand technique need to develop as integral foundations to the amateur player.  A learner may respond to region A with "Wow, this is challenging, but I'm learning noticeably day to day," or with "This is hard; screw it."

I have spent a lot of time trying to make music, and I find that something critical to learning is that the learner is able to reflect on his progress as substantial and noticeable over a reasonable period.  When I started to learn claw-hammer technique, it took me at least 10 days before I found that I had made any progress; honestly, this is a long time to spend waiting for something to click.  And in this case it took those 10 days just to realize that I could do it.  It took about another 10 before I could admit that I was doing it.  And another 10 to put it into practical, interesting use.  And another 10 before I could do it in a way that felt fluent.  Then, scarcely had I journeyed those 40 days before I realized that I was getting bored with my limited ability and began to break out into a technique called "drop-thumb," which I discuss below.

Region B represents the last 10 days of my intensive hammer-claw learning.  By this time I felt that I understood what I was doing, though there was room for improvement.  I was learning a lot of simple little tunes for hammer-claw but felt restricted in my ability to diversify them (they all sounded too similar to me).  Drop-thumb is a technique in which the thumb is liberated from the fifth string and bounces around from the fifth to other strings.  This may not sound sexy to you, but to a new hammer-claw player, this sounds almost heretical.  I gave it a shot- badly- for a few hours until I started to get the hang of it.  The rate of learning here was nowhere near as steep as when I first began to familiarize myself with claw-hammer, but it is keeping me interested at the moment.

Region C is, like A, another trouble spot and, I think, presents the next highest risk of quitting an instrument.  I have reached Region C again and again on the guitar, and sometimes I seem stuck there.  In Region C, the learner is essentially a sophomore.  I've learned all the basics, he says, and there's not much more substantial material to learn.  I guess I'll plink around and see what happens.  This of course sounds pretty stupid.  Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jim Croce, Jimmy Hendrix, Preston Reed, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton (to name a tiny fraction of great artists) probably never thought this.  But the attitude slips into new learners' thinking all the time.

It is in Region C that the learner needs to be pushed by an instructor to explore new areas or have the discipline to seek out those challenges for himself.  Each new challenge is represented by a new bump, in the region represented as Region D.  In Region D, the little waves may individually be much steeper and larger than Region A, depending on the increased level of difficulty.  For instance, if I leveled off in Region C for hammer-claw and began to intensify my attention on finger-picking- a different technique- I would end up in another steep curve, the qualities and length of which may be greater or less than Region A.

The Rub

What do I mean with all these abstruse musings on "learning curves" and "regions" of said curves?

Notice that the curve goes up.  And the curve goes up at a rate roughly proportional to the learner's effort (in my view).  So this is really applicable to learning any skill.  If you suppose yourself to be incapable of learning some new skill, look at the curve.  Yes, it starts steep.  You may even run out of momentum a few times and have to put the breaks on or change gears.  But it levels out eventually.  Maybe you are content to stop at Region B, fine.  But remember that you can do it.

I have had to remind myself that I can do it a hundred times in the short duration of learning to play the banjo.  And I have- so far- always been right.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Some Early Thoughts on Learning to Play the Banjo

Perceptions of the Banjo
Your appreciation of this miraculous instrument is contingent upon your exposure to it.  If the only tune you know is the one from Deliverance, then it might creep you out.  Or if you consider the banjo to be the guitar's retarded cousin, fit only for stump-jumpin, inbred, hillbilly mountain folk who run a little short in the dental department, then you might think it to be below your sophisticated modern taste.

But if you have developed a love and deep appreciation for the musical genre of bluegrass, then the banjo is something more.  It is majestic, dignified, thoughtful, and the defining sound of bluegrass.  It is mysterious and sometimes somber, an acoustic mountain of mystery that invites you to explore.  For a small taste of what you might be missing if you don't appreciate the banjo and bluegrass in general, see some of the links below:

The Punch Brothers (covering the Cars)
Pine Mountain Railroad (covering Journey)
Iron Horse (covering Elton John)

These players are mostly modern and are not traditional bluegrass, but if you listen to them I think your schema of "banjo" will expand exponentially.

Playing the Banjo
I got a banjo for Christmas of 2012.  I learned some chords and a few rolls, but it never really clicked with me.  I've played guitar for 4 or 5 years and have always stuck with it as my standard instrument of choice, but the banjo always stood as that guilty I-wish-I-played-it-more instrument in the corner, usually in its case and usually out of tune.

The guitar is tuned to no particular chord.  Any chord requires a few fingers thrown down against the fret board.  It has a rich sound with a long sustain (as long as around 10 to 15 seconds), so it can be strummed as a supporting instrument.  A banjo, on the other hand, is often (but not always) tuned to the key of open G, meaning that you can play it without putting any fingers down, and it makes the musical sound of a G chord.  So songs in the key of G are easy to play.  The banjo has a shorter sustain (maybe 5-7 seconds) and therefore must be part of a continuously moving melody in order to be relevant to the song.  Usually this is achieved by what are called rolls- plucked sequences that involve an alternating pattern of thumb, middle, and index fingers engaging the 5 strings.  One odd thing about the banjo is that the string closest to you is tuned to the highest note, instead of the lowest as in the guitar.  This is because banjo players pluck the hell out of that string to produce the signature ring quality of banjo music.  This is something I never understood until around early March, when I saw video of a banjo instructor playing in the "claw-hammer" style.  Get a little taste of claw-hammer Cripple Creek here or here on a guitar (you have never seen this before).

Now the claw-hammer style is really a departure from what I had considered as traditional banjo playing.  It turns out to be more traditional than what is called picking, which you can see here in another version of Cripple Creek.  In the claw-hammer style, melody notes are struck between "brush strokes-" in which all strings are struck to fill in the musical gaps- and the thumb-pluck or the "down beat," where the thumb pulls up on that fifth string to produce the signature sound.  It is probably called claw-hammer because the shape of the hand is in a claw, and the hammer-on is a technical skill that lends this style its unique sound.  Go here for another great claw-hammer tune, Ole Joe Clarke.

The Claw-Hammer Project
I started getting serious playing the banjo around early March of this year, and I have come close to mastering the claw-hammer technique.  What I would like to do is chronicle my stump-jumping inbred ramblings while I learn to play the banjo, and maybe I'll invite any unwary traveler along for the ride.

I hope this entertains you rather than making you want to tear your ears off.

More to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Students are Joining the Army Corps of Engineers

Inquiry in Chemistry

...Is pretty difficult to pull off.  Here is why:

Inquiry education refers to letting students ask and answer their own questions, and arming them with the tools and some of the background knowledge to generate their own knowledge.  It's about putting them in charge- making them responsible- for their own learning.

An uncritical chemistry instructor bent on doing inquiry labs with inexperienced sophomores is likely to set his lab ablaze with a chemical fire or suffocate the southwest wing of the building with hydrogen sulfide.  You will find that many early chemists perished by means of their own experiments (one notable exception being Antoine Lavoisier, who was beheaded at the climax of the French Revolution after being [falsely] convicted selling adulterated tobacco and giving money to France's enemies).  But it was precisely this debonair chemical playfulness and curiosity that landed some of the greatest foundational discoveries of the chemical sciences.  How can a chemistry teacher encourage this curiosity without also encouraging a building evacuation?

Here I am going to put forward an example of how I am encouraging inquiry in chemistry, and propose a model for how it can be implemented in a wide array of science lessons.

Reactions and Stoichiometry

Being able to categorize reactions by their type is crucial for students of chemistry, because it helps them develop a framework for the behavior of compounds and elements when they combine, break apart, or rearrange.  In inorganic chemistry there are 5 recognized reaction types:

Synthesis- 2 or more elements combine to make a new compound.  A + B --> AB
Decomposition- A compound is broken down into smaller pieces.  EF --> E + F
Combustion- A compound is combined with oxygen to produce 2 or more oxides.  JK + O2 --> JO + KO
Single-replacement- An element reacts with a compound to replace one ion.  A + BC --> B + AC
Double-replacement- Two compounds react and exchange ions, resulting in a gas, precipitate, or water.  AB + CD --> CB + AD

The SUPER important thing to recognize with the last two bolded reactions is that they can be used to selectively remove an ion from a solution.  For instance, if my solution is contaminated with aqueous (dissolved) silver nitrate, I can add a little sodium chloride and form what is a called a precipitate, or the visible, white, insoluble compound silver chloride:

AgNO3(aqueous) + NaCl(aqueous) --> NaNO3(aqueous) + AgCl(solid)

Now we can just filter out the white AgCl crystals, and the silver is gone forever!  

Or suppose the water is contaminated with iron(III) chloride, the same nasty stuff at the center of an earlier blog post.  I can perhaps selectively precipitate out the iron(III) ion if I can replace it with a metal that is higher in what is called the "activity series" of metals.  A metal higher on the activity series will kick out a lower metal, resulting in a precipitate, through a single-replacement reaction.  I might try the reaction below.

FeCl3(aqueous) + Ca(solid) --> CaCl2(aqueous) + Fe(solid)

As long as I add just enough calcium metal to the dissolved iron(III) chloride, I convert that acidic, carcinogenic substance into harmless calcium chloride salt, a common food preservative.  I would be able to tell whether this reaction worked because iron(III) chloride is a dirty ochre color; if it is removed from the solution and replaced with calcium chloride, then the solution should go from dark yellow to clear (or at least less yellow).

You need to have some background in chemical reactions- and a sense of creativity- to make the predictions I made above.

The aim is for my own students to see this on their own and realize that they can do the same thing with a little research and creativity.  For them to do this, they will have to have a clear sense of how replacement reactions work, understand the solubility rules (only certain compounds are soluble in water), and also predict if a reaction will happen based on the activity series of metals.

"Stoyk- Stoykee- wait, what?"

These are the words of one of my male students upon first hearing the term "stoichiometry" [stoyk-ee-om-etree].  This science combines a knowledge of molar mass and reactions to allow the chemically curious to predict the outcomes of reactions as far as reactant mass, yield, and percent yield.  In other words, stoichiometry allows you to know exactly how much of your ingredient substance(s) you should measure in order to get the desired amount (usually mass) of product(s).  We use a unit called the "mole," which represents 6.02x10^23 particles, to describe quantitative relationships in chemistry.  If we know how much a mole of a certain element or compound weighs, we can use this conversion to correctly assign masses to our substances in the reaction.

Now this is all a little abstract or abstruse to most, but understanding stoichiometry is absolutely essential to describing the mass-relationships of chemical reactions and how do do actual lab work.  There is literally no other way to do it.  And it is very math-intensive.

So how do we turn a stoichiometry lesson into an inquiry unit?  What follows is how I am going to try.

How My Students are Joining the Corps

I have come to find that one of the pillars of inquiry education is concrete goal-setting and, to a small extent, role-playing.  The goal is a freshwater lake cleanup, and the role is a chemist in the Army Corps of Engineers.

In class we will suppose that there has been a major spill of a toxic salt in Lake Saint Clair, indicated by the white X at left.  In 2003 there was a toxic vinyl chloride spill in Lake Saint Clair, and people had to stay out of the water and not eat any Saint Clair fish for a while.  We'll use that as a hook.

Each pair of students will act as a team to rid the water of the contaminant, using their knowledge of reactions and stoichiometry.  I will assign different chemicals to different groups, partly by difficulty (some salts are easier than others to clean up).  Below are the amounts and types of salts that students will be responsible for removing from Lake Saint Clair.

14,200 kg of copper(II) sulfate: CuSO4
19,900 kg of potassium chromate: K2CrO4
26,300 kg of barium chloride: BaCl2
11,150 kg of sodium hypochlorite: NaClO
27,500 kg of lead(II) nitrate: Pb(NO3)2 (maybe)

The bold ions are the toxic ones, so these are the particles that students are trying to remove from the water supply.  Free copper, barium, and lead ions are all pretty toxic, and chromate and hypochlorite are pretty nasty too.

Not only will students need to perform reactions that will remove the offending ions from a solution, they will then have to do stoichiometric calculations to predict the mass of reactant(s) they will need to perform this procedure.

The key to solving the problem lies in research, understanding reactions, and devising creative lab solutions.

What My Corps Engineers Will Do

The teams will first have to do some background research and make a general proposal of how to remove the toxic compound from the water.  Following are the steps they must take in this process.
  1. Research the chemical's properties: taste/smell, color, density, solubility, toxicity, reactivity, etc.
  2. Identify at least 2 reactions that can remove the offending ion from the water.  Any solution will (probably) require a single-replacement or double-replacement reaction.
  3. Calculate how much reactant will be required to remove 2.0 g of the offending compound from a solution.
  4. Identify how they will know whether they have removed the offending ion. 
  5. Compile the above information into a formal lab proposal.

Next they will need to do some work in the lab.  After I have gone over their lab proposals and OK'd one of the reactions they think will work, they will perform that reaction to see if it is effective in removing the substance.  The steps they will need to take are as follows.
  1. Dissolve 2.0 g of the toxic substance in a small amount (maybe 100 ml) of water.
  2. Perform the reaction using the mass of reactant that they calculated in the formal lab proposal above.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of their reaction.
  4. Record all materials and methods of their lab procedure.
  5. Propose how to scale up the successful reaction so that it can be used to remove the given mass of toxic substance.  Show calculations.
  6. Compile the above information into a formal lab report.

What this Unit Will Look Like

Let me put a human touch on the whole proposition so it is clear what I intend for this unit to look and feel like to me- and more importantly- to my students.

Students will immediately feel uncomfortable, because I will not be giving them a single set of instructions on how they are to perform their lab procedure.  Upon assigning the work, they will not be very strong with the whole idea of stoichiometry, but this will improve over the course of the unit.

Students will have to collaborate closely in order to uncover how to remove their respective offending ions from the solution, and this is where I will have to put in a lot of effort in guiding them toward lab work that will be productive.  The purpose of the first research assignment is simply to let them explore their compound on their own, make predictions about reactions, then get my approval on how to proceed (I want them to succeed, so I will have some say on how they may wish to go about working in the lab).

The scary part will be when they get into the lab and start employing the methods they have devised.  They will have to be able to predict stoichiometric relationships so they do not waste chemicals or perform an inefficient reaction.  They will have to weigh and record their reactants and infer whether the reaction has worked, as I did in my examples above.  

They will have to work to express professionally what they are considering and what they have done to solve the problem.  They need to communicate their progress to a boss in writing.  

This is high-level depth of knowledge that I hope to see them achieve on their own.  It is the dream of every imaginative educator.

The Proposed Model

I said I would propose a general model of what I do to support inquiry learning, and it is outlined below.
  1. Students are presented with a clearly-defined problem that implies a clearly-defined goal.
  2. Students are allowed the ability to research their problem independently, then refer to instructor for guidance and advice.  If working with others, this is a good opportunity for group collaboration.
  3. Students attempt their solution in an "as-close-to-reality" setting as possible.
  4. Students evaluate the efficacy of their solution.
  5. Students may also make recommendations on how to enhance their solution: How to scale it up, How to improve its efficiency, How to apply it to other scenarios.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On Today's Lab, a BMW, and The Place Chemical Spill

January 22, 2014

The Lab
So my chemistry students performed a lab on synthesis reactions today.  They heated magnesium metal in air, which ignites in a dazzling white, silent flame.  They sprinkled iron powder into Bunsen burners, which flickers and sparks, just like the sparklers you find for Independence Day (try it with iron wool a gas stove; iron will actually burn with enough heat).  They produced a shower of ghostly, deep blue dancing fireflies by rapidly heating sulfur.  And they backed away from a deep orange tongue of glistening flame they made by heating a mixture of iron powder and sulfur, producing a complicated mix of Fe2S3 and FeS.

Iron is a little surprising to most of the chemically uninitiated.  It will burn.  It will react with most acids.  It will react with other metals.  Some of its ions are pretty toxic.  (Consult this lovely little gem on the mechanisms by which excess iron can cause your cell membranes to disintegrate.)  Of course we all have the common and irritating experience of rust forming on the bottom edges of our car doors; this is a complex mix of iron oxides, iron hydroxides, and hydrates of iron.   Other ions, such as Na+, Ca2+, and Cl-, which are found in road salts, sometimes accelerate the process. (The "axiom" that rust is iron (III) oxide is a gross oversimplification of a really complicated mixture and fails to express the nuanced processes by which it is created.)

Rust will show up anywhere that iron or one of its alloys is exposed to oxygen in the presence of water.  This is why you should make sure the gas tank of a vehicle is full if you don't plan to drive it for a long while.

September, 2010 (?)

So here is the point in the story (riveting so far, I know) where we arrive at the BMW motorcycle my friend Sam Girwarnauth picked up from an acquaintance of his up north.  This was the summer of 2009 or 2010- I forget which- and Sam was on a veritable bike binge.  I estimate that he has procured between 9 and 16 defunct and derelict motorcycles from 2008 to the present.  This particular little pretty was "in great shape," that was believed to need simply "a tune-up."  We arrived with Sam's trailer at said contacts house and loaded up the bike, which was really pretty nice-looking, until Sam found that the gas tank had been left empty for several years.  The subsequent exposure to oxygen and moisture led the inside of the tank to fill with a flaky and friable layer of those iron oxides, hydroxides, and hydrates mentioned above.  This, and the rubber lining of the tank had also badly rotted and was dropping little clods of hard, brittle rubber into the gas lines.  Refusing to pass up a perfectly good BMW with a perfectly horrible tank, the bike was loaded, goodbyes were said, and Sam and I were on our way.

Fast forward to a lovely late summer weekend, about three weeks after the start of the school year at Grand Valley State University.  Sam and I were living with our roommate Eli, who at the time must have been working at school or with his girlfriend Lane.  On this day Sam was enjoying some tinker time with the bike and was considering how to deal with the gas tank.  He had removed it from the bike and was out on our limestone gravel driveway.

After trying, with little result, to scour the inside of the tank with rocks and sand, Sam had gotten it into his head that the gas tank could really use a good American chemical stripping.

"So, Alex, I was looking online- on some chat rooms about bike repair- and found a lot of guys saying that you can clean out the inside of a gas tank with muriatic acid."

"Muriatic acid?"  I have a minor in chemistry, so the name was familiar, but I couldn't quite remember what it was.  I found it online and discovered that it was reliable old hydrochloric acid (HCl), running at a commercial grade of around 35%.  For all you chemistry groupies, that comes out to a molarity of about 9.6 moles/liter, which is obscenely concentrated acid.  Even a molarity of 0.25 M can burn you, and 4 M will put holes in your clothes.  I explored the reactions that this acid would have on the metals in rust, and discovered the major product iron (III) chloride.  Let me quote Wikipedia on some of the more attractive properties of this substance:

Iron(III) chloride is toxic, highly corrosive and acidic. The anhydrous material is a powerful dehydrating agent.
Although reports of poisoning in humans are rare, ingestion of ferric chloride can result in serious morbidity and mortality.

So I naturally relayed this prescient intelligence to Sam and asked him what he was considering doing with this substance, which would result in such serious morbidity and mortality.

Sam puffed out his cheeks, put his hands on his hips, and said, "Well, ah, you're the chemist, chap.  What do you propose?"

"Maybe we can react it with something else to neutralize it after it dissolves the rust."  Oh, the blinding soft chemical ignorance of youth!  "Really I wouldn't use it until we know exactly what is going to happen.  Let me at least figure out if there is a chemical recycling place around here we can dump it off at, or something."

I seem to remember doing no such thing, and a few hours later Sam came traipsing back from the hardware store with 1 gallon of 9.7 M hydrochloric acid.  He probably said, "Well, bottoms up, I suppose," and forthwith glugged most of the gallon into the empty tank, and let it sit in the front driveway while he sat and read a book on Aristotle's metaphysics in the garage.

The 64th Avenue Chemical Spill
Sam and I sat in lawn chairs in the garage reading our books and chit chatting about God knows what abstruse idiocy.  I kept looking toward the gas tank, still wondering what to do about the acid inside once Sam was done with it.

Urbane banter can only captivate one for so long, and suddenly Sam let out a sharp, "Woah, woah, woah!"

Looking at the tank, we saw a spreading greenish-yellow lake of smoking goo puddle out from under it.  Little tendrils of white, treacherous steam idled away in deadly rafts, and Sam picked up the tank.  A stream of the green acid poured out from one of the gas outlets, where the acid had eaten through the aluminum pipe.

"Aagh," Sam hissed and set the tank back down.  A considerable cloud of white-grey vapor was hanging about the garage and driveway by this time, and the puddle on the limestone driveway fizzed angrily.

We looked at each other, and I went to get the hose from around the back of the house.

The tank was flushed out and copious water was sprayed upon the smoking puddle.  The tank was still caked with rust.  Setting it aside, we considered what to do about the chemicals.  I kept spraying them down like an idiot, hoping the dilution would make everything okay, while Sam stroked his chin.  After a while I shut off the hose and said, "Sam, the iron-three-chloride is really toxic."

He looked at me.

"We should probably dig up the rocks and dirt before the chemicals trickle into the water."

Sam immediately consented, and we went into the tool shed in the back yard, produced two shovels and a wheelbarrow, and began to furiously remove the first six inches of that portion of the driveway.  About an hour's work resulted in a sagging wheelbarrow full of around 500 pounds of contaminated, hot, toxic, acidic lime slag.  And I, chirping like a perfect dunce, said, "Well, there's got to be some facility that will take these and maybe put them in, like, a safe landfill that won't leak it into the water."

"Could be, could be," Sam said.

Meantime, we needed to get the pile of rocks out of the driveway, so we wheeled it back into the shed, where it remained.  

For two years.

It must have been just before I started student teaching that I remembered the toxic monstrosity in our shed and wheeled it out again to the driveway.  I stood pondering over it.  Should I go out and seek that fabled facility I had so hopefully imagined?  Upon careful reflection, I dumped the quarter ton of rocks back onto the driveway, a little surprised to find that they had taken on a weird brownish-red color and soft, crumbly consistency over the intervening years.  I gave one a sniff and detected a sharp, earthy bitterness, which may have been the iron (III) chloride locked away in its limey pores.

The Rub
People are stupider when they are playing with chemicals.  Even Sam, who has my most unqualified commendation as Place genius, lost I think about twenty IQ points as soon as that hydrochloric acid came into his possession.

And this is why chemical education is important, for everyone.  I remember this every single day that I walk into my classroom and teach my students chemistry.

Chemicals make people stupid.  Chemistry makes people smart.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

On "Income Inequality" and the New Double Standard

What I am going to Say

What I intend to convince you of is that severe- perhaps even moderate- income inequality is detrimental to the development of the individual and his society.  I do not consider myself "liberal" or "conservative."  To be sure, I am the picture of the stubborn and reviled moderate.  Some readers will find that I take the liberal view here, others will find that my view is too conservative.

What is Income Equality?

There is an increasingly loud (and wasteful) discussion today on "income equality," whether it is "good" or "bad," and- if bad- how it can be fairly reduced.  Very few of these discussions include a definition of income equality or whether it is "bad."

Income inequality refers to a the gap between the rich and poor as well as income differences between different workers or economic classes.  In my view it includes the difference in income when effort is kept constant.  It may include the income difference between a company CEO and a common laborer in that same company.  A CEO who makes several hundred times the income of most of his workers is a prime example of income inequality among members of the same commercial field.

Income equality, it seems, has popularly become synonymous with "low minimum wages."  I think this is so precisely because the minimum wage in the US ($7.25 since July of 2009, by the way) exemplifies the struggle faced by the modern unskilled worker, among the presence of such staggering wealth.

"Is Income Equality Good or Bad?"

This is the most frequently posed question on the 24-hour news network concerning income inequality.  This is a well-meant question, but it is also not very meaningful and betrays the naivety of the questioners.

Here are a few better ways to formulate relevant income inequality questions:

1.) Does income inequality inhibit the ability of a society's individuals to actualize their potentials as excellent, virtuous, and productive citizens?
2.) Does income inequality inhibit the ability of a society to actualize its potentials as a productive and nurturing society?
3.) Does income inequality provide incentives for the underemployed or underprivileged to work harder in order to achieve a higher rank and higher pay?
4.) Is a certain degree of income inequality inevitable in a modern capitalist society?
5.) Is income inequality proportional or inversely proportional to crime rates, mortality, health problems, or other quality-of-life issues? [This question is tightly bound to question 2.)]

I certainly do not undertake the task of answering all these questions here, but asking the question in one of these ways helps us to narrow down the discussion so that it is meaningful.

Let's focus on questions 1.) and 2.), with an important appeal to question 5.).

Income Inequality and Individual Potential

Let me start by relating the experience of Jurgis Rudkus of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  It's worth a very short diversion upon that masterpiece to support an important point.

SPOILER ALERT: I reveal here a few plot details of The Jungle.  If you plan to read this excellent piece of work, you may wish to skip over the blue paragraphs.

The plot summary of The Jungle is this: Jurgis (pronounced Yoorgis) Rudkus and his family move from Lithuania to Chicago- right around 1900- to start a new and hopeful life in America, where the streets are paved with gold.  They are quickly taken advantage of by each enterprising entrepreneur they meet: 

"A very few days of practical experience in this land of high wages had been sufficient to make clear to them the cruel fact that it was also a land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis. What had made the discovery all the more painful was that they were spending, at American prices, money which they had earned at home rates of wages – and so were really being cheated by the world! The last two days they had all but starved themselves – it made them quite sick to pay the prices that the railroad people asked them for food." Chapter 2, Paragraph 16.

Jurgis and his 13 or so relatives, including his bride Ona, move into the grime and bustle of the city and immediately begin working in the booming beef and pork processing plants which are the center of the city's commercial activity.  They speak very little English and are easily taken advantage of.  They are sold a dirty, rickety house and take out an abusive mortgage the details of which are deliberately withheld from them.  Jurgis- a great burly man- is good at his job as a cow carcass cutter and works long hours for dismal pay (17 cents an hour at first) but quickly grows weary from the exertion and hurts himself on the job, which he can then barely perform because of the nerve and joint damage he sustains.  He loses his job, frantically searches for new ones and loses them too, and is eventually black-listed by his own union for working as a scab during a strike.  His wife, working just as long of hours under cruel conditions for even less money, suffers greater tragedy when she is forced into prostitution by one of the union bosses, who threatens to fire her and all her family if she stirs up trouble about it.  All the while the little money possessed by the family is eagerly wrung out of them by crafty con men, criminals, and corrupt cops (excuse the alliteration).  Many of the family- father Antanas, the children, some of the teens- suffer equally horrible fates over the course of the story.  Some of them die from the strain of life that has been at every turn monetized and commercialized by the meat processing industry.  The prices of food, coal, and clothing- all the most basic necessities for a meager life- are astronomical.  Every turn is a yawning pit for Jurgis and his family, and one by one they fall prey to the merciless grinding hellish machine that Chicago has become.  Jurgis finally abandons what is left of his sick and weary family and lives as a vagabond, then begins a precipitous descent into the world of gangsters, because his life is utterly shattered by the endless torment of a wasteful and cruel society.

The above summary does little justice in recapitulating the story- you really need to read it immediately- but is serves as an anchor upon which to make the following point clear.

Jurgis and his family are good, virtuous, honest people when they arrive in Chicago.  However, the reader finds the whole family devolve into the lowest depravity and squalor between 1900 and 1903.  Why?  Were they lazy?  Were they unlucky?  Where they bad at their jobs?  None of the above!  They worked hard, guarded against bad luck, and tried very hard to be excellent workers.  But their spirits and bodies were crushed by a world that saw them as expendable and replaceable components of business.  When a man's goal becomes survival, there is very little of excellence, virtue, or beauty that matters to him.  I have said in an earlier post that developing the potential of the individual is one of the highest goods of education, but this is unobtainable when the basic needs of that individual are denied him.

Income inequality- if it is extreme enough- faithfully converts good people like Jurgis into criminals.  It is a common sentiment that a starving man who steals bread is only doing what he needs to survive.  So with Jurgis and every other man who finds that survival is an open question.  Men, when treated like beasts, very often become them.

Things I Hate to Hear about Minimum-Wage Earners

Let me begin by sharing with you that I worked at McDonald's for six years, from 2005 to 2011.  I am a science teacher at a public school and have a summer job at a convenience store and pizzeria.  I am no stranger to the minimum-wage service industry, so I think I have a view mingled with the spice of experience.

It is not unreasonable to consider the minimum wage of unskilled workers- and the attitudes held by a society about its own minimum wage- a sort of indicator of income inequality.  The average minimum wage in the United States, since July 24, 2009, is $7.25 before taxes.  The cost of living has risen markedly since that time, while the minimum wage has not.  An individual living by himself will pay an average of about $650 a month to rent an apartment.  At that rate, it takes him 90 hours of work just to afford that, minus the taxes, minus car and gas, minus food, minus utilities, minus other expenses such as doctors visits and various repairs and expenditures.  That leaves roughly $0 for said individual to put aside for other pursuits such as higher education or saving for a family, namely for actualizing his potential as a productive, excellent citizen.  I often hear the following "argument" (I hesitate to call it even that) against raising the minimum wage: "People don't take a minimum wage job as a career; they should use that job as a stepping-stone on to bigger and better things."  I sense two problems with this suggestion.  1.) The first clause is an insult to anyone who works as a minimum-wage earner.  It says, "your job is for uneducated imbeciles and teenagers."  2.) The second clause ignores the fact that when an underprivileged individual works his ass off just to cover the bills, there is no room for him to use his job as a "stepping-stone."  Yes, it is possible to do so; but it is also unjustly difficult.  It is unjust to tell the poverty-stricken Taco Bell employee, "Come on, Holmes, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get a better job; improve yourself and move up."

There are myriad absurdities in the way we ham-fistedly try to deal with the unemployed and underemployed.  I do not support the practice of unemployment benefits, simply because they dis-incentivize workers to rejoin the labor force, although there is some disagreement on this issue.  Let the following numbers speak for themselves: The average unemployment benefits in Michigan are $293.92 a week (source), which comes out to $7.35/hr if divided by 40 hours.  You see what is strange about this, don't you?  In what universe do unemployment benefits actually exceed the income for 40 hours of minimum-wage labor?  The United States average is even worse, with a compensation of $399.72 per week (source), coming out to $9.99/hr, which is $2.74/hr higher than the federal minimum wage.  Let me reiterate this last point: Unemployment benefits pay better than the federal minimum wage.  Thus no one has any right to criticize the underemployed for receiving unemployment benefits when they would actually be making less by getting a job.

Yet observe that the efforts of minimum wage workers are met with derision and a kind of "oh you're so ridiculously selfish" flippancy.  A number of notable Fox News pundits, including Bill O'Reilly, members of The Five, Sean Hannity, and others have dismissed the possibility of a $15 minimum wage as absurd.  This is in spite of the fact that if adjusted for inflation and the rise in productivity since 1950, a proportionally corresponding minimum wage should be $21.72 (source).  And American workers are only asking for $15!

So the first thing that is abundantly clear is that as a society we have a sizable fraction of families living something like Jurgis and his family in turn of the century Chicago.  Hard years of drudgery with no corresponding increase in wages for their efforts.  How does such an income disparity influence society as a whole?  More statistics, if you don't mind.

Income Inequality and Social Potential

We need to talk more statistics.  First look at the graph below.  This graph shows the Consumer Price Index historical trend (an index of cost of living, black).  It has doubled since 1987 and tripled since 1976 (Source: Sorry it's in Dutch, but you can find CPI since 1976 in the graph found in the link).

So cost of living has risen at a very predictable rate for many decades.

Now consider the next graph.  This one, compiled by Huffington Post economics author Caroline Fairchild, shows the index of productivity and that of "real minimum wage" since 1950.  Note that the y-axis is an index, not absolute dollar value.

American productivity has risen by 500% since 1950, while the minimum wage has increased by... almost zero.

Look at the map found at this link, which indicates the Gini index of income inequality across the world (sorry I can't show it here).  Red and dark red indicate high income inequality.  Blues represent more evenly balanced incomes.  We belong to an exclusive and sexy club of nations, including China, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, South Africa, Bosnia, Mozambique, Bolivia, and Uzbekistan.  Notice that nearly all of Europe and some of the former British Empire have more equal income than the United States.

Now the presumed social impact of income inequality is based on a wide range of economic studies that have yielded diverse and sometimes inconsistent results, but here I will try to summarize the results of what appear to be the most conclusive and non-controversial studies.

1.) Nations (and states) that have higher income inequality have proportionally higher homicide rates.1
2.) The democratic participation of citizens in high income inequality cultures is lower. 2 
3.) The well-being of children is proportionally related to income equality. 3
4.) Greater income inequality leads to slower overall economic growth, 4a  while income equality results in longer sustained periods of growth. 4b
5.) Income inequality is correlated with reduced life span and physical well-being. 5
6.) Citizens in high income inequality nations exhibit reduced trust in their societies. 6a, 6b

(Don't take my word for it.  I invite you to browse over the above studies to satisfy your own curiosity.)

The Rub

I have tried to be fair here and stick to the facts.  Whether the government involves itself or not, a more reasonable minimum wage will probably reduce income inequality and have all sorts of positive impacts on individuals and society (see the research I cite above).  I wish businesses would see that and raise the minimum wage accordingly, but they will not.  They must, unfortunately, be compelled by legal means to do so.  Businesses are, after all, out for their own benefit and perpetuation, not for those of a functional society or individuals who have actualized their potentials as excellent human beings.

Here's the rub: If you value social functionality and individual development, you should probably also support a minimum wage that is proportional to productivity and cost-of-living.  This means you would support a raise in the minimum wage, which is currently not proportional to productivity or cost-of-living.

It's not about liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist.  All four of these positions, carried to the extreme, are socially fatal.  It is about human flourishing.

If many of our own representatives can't see that, then I pity them and the voters that elected them.

(If you want to hear a narrative on the minimum wage discussion from a different angle, see Matt Walsh's blog post here.  He takes the view opposite of mine.  I love Matt Walsh's blog and read it all the time, but in this post I find a wealth of sentiment and a poverty of reasoning.  See for yourself.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why "Teaching only what is useful" is a Disaster Waiting To Happen

The Proposition that Makes Me Want to Rip My Hair Out

I've heard it.  You've heard it.  Policy makers and politicians say it.  Parents say it.  Many teachers and administrators say it.  Students say it.

"I only want my child to learn what is useful.  Why should he spend any time learning something just because it can be 'appreciated,' or it gives him 'perspective'?  I want my child to use what he learns in school."

Perfectly reasonable, yes?  Why SHOULDN'T content learned in the classroom be useful?  Why SHOULDN'T the curriculum be ordered toward what could loosely be termed 'utilitarian' knowledge?  What is the point of fine literature and poetry, of the visual arts, of sports programs?  The parent speaking above would perhaps find it challenging to simultaneously hold his position and support these subjects.

A few years ago at Grand Valley I witnessed an educational psychology classroom descend into a shouting match over this exact question (I started it), after a dull-witted young woman stridently proclaimed, "Why should students learn all this fluff in literature and art class?  It's totally worthless and it will never be useful to them."  Thankfully a few 'conservative' students- including me- outlined the case which I am about to make, which was greeted with general agreement.

I propose that an education that is conscientiously and carefully oriented toward what is strictly "useful" will fail the students, teachers, industry, and ultimately society.  Although the quotes above express an understandable (but naive) frustration with "fluff," the ultimate educational path etched out by said sentiments is a descent into intellectual poverty.

The Varying Meanings of "Usefulness"

First of all, let's get across exactly what can be meant by the term usefulness.  I'll start from the limited perspective of the educator, with maybe a slight utilitarian bent.

Usefulness is synonymous with utility, or the degree to which a thing or action satisfies wants or needs.  This is probably the broadest accepted definition of usefulness.  A utilitarian would consider usefulness to be the degree to which a thing or action- all things being equal- furthers human happiness and/or (depending on who you talk to) pleasure.  Said happiness or pleasure may be considered from the narrow-individual or the broader-societal view.  For now let us consider usefulness in this broad scope, including individual and total human happiness and pleasure.  (I realize that not everyone will agree with the way I will use the notion of usefulness.  Bear with it for just now.)

Now you might consider the above paragraph and say, "But pursuits such as music, poetry, gymnastics, the visual arts, and fine literature satisfy needs and desires: The needs and desires to express oneself, to create, to communicate, to experience beauty and joy."  Indeed they do.  This means that what the uncritical parent means when he says "useful" is not really the one that I have offered above- namely satisfying human wants or desires.  His definition of usefulness is in fact much narrower.

So let us try to nail down exactly what our dull and uncritical parent means by usefulness.  He seems not to include aesthetic satisfaction or the appreciation of the arts.  He seems to exclude the value of intellectual humility that one experiences when stepping upon the shoulders of giants.  He seems to have no concern for the notion a beauty at all, or that quality in things that stirs the soul to joy.  He would not, it seems, worry about things like astronomy, advanced mathematics, ancient history, or biographies of historical figures.  What use are these things? he asks.

                                                                                                  Image Source
So he is really not about satisfying needs or desires.  He is about "getting things done."  He is about the basic mechanics of reading and writing, basic mathematics, probably mechanical repair, the basic laws of chemistry, physics, nutrition and health (because they allow one to get things done).  And that's probably about it.  I do not mean to suggest that this parent would actively avoid his child learning the components of a "liberal" education that I have outlined above, but he would certainly be challenged to fit them into his narrow view as to what constitutes usefulness.  His is the lowest and most vulgar understanding of usefulness, yet it is accepted by a significant fraction (though probably not most) of the American public.  I'm not sure I have come across an accepted term for this sort of impoverished definition of usefulness, but I am inclined to call it something like "mechanistic utility."

Let me outline below why I suppose that the adherence to an educational philosophy of mechanistic utility does not satisfy the function of education and that it could potentially stymie the progress of education and social advancement indefinitely.

The Meaning and Purpose of Education

Let us start at the start.  This post is ultimately about education, so let Stella Van Petten Henderson explain, in a single sentence, what education is:

"...To see education as a process of growth and development- taking place as a result of the interaction of an individual with his environment, both physical and social, beginning at birth and lasting as long as life itself- a process in which the social heritage as part of the social environment becomes a tool to be used toward the development of the best and most intelligent persons possible, men and women who will promote human welfare, that is to see the educative process as philosophers and educational reformers conceived it."
Introduction to Philosophy of Education. [My emphasis]

Now the above quotation seems to define education almost (but not quite) as an end rather than only a means.  I suggest that it is probably both a means and an end.  That is, education serves a purpose beyond itself, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that education (formal and informal) is itself a good, just as happiness or physical satisfaction are.  

But I don't think education can be only an end and that education should be blindly sought for its own sake.  Doing so is a goose-chase, and calls to mind Caroll's scene from The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for help:

"Cheshire Puss,... Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where-" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"-so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

We need to know where we are going, you know, if we are to get anywhere.

Let me put forward a somewhat narrower explanation for the purpose of education, apart from only the definition.  The purpose of education is to fulfill or actualize- to the greatest extent possible- an individual's and a society's potentials for human intelligence, excellence, and virtue, contingent upon the individual or social needs and desires.  So the purpose is to advance the development of the human person and the progress of human society, both of which include things like art and literature.  Notice that we leave ample room here for the definition of usefulness with which we started.

It is a socially and intellectually impoverished people that renders education skeletal and lean by stripping away what is deemed useless when no one seems to artfully articulate what is meant by usefulness in the very first place. 

Notice that what I call mechanistic utility denies the development of the whole person and instead focuses on his practical skills and his checkbook.  Both are crucial for a successful life, to be sure, but they are not life.  Life has passion and beauty, movement and music, poetry and love.  Mechanistic utility nurtures none of these and therefore stunts the natural growth of the human person.  

                                                                                            Image Source
I suggest we are already tasting some of the bitter fruits of this latent- sometimes explicit- drive toward mechanistic utility in the dry pragmatism and choking close-mindedness of our politicians.  It is a stunning testament to our current lack of creativity and compromise that 2013's Congress was the record-setting least productive congress in American history.  These are the same politicians who seem to make it a hobby of whittling education into a tighter and shallower box with each new term, passing impossible acts like No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top (The second of which I don't see as significantly different than the first; it just appears to slightly shift responsibility and effect, but the basic outcomes look very much the same to me.)

The Rub

Be wary of "teach-only" philosophies.  The educational squalor of "teach-only" philosophies sometimes goes unrecognized, especially by an uncritical and simplistic public, until it is too late.  They are all failures.  They fail society, their students, and the teachers.

Also exercise caution of "teach-all" philosophies if they are carelessly managed.  A lack of direction leads us exactly into Alice's problem quoted above.  

The direction of progress should be oriented partly by the social needs and the social heritage, but it should allow some room for the development of the unique virtues of the individual, manifesting in what we often call curiosity.  I think that a "teach-all" philosophy is more likely to nurture this natural unfolding of the individual's fancies than a "teach-only" philosophy.  Probably a "teach-most" philosophy is best, although I decline here to suppose in great detail just what that would look like.  I think it might look like the curriculum of Greek Antiquity, which, by the way, produced the greatest minds- greatest in rationality, creativity, scientific effort, morality, curiosity, and aesthetic understanding- that ever thought: Thales, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and hundreds more.

The great thing is that we don't have to reinvent the wheel and produce our own culture of Platos.  He has done the thinking for us.  Bernard de Chartres said, "We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants," and what a clear perspective he had.

I'll end with another quote by Van Petten Henderson:

"There is no good reason why boys and girls who expect to earn their living in factories and on farms should not study and come to love Shakespeare, Plato, Goethe, and Dostoevski.  Many of us have believed that much of our cultural heritage belongs only to those who are to enter the professions... Helping young people learn how to earn a living is only part of the function of education.  Its total function is to help them to the best all-round living.  Life is richer and more meaningful for those who have assimilated at least part of our cultural heritage... Lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants, businessmen, do not have a monopoly on brains... The notion that... intellectual interests belong only to professional men and women is false.  Such interests can be awakened in the vast majority of people."

The Stream Whisperer

The Song of the Stream

Streams sing their own songs if you listen and look.  A stream's song, rather than being words, is composed of the living and non-living things in and around it.  A stream will whisper and talk to you if you stroke it in just the right way.  

Here is how a stream sings.  It is alive with the buzzing, wriggling, and crawling organisms at its bottom; it is buoyant with the gurgle and splash of its riffles and eddies; it vibrates with physical, chemical, and organic activity.  Walking along a stream and trying to say something about its labyrinthine ecology is like listening to a piece of obscure classical music for the first time: You can't really say much except that you either like it or you don't.  Measuring temperature, velocity and discharge, and looking up some land-use maps is a little like having a look at the musical score: You start to see structure and organization beneath the wash of sensation.  Collecting the macroinvertebrates from the stream and letting them talk to you themselves is a little like learning to play the piece itself: Now you really see and feel what this thing is, and why it looks and acts and sounds- even smells- the way it does.

Assessing the health of a stream is a little like playing a song on an instrument.  The twelve small notes aggregate and coalesce into something beautiful and substantial.  The disparate observations begin to sing and hum and whisper to you.  The Dakota Drain talks to me, and it is just now beginning to talk to my students.  They are starting to see what it means to be a Stream Whisperer.

Aquatic Biology: Not for Numskulls

The most important factors in determining the health and biological structure of a stream are 1.) The assemblages of macroinvertebrates in the lotic zone and 2.) the chemical and physical properties of the water itself.  The water's properties mostly determine the aquatic ecology, but the biological community will also communicate to you what mere chemistry cannot.  

Now river biologists have been studying macroinvertebrates for many decades and have amassed impressive volumes of information on the habitats, feeding habits, and aquatic preferences of hundreds and hundreds of organisms.  From leeches, to skimmer dragonfly larvae, to physid and viviparid snails, to midge and mosquito larvae, to various fly maggots, to giant water bugs and crawling water beetles, we know what they eat and where they live.  With this in mind, we can capture several hundred over the course of a few weeks, do a few simple calculations, and- astonishingly- discover an obscenely diverse array of patterns beneath the panoply of data.

The ratios between different niches, or what in the technical parlance are called "functional feeding groups," can tell us scads of information about whether food sources are plant- or detritis- (organic debris) based, whether the food is coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM) or fine (FPOM), whether the FPOM is up in the water column or sitting along the stream bed, whether the channel is stable, and whether energy is flowing through our ecosystem at a healthy rate.  We can of course also calculate the Shannon-Weiner diversity index described in this blog post to tell us whether the community is diverse.  A diverse community is a good thing because it is more stable and resistant to environmental changes.

One or two words on functional feeding groups (FFGs).  Scrapers, such as many snails, eat algae and require a stable substrate to do well.  Shredders eat CPOM and generally swim up in the water. Gatherers, such as midges, eat FPOM that is stuck in the river bed and crawl around rather than swim.  Filterers, such as fingernail clams, collect FPOM from up in the water and require a stable substrate and relatively clear water to be successful.  Lastly, predators eat the other FFGs and tend to swim rapidly and either engulf (swallow whole) their prey, like the narrow-winged damselfly larva, or pierce it (with a sharp straw called a stylet), such as the giant water bug.  (Watch both of these short clips immediately).

We can calculate the ratios between the numbers of organisms in different FFGs, and because we know their preferences as far as food and habit, we can say something meaningful about the stream they come from.

A few of the indices that we can calculate follow:

Autotrophy/Heterotrophy Index = Scrapers / (Shredders + Gatherers + Filterers)                       Greater than 0.75 means most food is algae.  Less means it is mostly detritus.

CPOM/FPOM Index = Shredders / (Gatherers + Filterers)                                                                   Greater than 0.50 means most detritus is CPOM.  Less means it is mostly FPOM.

FPOMin transport to FPOMin sediment Index = Filterers / Gatherers                                                     Greater than 0.50 means most FPOM is floating in water.  Less means it’s mostly on the riverbed.

Substrate Stability Index = (Scrapers + Filterers) / (Gatherers + Shredders)                                  Greater than 0.50 means channel is stable.  Less means it is shifting and unstable.

Predator Control Index = Predators / (Gatherers + Filterers + Shredders + Scrapers)                   0.10 to 0.20 means energy is flowing through community at a healthy rate. Less than 0.10 is too slow.

Here is what all this nonsense means.

Autotrophy simply refers to how much food is produced locally, within the stream ecosystem itself.  If a stream has an autotrophy/heterotrophy index of greater than 0.75, it means that the ecosystem is mostly dependent upon algae, or "autochthonous" input.  Less means that the stream is fed by fallen leaves and twigs, and any other detritus or junk that falls into it.  It is then referred to as "allochthonous."

Recall that CPOM is chunks of detritus while FPOM is very fine food particles.  We can use the CPOM/FPOM index to contrast them.   If more than 50% of the organisms we find are shredders (they eat CPOM), then the detritus of our stream is mostly coarse chunks, not fine pieces.  The food is probably coming from things like leaves and grass clippings.

Whatever FPOM that is in a stream will either flow with the water, in which case it is "FPOM in transport," or it will be lodged in the substratum, in which it will be "FPOM in sediment."  The two FPOM-eating functional feeding groups live in different places because they eat the FPOM in different ways.  Gathering collectors, such as midge larvae and many snails, crawl about in the muck and find FPOM.  Filtering collectors, such as clams and certain caddisflies, adhere to a hard surface and filter FPOM from the water.  Caddisflies have a peculiarly unappealing way of filtering: they spin a sticky net of rope or webbing out of mucus and let it waft in the current; then after a few minutes, they eat the mucus net, along with any FPOM that has stuck to it.  So don't go inviting any caddisflies to supper.

Our substrate stability index tells us if the stream is shifting or stable.  Scrapers and filterers prefer to have a lot of hard surfaces to stick to, and they can't do that in a mucky, unstable stream.  So if we find a lot of them (more than 50%), it indicates that the channel is stable.

Lastly, the predator control index indicates how rapidly food energy is flowing through our biological community.  Predators represent an active and dynamic step in matter and energy exchange.  So if we find that between 10% and 20% of our organisms are predators, then energy is flowing at a healthy rate.  If predators make up much less than 10%, then our community is sluggish and not very interactive.  This is generally a bad thing as far as stream health.

We can do many similar calculations with the vertebrate community: A wealth of vertebrate predators, such as piscivorous (fish-eating) birds, indicates that energy is not only flowing at a healthy rate, but that there is probably an exchange of energy between the benthic (river bottom) community and the vertebrate community.  This is what we would expect in a healthy stream.  We can also find the fraction of the vertebrates that are aquatic organisms.  If most of our stream vertebrates are actually terrestrial, then our vertebrate community is aquatic-poor.  This suggests that the riparian zone and stream are not very productive as far as the aquatic community.

Hydrochemistry and What it Shows

A small handful of chemical properties can communicate crucial data regarding a stream's health.  The properties my students test in the Dakota Drain are pH, dissolved oxygen, phosphates, and nitrates.  They also measure the temperature of the water, and the general stream crew measures discharge in cubic meters per second.

A low pH is a bad thing, because it means the stream is acidic.  Acidic water is caused by pollution and high carbonic acid levels, which impoverish the biological community.

Obviously a high dissolved oxygen (DO) level in the water is positive, because that means the stream can support macroinvertebrate assemblages with a high oxygen demand, such as stoneflies and waterpennies.  DO levels are reduced by decomposing matter such as dead algae, because the decomposing bacteria absorb oxygen during respiration.  This tends to acidify the water and cause a low pH.  Low DO levels are also bad for fish because it makes it more difficult for them to breathe and survive.  Strongly related to DO is temperature.  Water dissolves more gas if the water is cold, just like how a cold soda stays fizzy longer than a warm one. (Try warming up a glass of Coke and see how long it stays fizzy.)  So we want a cold temperature.

The physical attributes of the stream also affect DO.  A rapid velocity, high-discharge stream has a lot of whitewater, splashing and gurgling (cavitation).  These mixing zones dissolve oxygen into the water purely by physical mixing.  A sluggish stream has fewer opportunities to mix oxygen into the water.  This is the main reason why we measure the physical dimensions of our stream.

Lastly, high nutrient levels of nitrates and phosphates tend to have negative impacts on stream ecology.  Nitrates and phosphates feed algae, which bloom under high-nutrient conditions.  The algae then die and sink to the benthos, where they are decomposed by bacteria.  This leads to a lot of stink, muck, and low DO levels, as mentioned above.  Nitrates and phosphates are found in fertilizers.  So if the subdivision upstream of our drain is using a lot of fertilizers on their lawns (they are), then those nutrients eventually find their way into our stream and cause it to become "eutrophic," or having too many nutrients.  This upsets the pH and DO balance and wreaks havoc on our biological community.