Cheri van Deraa is the director of online marketing at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She manages digital channels which include the GardenGuide app, website, online advertising, social media, and e-newsletters.
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For me, personally, Silent Spring had a profound impact. It was one of the books we read at my mother’s insistence and then discussed around the dinner table. . . . Rachel Carson was one of the reasons why I became conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues. Her example inspired me to write Earth in the Balance. . . . Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of political leaders. . . . Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together.
—Vice President Al Gore, “Introduction,” Silent Spring, (1994 edition), xiii
My mom was a grade school teacher. During a brief period where she stayed at home with children, she became an environmentalist. It all began with the book Silent Spring. My mother read about chemicals used in farming post-World War II and the decline of birds, and that was it; she had to take action. She remembers going to her parents’ house, and my grandfather was going around the yard, spraying DDT without protection, as his grandchildren played. He had a big bottle of DDT in the garage that had gone unnoticed until then. My mother could not believe what was happening and stopped him immediately. She had her dad throw out all pesticides. My grandfather didn’t realize there was any danger, as these chemicals promised a beautiful, American-dream green lawn. I remember at family gatherings, our family kept saying to my mother, “Elaine, what are you so worried about?”
We became a family that ate whole wheat bread, and got the 1970s equivalent of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. I would say that this book changed my childhood.
My mom baked organic whole wheat bread every week; it was not commercially available yet. (Imagine going to middle school with a sandwich of PB&J on badly cut homemade whole wheat bread, surrounded by kids eating bologna on Wonder Bread white. My brother and I felt so out of place at the time. (And now it would be so accepted, wonderful, and charming.)
We did not have a microwave.
No pop. No junk food. No candy.
Our suburban lawn had dandelions. Mom used a dandelion knife.
We used nonphosphate detergent.
We went to weird hippie health food restaurants in Chicago. For her birthday, my mom knew she would get her requested restaurant so she would pick the only organic one in town.
There were no TV dinners (and we could watch one hour of television a day).
We all got transcendental meditation mantras.
But I digress…
She was the co-founder of S.A.V.E.: Society Against Violence to the Environment. “When Zion’s nuclear power plant was being built, we felt that it was so close to a large city…I put a full-page ad in Highland Park News, and I wrote an article about nuclear waste and terrorists.”
When my mom wasn’t lying down in front of bulldozers, or arguing with the Park District of Highland Park or Highland Park High School about spraying grass that children played on, she was going door-to-door, stopping the spraying of mosquitoes in our town.
After we moved to San Diego, I remember lugging many heavy grocery bags filled with organic oranges and flour from San Diego State University’s co-op parking lot, ½ mile each way every week (several trips each time).
Later, when she got cancer, she endured the remark, “Oh, you with your organic food, you got cancer?”
Now you can find organic food everywhere. Who doesn’t meditate?
Teach your children well…
New times and different challenges…now we are concerned with global warming.
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Thanks, Mom. You taught me about Mother Earth. I still don’t have a microwave. I eat organic food, grow some my own, and am lucky to work at a garden that cares about the environment. :)
On December 4, 2013, the Garden became both the first public botanic garden—and the first Chicago cultural institution—to host a live field trip, with approximately 1,000 students across the country using Google+ Connected Hangouts on Air.
Our field trip topic was the impact of an invasive species on an ecosystem—specifically, emerald ash borer on our native ash trees. We wanted to make this complicated issue relevant and interactive for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
There are many fun things you can do with a live broadcast. The complex subject of balanced ecosystems and invasive species needed something unusual to capture students’ imaginations and attention. Our solution: begin our field trip with an original graphic comic about the emerald ash borer (EAB), and conclude by cutting down an infected tree during our broadcast. The live broadcast format also allowed our educators and horticulturists to go off script for some on-screen improvisation.
Taking advantage of our medium, we presented from multiple locations—switching to read and show our comic book, present GIS (Geographical Information Systems) maps illustrating the spread of EAB in the U.S., view EAB larvae under a microscope in our science lab, and show how to diagnose the damage on—and treat (or remove)—an infected tree in the woods. The finale was cutting down the infected tree—live on camera! Before we signed off, we had an interactive Q&A between classrooms and Garden experts.
A series of technical and dress rehearsals—one with the three participating classrooms—were necessary to troubleshoot the quirks of Google+ Hangout on Air. We chose three classrooms from across the country as active participants who were able to ask questions on camera, and be seen by our experts and others tuned in. (Viewing classrooms can still participate by typing in questions during the broadcast.)
From a technical standpoint, it was critical to know the limits of this technology. Google Hangouts currently allows up to ten screens to actively participate in an on-air event, and our entire program had to be done live, as Google Hangout on Air does not allow for streaming video. We used four of our allotted screens at the Garden: one for our graphic novel with narration, one in the lab, and two in the field. The screens were controlled through a central operator (me!) who acted as an on-air producer, switching from one screen to another to control the on-air experience. We used two smartphones to transmit from the field, and tested several models with different operating systems and carriers to maximize image quality (especially in the woods), and keep gaps in the transmission to a minimum. Macintosh computers provided the indoor Garden screens; one was dedicated to the microscope, and the other used its built-in camera. The computers were hard-wired to the Ethernet network to ensure the best transmission possible. Delays were a minor issue: even under the best of circumstances, we experienced a short lag switching from user to user. This was particularly problematic when fielding classroom questions.
While a virtual field trip is not a substitute for an actual visit to the Garden, it can offer something very different and unique, bringing together classrooms from all over the country. Virtual classrooms can also enrich classroom activities in schools facing budget shortfalls and scant funding for field trips. This new tool from Google can help us (and others) raise awareness about topics that affect us all from local to global impact. Follow us on Google+ to be alerted to our next virtual field trip and other Garden updates.