Archive for January, 2010

Survivor Tree Unseen

Sometimes the full extent of a tree’s harsh environment can not be fully appreciated until after the tree’s death. Times of drought and fire scars are documented in the tree’s rings. Or how about this tree? When the wood was being burned, it became pretty clear the tree had encountered a fence in its younger days. There was a piece of barbed wire inside!

Barbed Wire Fire (Photo courtesy of artsufartsu)

January 27, 2010 at 7:07 pm 3 comments

Driveway Win!

Yesterday morning, Ryan and I woke up to the peaceful pitter patter of rain. It wasn’t nearly as peaceful when we discovered our entire yard was under water. Ryan had to roll his pants up over his knees to wade out to get to work. The dogs were distressed by having no where to take their morning dumps (Henry did scope out a pot of potential paw paws on the porch, but ultimately opted to hold it). I, meanwhile, found cause to be embarrassed. I was on a conference call and completely lost my train of thought in mid-sentence when I saw a bag of our garbage floating down the street.

Elizabeth City - Flooded Front Yard - 11 AM
Hunter Street (or lack thereof) at 11 AM

Elizabeth City - Flooded Hunter Street - 11 AM
Front/Side Yard at 11 AM

But there was a victorious moment! Check it out! Thanks to the new DIY Driveway, my car stayed safe and sound. 🙂

Elizabeth City - Flooded Backyard - 9 AM
Backyard at 9 AM

Elizabeth City - Flooded Backyard - 11 AM
Backyard at 11 AM

Hooray for hard work and helpful neighbors!

P.S. The water was all gone by noon. Jimmie and Henry could not have been more grateful. 🙂

January 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm 2 comments

Locker Rooms and Postage Stamps

I remember some time ago, circa 2006, I saw a segment on the Dallas Mavericks’ Visiting Locker Room. Owner Mark Cuban lavished not only his own players, but the opposing players as well– making sure they also had extravagant food, a fancy shower service and plush towels. The notion was to provoke the thought, “Wow, I could be playing here!”

I wonder if the U.S. Postal Service had a similar notion. The stamps to send letters to Canada and Europe, feature stunning renditions of national parks.

I don’t know for sure about the “opposing players” overseas, but I know I’m already thinking, “Wow, I could be playing THERE!”

January 26, 2010 at 10:22 am 2 comments

Hearts in Nature: Lichen

The November 2009 issue of Discover Magazine featured an excellent article on lichen. When discussing how the fungus component harvests food from a photosynthesis partner, author Gordon Grice shared a quote by Trevor Goward. Goward is the “lichen curator” at the University of British Columbia Herbarium.  He says:

“Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture.”

Today’s Hearts in Nature focuses on those busy little fungi farmers who can cultivate some of the most unlikely lots. Special thanks, as always, to Creative Commons photographers.

(Photo by [New Parents!!!] Gare and Kitty)

(Photo by . SantiMB .)

(Photo by cfournie)

(Photo by pet_r)

January 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm 3 comments

The Neighborhood Girls, Cindy McGill and Mary Kay

Living in a low income neighborhood has opened my eyes to the extent of good hearts that are out there. I’m following in the footsteps of my cousin’s wife, Michelle, who often covers customer service experiences on her blog. I’ve got a great one to share!

As Ryan and I started up the Computer Literacy Program in our neighborhood, I learned that I won a free Mary Kay pampering session for myself and friends in Virginia Beach. At first, I wasn’t all that gung ho about it. It was over an hour drive for me, I’m pretty short on female friends, and I already have a great supplier of Mary Kay products. But then I realized– this was an opportunity for an outing with the neighborhood girls! Sometimes I’m accused of not doing enough stuff with the girls. 🙂 So on November 7, I drove two thirteen year olds and an eighteen year old up to the Mary Kay Success Studio in Virginia Beach to get guzzied up.

I can not emphasis enough how sentimental of a day this ended up being for me. The Mary Kay representative who worked with us was named Cindy McGill and she was absolutely wonderful. She did the usual demonstrations of Satin Hands, Satin Lips, 3 in 1 Cleanser and the Timewise products. After that– she treated the girls to makeovers!

Cindy was informative and kind and full of compliments for the girls. I saw smiles and straightened postures and repeated peeks at mirrors. Cindy made them feel as every bit as lovely as I see them to be.

Mary Kay - Everyone
Our Girl Group at the Mary Kay Success Studio (Photo by Cindy McGill)

I tried to thank Cindy the best that I could, but found it to be another one of those pesky “more than I can adequately express” moments. There may be a reason I was so touched. Ryan and I had seen generosity towards the neighborhood kids before– old laptops, German chocolates, a day of jetskiing. Even though those people hadn’t met the kids, they knew Ryan and I. The thing that stood out about this day is Cindy was a stranger. Not only did she not know the kids, she didn’t even know me! .

The story isn’t over yet! After our visit, Cindy emailed and asked how many kids Ryan and I typically work with. I thought it was polite conversation, so I didn’t quite get around to replying in a timely fashion. That didn’t deter Cindy! She tracked me down by phone. It turns out she had a plan brewing.

She shipped us FREE products for ALL TWELVE kids in the Computer Literacy class!!!!!

The boys got a collection of MKMen products. Meanwhile the girls received Velocity products. Cindy even sent a present for me too– Satin Hands.

For the boys

For the girls

For Vicky

I got to hand everything out at the end of our Data, Information, Knowledge class. If you think Mary Kay is just for girls, think again. I was surrounded by boys and whenever a MKMen product emerged from the packing peanuts, hands would reach out and voices would volunteer, “I’m a boy! I’m a boy!”

Computer Literacy Program - Mary Kay
FREE Satin Hands!

And that is my Mary Kay story. I tell it with a full heart… and very soft hands.

One could even say “satiny” 🙂

January 21, 2010 at 12:26 am 5 comments

Science Online 2010 and the Neighborhood Kids – Community and Role Models

As many of you know, Ryan and I live in a low income neighborhood in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. This past weekend, we traveled to Raleigh to attend Science Online 2010.  Multiple breakout sessions dealt with promoting diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and still other sessions addressed communicating to and engaging youth. Because of where we come from and our close interactions with the children in our neighborhood, we were drawn to those topics.  It’s not surprising that my time at the conference made me reflect back on my experiences back home on Hunter Street.

Community and Role Models
I found one of the most powerful and inspiring sessions to be Blogging the Future – The Use of Online Media in the Next Generation of Scientists. High school teacher Stacy Baker brought a number of her students to the conference to showcase their projects on social media and online resources.  I have two decades on these students and they are articulate well beyond my years.  You can not help but be impressed by their accomplishments, their web-savvy and most of all their passion for their projects.

One thing that clearly helped fuel and empower that passion was easy access to the Internet.  Juniors Melina and Brook demonstrated iPhone apps that helped them in Chemisty and Physics respectively. Junior Ammar pulled up and gave a tour of a Dynamic Periodic Table that helped him. High school freshman and blogger Mike spoke about how he gained insight from blogs and the usefulness of emailing experts to learn more. Their teacher, Stacy Baker, reported that when students post their work online where it would be subject to the scrutiny of peers and professionals alike, the “quality of work skyrockets.”  Meanwhile Jack, high school freshman AND video game programmer extraordinaire, brought up another benefit altogether , “If you have access to the Internet, anything can become a community experience.”

Jack’s observations echoes the namesake of Linux’s free and open source operating system.  It’s named for a concept that embraces community:

“Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.”
-Archibishop Desmond Tutu

The blogging community in the geosciences was highlighted in another session. In Casting a wider net: Promoting gender and ethnic diversity in STEM, Anne Jefferson spoke on the benefits women and minorities find from geoscience blogs.  She and a team of bloggers conducted a survey among readers.  The social benefit most strongly agreed upon was “Finding role models”.

More than once during the conference, I heard an attendee ask the very valid question of, “What do you do about the students who don’t have Internet?

In the case of Hunter Street, the question isn’t simply a case of a faulty cable modem.  There are families on my street who at times can’t afford kerosene for their homes, gas for their cars or diapers for their babies.  They can’t afford computers period.  How do we invite them to join the online community– where they have access to experts like Mike, feel like part of community like Jack or find role models like the geoscience blog readers?

For Ryan and I, our answer was, “You buy it for them.” That was the backbone of our Computer Literacy Program in Elizabeth City.  We (and by we, I mean mostly Ryan) bought 13 refurbished computers from eBay. We taught twelve weeks of classes in our home to teach the children how to care for and use them and then we gave the laptops away.  We are doing the same with our Internet.  Like Linux’s Ubuntu, we keep our wireless open and free.  The children in our neighborhood know that even if we are not home, they are not a “human being in isolation.”  They can sit on the stoop and be connected to people all over the world.

Computer Literacy - Final Test - Rewarded Laptop A Computer Literacy - Software - Terrace and Steve Smith
Computer Literacy Program  - IT Jobs - Ryan Shows Database Structure Computer Literacy Program - World Wide Web - Henry and Tyrek with Delicious

Snippets of the Computer Literacy Program

My favorite speaker of the conference also spoke in the Casting a wider net: Promoting gender and ethnic diversity in STEM session. Her name is Suzanne Franks and her topic was fostering communities.  She highlighted the importance of history and knowing that “what you are doing now may sound like a small thing, but you aren’t doing it alone.  You aren’t doing it for the first time.”

It was during another session, Rev. Dr. Martin Lurther King, Jr. Memorial Session Engaging Underrepresented Minorities in Online Science, that Ryan and I learned Suzanne Franks was absolutely right– we are not alone.  Speaker David Kroll introduced us to a great non-profit organization in Durham, North Carolina called the Kramden Institute.  They refurbish and provide computers to honor students in need.  To date they have provided computers to 4000 students who did not have a computer at home.  Ryan and Vicky’s Score –  12.

Like the geoscience blog readers, it appears Ryan and I have uncovered a role model of our own through the online community. 🙂

Ryan’s Coverage on Science Online 2010
My Computer Literacy Program Posts

January 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm 4 comments

Computer Literacy Program – Final Test and Laptop Giveaway

Ryan will do more thorough posts about the curriculum, the activities, and the effectiveness of the program when all the classes are complete on These are just my own personal recaps and memories.

This run of the Computer Literacy Program included twelve students (ages 9 – 18), but Ryan and I hope that’s just the beginning. We aspire for more classes and more laptop giveaways in the future. With that in mind, we wanted to make sure to measure our performance. We wanted to pinpoint where we were effective and what areas we should target for improvement.

Before we conducted a single class, we had the kids get together to take a 50 question multiple choice test on a variety of computer-related topics ranging from nitty gritty details like Ctrl-Z to broad topics like ethics. After all the classes and makeup classes were done, we had them take the exact same test again.

Computer Literacy - Final Test - Taking Test
Taking Test on Moogle

After the test, Ryan or I set up a password protected “support” account on each machine anticipating (and accurately so) that one day the laptop may return to us for troubleshooting.  At that point, each child’s laptop became theirs to keep!

With one exception, the children did not have Internet access at their homes. I fully expected that the kids would still have to come over in the evenings, but it turns out our wireless connection is more potent than I realized! Two homes (eight kids worth) can get on our connection. That meant, once the laptops were distributed, Ryan and I found ourselves with an entirely unexpected asset – an empty house.

And it was in this oddly quiet home, that Ryan and I took a look over the scores and realized our test, which was supposed to reveal our weak areas, had some weak areas of its own:

  • Unrelated Questions – This being our first run with the program, it was not unusual for the lecture and the slides to be finished a day or two before the class. The test, however, was written well beforehand. We ended up with discrepancies between what the test asked and what we actually covered. For example, we thought we would be putting more emphasis on cloud computing and we thought we would be doing hands-on work with spreadsheets and databases. I count roughly 10 questions (20%) that we didn’t directly cover in class.
  • Group vs. Individual Scores – When the kids first took the test, Ryan and I encouraged them to work together in groups. We wanted to them to start a dialogue among themselves. We wanted to see how they reasoned the questions out and what misconceptions they had. In that arena, the group test was effective. It also seemed to build enthusiasm for the lessons to come. The only downside came at the end of the program. We are now comparing collaborative group scores against individual scores.

We’re still a little unsure of how to best work with the numbers we have (certainly speak up if you have recommendations), but we did see a small improvement in the average test grade.

Another way we’ve looked at it is on a question by question basis, comparing how many students got the question right the first time around to how many got it right the second time. There we saw improvement the performance of 26 questions and 5 questions remained the same.

When you break that question performance down by what class they were covered in, it appears our most effective class was “Ethics“. We asked four questions that related to that class and on all four of the questions, more kids got it right in the final test. “Software” and “The Future” had improvement in 100% of their questions as well and “Programming” saw a solid gain with 5 out of its 7 questions improving.

The weak points appear to be “IT Jobs” (Thanks a lot, Michael Jordan!) and “Maintenance“. Both classes didn’t have a single question improve.

It was actually a maintenance question on defragging harddrives that I found most surprising.

You should maintain the integrity of your hard drive by regularly:
a. Defragmenting it.
b. Taking it out and polishing the disk cylinder.
c. Scanning it with a ENIAC Recompiler.
d. Adjusting the pin settings.

After the “Maintenance” class, I absolutely believed we had hit a home run with defragging. I thought the out of order comic books were a brilliant way to explain the concept and it was accompanied by an in-depth hands-on activity. The kids seemed to really absorb the process and they seemed to have fun doing it. But on the final test, only two students got the question right. Four got it right the first time.

Results like that did surprise us and, like I said before, we are still trying to figure out the best way to interpret and act on the data. In the meantime, there is one number we have no problem identifying as positive:
12 Children in a Low-Income Neighborhood Now Have Laptops of Their Own!

Computer Literacy - Final Test - Rewarded Laptop B Computer Literacy - Final Test -  Rewarded Laptop D
Computer Literacy - Final Test - Rewarded Laptop A Computer Literacy -  Rewarded Laptop E

Computer Literacy - Final Test -  Rewarded Laptop C

Just Five of the Happy Recipients of Laptops

January 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm 1 comment

Computer Literacy Program – Makeup Classes

Ryan will do more thorough posts about the curriculum, the activities, and the effectiveness of the program when all the classes are complete on These are just my own personal recaps and memories.

At the end of the Computer Literacy Program, each student was going to be rewarded a laptop. But in order to get that laptop, they had to attend all twelve classes. If they missed a class, it would have to be made up before they took ownership of their laptop.

For the most part, we had great attendance. Even during Tropical Storm Ida which closed all the schools and the Coast Guard Base, we had 11 out of the 12 kids show up. The one big exception was Class 3: Programming. With that class, all the kids showed up, but six of them arrived so late (they missed 1/3 of class!), we decided not to let them in. After that, everyone was more prompt and we only missed a student here and there for the remaining classes.

Class Makeup Students
Programming 6
Software 1
Data, Information, Knowledge 1
IT Jobs 1

As soon as we finished the final class on The Future, the kids who needed makeups immediately started bombarding poor sick Ryan. When’s my makeup class? When’s my makeup class?

“I don’t know,” I heard a weary Ryan reply, “I may have you make up the class online.”

My heart sank. You see, weeks earlier we had discussed me leading the makeup lectures. I was rather looking forward to that.

Luckily for me, we wanted to make sure all the kids got their laptops before Christmas and it would take time to figure out how to duplicate the lectures and activities on Moogle. So I got to do a lecture afterall!

With IT Jobs, we decided it was sufficient for the student to just read the slides. Data, Information and Knowledge was so short, we explained the concepts with some examples and that was that. Software I worked one on one with the absent student to go through the slides and activities. Programming, however, was a full class!

Makeup Class – Programming
The day after our last class (the very same day we built our driveway), we held the makeup session on Programming. Ryan had an obligation so I ran it solo. In addition to the make up students, two kids who already took that class attended as well. They didn’t have to be there, they chose to! One of them said she hoped to get an edge on the next day’s test.

The slides, the topics and the activities were identical to the first lecture. Since it was just me, I had to be particularly careful to make sure everyone had the slides and the sample files on their machines before we started. Of course, I did still have to stop the lecture once to help someone. 🙂

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Vicky Helps (by Vick)
Paused Lecture

I felt the lecture went really well. From the original class, I had a lot of precedence to tap into. I already knew Henry was a good way to explain logic gates. I knew that baking a cake and xkcd’s Troubleshooting Flowchart were effective in explaining algorithms.

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Vicky Explains Logic Gates (by Vick)
Logic Gates

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Animated Vicky Talking about Algorithms (by Vick)
Algorithms – Baking a Cake

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Explaining xkcd's Troubleshooting Algorithm
Algorithms – xkcd Cameo

Because I am woman, I got to be extra enthusiastic when I talked about Software History and Ada Lovelace! Then we talked about the history of programming languages and each kid got a sample punch card to keep.

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Vicky Explains Punch Cards (by Vick)
Explaining Punch Cards

When we got to programming concepts, I needed an example to help explain For Next. Once again, I found value in our household pets, many of which were still auditing the class.

Paraphrased: “I want to give all the animals in this house a bath. I have five animals. Jimmie, Henry, Stench, Mollie and the kitten. I’m going to do the same process five times. ‘For each’ animal, I’ll do the same steps. I turn on the water and let it warm up. I take Jimmie and put him in the bathtub. I wet him down. I take the shampoo and lather him up. I rinse him. Then it’s Henry’s turn. I would want to do the exact same thing. I go back to the beginning and turn the water on. I put him in the bathtub. I wet him down. I lather him up. I rinse him off. And then it’s Mollie’s turn. I go back to the beginning again–”

“So it loops?” a sixteen year old said.

Could his word choice have been any better?!? 🙂 (It may have helped that I was making a big circle with my hand as I talked).

Speaking of loops, the live action Bubble Sort went well. This time each kid was an array member. I served as the loop counter and I let us all collectively serve as the areCardsSorted Boolean. At the end of each pass, I would ask “Are the cards sorted yet?” and the kids were right on it with their answer.

Computer Literacy Program - Software Makeup - Array Members Getting Sorted
Bubble Sort

Just when I was feeling pretty darn great about class, we started going through the JavaScript examples, including the Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald page. As a refresher, it is a simple page that asks who is better- Steve Smith or Larry Fitzgerald. You click on your answer and a popup box will applaud or berate you accordingly. During the first run, we used that page to let the kids alter their very first JavaScript function. This activity was a huge hit during the first run. Not so much in the make up class. It turns out no one was particularly vested in Steve Smith.

“It says that I’m smart!” one kid said proudly after clicking on Larry Fitzgerald.

“I’m smart too!” another one declared.

“Me too!” a third one chimed in.

And unfortunately, every student found themselves pleased when the web page commended their intelligence. Unlike last time, not a single student had any interest in changing the prompt. Who would want to? I would like this page better if it told me I was dumb! I guess the lesson here is know your audience.

I tried to make them change the page anyway. But when we pulled up the source code, all my impeccably placed carriage returns were gone, making the JavaScript even more intimidating to read. The lesson here is make sure to pull up your files ahead of time and confirm they behave as you expect. Finally, with just me it proved to be too tricky to tend to everyone. I ended up displaying the code on the projector, explaining it and showing them how they would change it if they wanted to. So the lesson here is with the hands-on JavaScript, it does help tremendously to have two people circulating the room.

Despite the lab at the end, I was still pleased with how class went. I had so much fun and I am absolutely ecstatic I got a chance to lead the lecture! In my career, I’ve done dozens of software trainings and I’ve gotten chances to speak at user conferences. I thought those were thrilling experiences, but this small lecture for seven teenagers dwarfs them all.

(I had to insert “teenagers” into the above sentence because otherwise the word “seven” was right next to the word “dwarfs”)

January 15, 2010 at 10:39 am Leave a comment

Creative Commons Frozen Waterfalls

Alas, I can’t hike to frozen waterfalls every day. I, unfortunately, have a career to attend to. But continuing the celebration of Frozen Waterfall Season, I did spot some great Creative Commons shots from across the continent on Flickr. Enjoy!

Bridal Veil Falls, Utah on December 27, 2009 (Photo by BG’Photo Billy)

Minnehaha Falls, Minnesota on January 6, 2010 (Photo by Nick R.O.)

Horsetooth Falls, Colorado on December 31, 2009 (Photo by Whirling Phoenix)

Tiffany Falls, Ontario on January 3, 2010 (Photo by Rodney Buike)

Multnomah Falls, Oregon on December 10, 2009 (Photo by YM Arki)

January 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm 3 comments

Frozen Cascades 2010

Ryan had to leave Blacksburg at noon today to return to Elizabeth City. But it’s Frozen Waterfall Season! I couldn’t in good conscience let him leave without seeing Pembroke’s 69 foot Cascades!

So this morning, we woke up at 6 AM. It was 10 degrees out when we started our journey to the trailhead. It may sound cold, but believe it or not, we were taking off layers as we hiked the two miles to the falls.

The waterfall was BEAUTIFUL. Incredibly, Ryan and I had it all to ourselves. This was a first for me. The Cascades are exceedingly popular and regardless of weather or season, I have always found other people there. This time, we just so happened to be early enough to beat all the other hikers. We saw many on our return trip to the car… but those precious moments standing on top of Little Stony Creek surrounded by exquisite deity-sized draperies of flowing ice were ours and ours alone.

Although that surprise solitude was precious, I certainly don’t mind sharing on this blog. 🙂 Here are some of my favorite shots of our trip.

Cascades 2010 - Falls Close
Frozen Cascades 2010

Cascades 2010 - Vicky with Falls  (By Ryan Somma)
Me with Falls

Cascades 2010 - Ryan with Falls (Portrait)
Ryan with Falls

Cascades 2010 - Gradient Rocks
Layers of Ice Around Rocks

Cascades 2010 - Ryan with Icicles (Portrait)
Ryan with Draping Icicles

Cascades 2010 - Vicky
Self Portrait at Falls

Cascades 2010 - Vicky and Ryan Under Falls (Portrait)
Me and Ryan (After we figured out the self timer and sacrificed a scarf to hold up the camera)

I had another “Cascades First” this trip. As we walked to the falls, I reflected back on all my previous trips over the last decade.

“You know,” I told Ryan, “I have never kissed anyone at the Cascades.”

“You’ll have to do that sometime,” Ryan said.

We voluntarily woke up before dawn on a Sunday to hike in the cold– today was not a day of procrastination. We made sure to knock that milestone right out. 🙂

Cascades 2010 - Vicky and Ryan Kiss Under Falls
First Kiss at Cascades

More pictures from our Frozen Cascades Hike can be found on my Flickr site.

Cascade Falls

Length: 4 miles round trip

Elevation Gain: ~500 feet

Driving and Parking: Large parking lot at trailhead with water fountain and full restrooms.

Directions from Blacksburg, VA

Take 460 West to Pembroke
Turn right on Cascade Dr (SR-T623)
Park entrance is in 3.3 miles.

January 10, 2010 at 11:57 pm 6 comments

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