Thursday, January 29, 2015

Earth materials in buildings--don't take'm for granite

Earth materials in buildings--don't take'm for granite

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Teachers and learners alike value opportunities for field observation. There’s just something about seeing things in the wild that’s hard to replicate in a classroom. Teaching Shakespeare? See a play. Teaching ornithology? Step outside.

Teaching geology in east central Illinois?

“We’re working under a real handicap here,” says Eileen Herrstrom. “Nearly all of our rock is covered by 300-foot deep glacial deposits.”

Herrstrom, who has been teaching bread-and-butter undergraduate courses in the U of I Department of Geology for 20 years, also curates the Department’s collections, which give students direct access to rocks and minerals. These collections were formerly housed in the Natural History Building, but were moved to Davenport Hall the on the main quad in summer 2014. That’s where they are likely to stay now, since that’s where the classes that use them are held.

I’m naturally curious about such things, but was motivated to seek out Herrstrom when I learned that she and colleague Jackie Wittmer had created a new display especially to feature the earth materials used in buildings on the quad. One important purpose of the display, says Herrstrom, is “to show people that there is geology around us every day, since the buildings we inhabit are made with earth materials.”

Herrstrom replaces a sample of limestone in the display.
The display is actually pretty modest in size; it’s a wood and glass case about the size of a large bookcase, with just four shelves. But in that small space lives a field trip, one that you can take yourself. The upper three shelves display specimens of natural building stone accompanied by explanatory text. (The materials are like those used in campus buildings, but not actually taken from them.) There’s granite similar to what is used in the steps of Noyes Lab, marble of the sort found in Lincoln Hall, sandstone like that on the outer walls of Altgeld Hall, and more.

On the wall beside the display hangs a map indicating where such materials would typically come from for buildings in this area, along with the names and ages of the rock formations from which they are taken. Some of these sites are as close as Indiana, where our limestone comes from, while others are more distant; slate used here, for example, comes from New England.

One choice Herrstrom made that may surprise some people is to include synthetic building materials in the display along with the natural building stones. But those contain geological materials too. As she pointed out, “The chief ingredient in brick is clay, which we have in Illinois, and in the past quite a bit of brick was made locally.” Similarly, concrete and asphalt both contain materials that come from Illinois quarries.

You can start your exploration of building materials used on the UI campus at a blog created by Herrstrom at  From the home page, be sure to click through to more detailed descriptions and photos.

And by all means, if you’re regularly on campus, or you have occasion to visit, swing by the first floor of Davenport Hall and see the “Geology of the Quad” exhibit. From there it’s only a short way to the second floor, where the Department of Geology’s more extensive teaching collections are on display and available for anyone to see whenever the building is open. Look for them in rooms 223 and 224.

Then get out and identify those stones in the wild—on buildings of the quad and elsewhere.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Looking back at wildlife firsts of 2014

Looking back at wildlife firsts of 2014

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I was out early on New Year’s Day, in a patch of woods along the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County, and within an hour of sunrise I’d already seen my first bird of prey for the year, a bald eagle. That got me thinking about the many wildlife firsts I experienced last year.

You may remember that my wife Karen and I found a pair of whooping cranes at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve in early November, a first for both of us.  It was also in November that we had our first experience of chasing a red fox from the back yard.  Normally I’d sneak out to photograph such a visitor, not scare it away--but this one was trying to carry off one of our hens. (She lost some feathers in the attack, but nothing worse.)

The hens themselves, which we got as chicks in April, are firsts for us, made possible by the work of Karen and others, who convinced the Champaign City Council to revise the ordinance prohibiting hens.

In June our family camped for a week at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It was our second time for that, but there were a couple of general firsts involved. We all saw a badger for the first time ever. It scuttled across the road in front of us and up a nearby slope as we drove at dusk one evening. We also had a first in our campsite one afternoon; a young bull moose walked through, right next to the tent where my wife and daughter were resting.

[Photos by author: moose in the Rockies; leafcutter ant; yellow eyelash viper; pale-billed woodpecker.]

On one of our hikes in the Rockies I added a couple of birds to my life list: a rock wren that was singing from a dead pine up near the tree line, and a MacGillivray’s warbler that sang from a thicket along a stream in a valley.

In March I travelled to Costa Rica with a U of I field course led by a colleague in the School of Earth, Society, and Environment.  As co-leader of the trip, it was my job to help ensure that students gained everything they could from the experience. How better to do that than by paying attention to the wildlife that surrounded us and helping others to see it?

Because most of us had never been to Central America before, my complete list of firsts from Costa Rica is probably longer than you would care to hear. But the condensed version begins on the forest floor with leafcutter ants. I’ve always found them fascinating in zoos and on screen, but enjoyed even more seeing their single-file parade across our path.

In the trees we saw monkeys—mantled howler monkeys, whose otherworldly calls could be heard miles away through the forest, and white-faced capuchins, which hung around looking for handouts and would steal food given half a chance.  There were new-to-me reptiles in the trees, too—green iguanas as still as statues, and eyelash vipers so vivid a yellow they looked like ornaments rather than part of the natural scene.

Of the 900-plus bird species that occur in Costa Rica, I’ll say only that we saw enough for one trip, but too few for a lifetime. Fortunately, it’s my job to lead another class in Costa Rica this March, so I’m confident 2015 will include some interesting firsts of its own.