Saturday, June 25, 2016

Base Building

The last few weeks have been a real rollercoaster of information. Considering that geography is a new aspect to the LAKES REU, we have been devoting a lot of our time to collecting a solid base of information on the watershed. We've also spent a good chunk of time gathering our toolbox of software and hardware. On top of that, we've also been digesting an assortment of readings on multidisciplinary approaches to geography, political ecology, and social networks.

Most of the contextual information has been gathered in a few large gulps. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Census Bureau have provided large amounts of raw data to make some base maps to work with; however, the story of the Red Cedar watershed is a little more complex than that. From a meet-and-greet in Chetek, I learned that tourism provides a large source of income for locals, and without good water quality this tourism will disappear, leaving towns like Chetek dry of a major source of income. I've also learned how to operate some mapping software that I was not familiar with before, which I hope will be useful as we continue our work.

From here, I would love to figure out the difference in views between between locals, and those that visit the Red Cedar. I think understanding this difference would be very beneficial in crafting policy. I hope to gain more insight into this difference by looking into past surveys, and by giving input on surveys being sent out from my fellows in the REU.


Friday, June 24, 2016

"Where the quality of life goes down for the environment, the quality of life goes down for humans." – George Holland

As we draw to the close of our second week here in Menomonie, I have come to realize that I have learned an immense amount in a very short period of time. Presenting in front of the other groups has made me realize how many new techniques I have been introduced to. It also made me realize  that I am extremely passionate about the economics project that we have jumped into. The more I learn about Menomonie and Chetek, the more I care. It’s not just a matter of cleaning a lake or delving into local politics. These lakes are the hearts and identities of these towns, and the survival of these economies and people relies largely on its maintenance. Further beyond that, I hope that the work we do here can be a case study for other areas. If we can find solutions here, in the most polluted and impaired of Wisconsin’s lakes, then the possibilities and ramifications of our projects to help other parts of the world are immense.

Metacognition for Mega Growth

Yesterday afternoon I took my seat in a classroom on the first floor of Harvey Hall.  Preparing for our mini-project presentations, I set up my laptop, glancing around the room.  It occurred to me that I was sharing a space with ten people who had been complete strangers just twelve days prior.  In less than two weeks, numerous awkward exchanges of pleasantries, group meals, and several brief explosions of academic excitement (geek-outs, if I may) transformed this collection of people into a group of friends and collaborators, eager to share their own work and provide critiques and suggestions to the work of others.


Academically I have learned a lot in the past couple weeks. To mention just the largest, I've learned about the mechanics of a hedonic price model, the theory behind contingent valuation, and a lot about data collection. Perhaps most interesting and valuable is the one that seems initially simplest—data collection.

I think it is easy to look at a dataset and not necessarily think about where the numbers come from. I don't mean not to think about the source of the data or the mechanics of how it is collected, rather it's easy to fail to consider the people, the attitudes, and the contexts that underlie any given data point. I've thought about this a lot recently for two reasons.

Partially because designing surveys forces you to consider the context behind the issue that you are interested in in a way that working with already formed data does not. In order to write a good question you really have to consider all the different people that might be answering it and all the different ways they could interpret the question. I think I will be able to get so much more from the data when we get it back because of all the consideration we put into designing the questions and everything we had to understand about the communities we are studying to design it effectively.

The other aspect of the REU that has been making me really think about the data points separately is the interdisciplinarity of the project. Presenting to different disciplines, and listening to the presentations of the other projects allowed me to consider which methods or concepts complement our economics projects. I think especially the data collected by the anthropology team could greatly inform the our results from our coming survey.

I am looking forward to learning more economic methods and continuing to learn new perspectives on economics research though working interdisciplinarily.

Detecting Best Management Practices Using Remote Sensing

As a member of the geography team, this summer ill be working on a remote sensing project to detect best management practices. This involves analyzing and interpreting satellite imagery to see if these practices contribute less to the phosphorus pollution than others. The first part of this project will consist of analyzing farmer surveys to see if these practices are spatially clustered. We will then do a unsupervised classification to see where else they are taking place. The second part involves learning about incentive programs that offer farmers payments in exchange for converting farmland to natural vegetation. We will then compare images of before and after these programs were implemented to see how much farmland has been converted.

I'm looking forward to learning more about how different farming practices contribute to pollution and also more about the models that estimate phosphorus load. I'm also looking forward to working with other to students to see how/if we can incorporate GIS into their projects.

Oral Histories of the Red Cedar Watershed

Now that we're a couple of weeks and a few conversations with local folks into the project, I can say that by the end of the summer I will have learned a lot about interview techniques, thorough transcribing, and efficient field note taking. But aside from the technical skills of this project, I will be learning a lot about the communities in the Red Cedar Watershed. For example, I'll be looking into how people have previously approached the lake health, the perceived causes of declining lake health, the relationships that people hold between themselves and the lake, and more. I'm excited to see how people answer these questions differently, and think I will be surprised by the emerging narrative.

As I begin investigating these aspects along with my peers, I want to look into the history of people's relationships with the Red Cedar Watershed, and especially narratives from Native People. I hope to get a fuller understanding of how the relationship between people and the lake has changed, and how our perceptions of our relationship have changed as well. In order to collect oral histories, we will coordinate interviews, engage in conversations with an open mind, and attend community meetings. I'm looking forward to learning more through connections to the people of the Red Cedar Watershed, both past and present.

Housing and Hedonic Models

As a member of the economics team, this summer I’m learning about multiple aspects of how the lakes affect Menomonie. First, we’re using a hedonic model to examine the housing in the Menomonie area. Our goal is to collect data on houses in Menomonie that are both on and off lakes Menomin and Tainter. Controlling for variables in the individual houses, such as number of bedrooms/bathrooms and number of square feet, the difference in price will show the value of having real estate on the lake. Additionally, we will look at properties on a cleaner lake in the Chetek area. After controlling for different housing variables, the difference in price will represent the value of having a cleaner lake. This has been a major focus of our research so far this summer. We’re also looking at the effect that having a cleaner lake has on the businesses in the area and individuals’ willingness to pay for a cleaner lake.

            While we have done a lot of organizing and data collection so far, I’m looking forward to learning more about the mathematics behind the models – particularly the hedonic pricing model. I’ve done some coursework with econometrics before, but I greatly look forward to being able to apply the knowledge to a real-world problem and see how to create a model that fits the situation. I’m also excited to learn more about how our economics research will interplay with the other groups, such as geography and sociology, by interacting with the other students and mentors throughout the summer.

A Model Summer

This summer, I’m going to be working on developing mathematical models for the lake. First we’re going to develop a hydrodynamic model to tell us about the temperature and turbulence of the lake and then use that information to see how that affects the growth of the algae blooms on the lake. Math modeling is really exciting because it lets us change inputs in the model and run experiments varying temperature and turbulence so scientists don’t have to run costly and time consuming experiments. Then once we know how much algae is predicted we can use that information to see how much chlorophyll and pollution is in the water. In addition, we can see how much phosphorus contributes to algae growth.  

                I’m excited to learn more about the biology in this process and to see how sustainability efforts are affecting the algae growth. I’m also excited to see the differences in the predictions of algae blooms during several hot summers or several cooler summers in addition to decreased pollution of the lakes. Hopefully, by understanding the biology and physics behind algae growth we’ll be able to suggest other policies to implement to help make the lakes cleaner. 

New Interdisciplinary Experiences

As a student of Sociology and Environmental Studies at a small liberal arts college, I have perhaps more experience that most at interdisciplinary learning, and this is part of the reason why I felt so eager to come work on this project.  But the actual mechanics and content of the ways these disciplines can be combined never ceases to surprise me.  This summer I am working with Dr. Nels Paulson and Alexis Econie on the sociology aspect of the project, and we are carrying out a study of Non-Operating Landowners (NOLs), or people that own farmland (in our case 35+ acres), but do not farm it, and in many cases, do not even live on or near it.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Drinking Water From a Fire Hydrant

One of the first things that our mentor, Keith, told us was that the first few weeks we would feel like we are trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. Boy, was he right. As our part of the project involves a lot of differential equations, and I had taken no differential equations, the first week or two, for me, has been essentially trying to understand roughly a semester's worth of material via an intense crash course. By necessity, I will be learning a lot of new math this summer and new ways of using and understanding old math.

I will also learn in depth and detail how to go about the process of creating a mathematical model. I've done this before in small doses, but it involved about equal parts knowledge and making it up on the fly- I'm hoping by the end of the summer that ratio will be much more in favor of knowledge. For the purposes of this project, we're hoping to create a model that will help us predict blooms, which can be used by later groups to see the positive or negative effects of possible programs and solutions. Currently, we are diving into practice models, of a sort, that should give us a better understanding of models and the modeling process that we can use in creating our model.

Though it is exciting to be learning new math and programming skills, I am truly hoping that this program will ultimately help me learn a bit more about myself and my interests, so that I can make more informed decisions regarding my future plans. If I feel time is moving quickly now- I can't believe we're almost done with our second week!-, I can only imagine how quickly my final year at college will fly by.

"The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences"- Ruth Benedict

The title of this post is a quote from a brilliant cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict. Her life's work was studying how human's reacted/ thought differently to certain things. To simplify, "one man's trash is another man's treasure", and looking at the cultural differences that make this quote true are vital to understanding what is going on in Barron and Dunn County.

In reference to the lakes I am learning about, I don't believe that any member of the community views the lake as trash. From what I have gathered, the lake is either a vital part of the community, or it is something that could be good, but has been neglected and abused. My research is looking at how businesses and community members view the lake, and to what degree of importance is their relationship with the lake in their everyday lives, as well as understanding the division of opinions that many have in reference to the lakes. My goal is to learn more about the citizens of Chetek and Menomonie's perception of the lake, whether that is perception of causes of lake pollution, what is being done about the pollution, or their perception of what the lake does for them in general.

We plan to accomplish this by conducting interviews with the local businesses, home owners, and lake protection groups that exist in the counties. By analyzing this qualitative data, we find reoccurring themes and topics that come up, which will be vital to understanding how having a polluted lake in the area influences the locals every day lives. This can further the knowledge for the community, which is an effort to make the lakes cleaner and provoke action in what should be done to correct the damage that is being done to the lakes.

Monday, June 20, 2016

So There's no Subways in Menomonie, Right?

Arriving in Menomonie has been an exciting experience and has surprised me in many different ways. Because of my upbringing in a densely populated suburban area on the East Coast, I tried not to have too many preconceived ideas about rural Midwestern America. Though the small size of Menomonie is indeed very different than what I’m accustomed to, what surprised me most was not the size or rural landscape. Rather, the cultural connotations of a rural society and the tightly knit communal connections shocked me the most. Coming from an area where I didn’t even know all of the students in my own high school graduating class, it amazes me how the entire community is familiar with one another and highly engaged in Menomonie. Local business, citizens, farmers, and political leaders are far more intertwined than the social system I live in. Therefore, this concept of a close and interdependent network of rural community members is what I believe has presented the greatest challenge in adjusting to the lifestyle and culture here.
This social structure was never something I considered in my study of economics. This project and community has begun to teach me the importance of individualizing economic approaches in order to avoid thinking of America as a uniformly industrialized nation that operates based on particular economic and behavioral assumptions. Just because these conditions work in the markets of the city atmosphere does not mean that they apply everywhere. This is a great lesson that I am quickly learning since coming here. Also, never have I fully grasped the value of interdisciplinary studies until this past week. The farmer network and sociology work (though I’ve only gotten a taste so far) has been so fascinating to me, and as we begin to discuss the economic project I often run across questions that spill over into these other disciplines. The problem, town, research, and solutions are more complex than I had originally thought. I suppose my New York mind thought of rural areas and farms as much more one dimensional- there’s a pollution problem and once we explore a cost-benefit approach then we have an answer and farmers will switch to BMPs and everyone is happy. How wrong was I. Farms are perhaps more complicated than the capitalist crazy Big Apple. Afterall, in New York it’s all supply and demand and stocks- no one really cares about the people. People are typically reduced to incentives and profit-maximizers. Menomonie has presented the idea that maybe that’s not quite right (and even slightly unethical). Particularly at the Raw Deal meet and greet- where I was able to meet some of the citizens and discuss their attitudes towards the local economy, the environment and the threshold between these two elements- it was dawning on me that people and their interactions matter a great deal in the realm of economics and environmental issues as a whole.