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Exploring Badlands National Park Through Science and Storytelling

May 18 2018
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Teachers (and eventually students) will explore Badlands National Park through field studies, citizen science, photography, hiking and more! We'll spend one day preparing for the expedition and three in the field, camping with the bison and prairie dogs in the Sage Creek Wilderness area.


This expedition is organized by the South Dakota Discovery Center (www.sd-discovery.org) with support from the 319 Information and Education project and the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium.

We invite you to follow along and explore with us!

May 18 2018

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Mission Underway

Today nine educators convened to prepare for our expedition to Badlands National Park. It was a very full day per the video below.


Also, I found the lost car key. Actually, Taylor (one of the participants) found it while we were outside looking for arthropods. Apparently, I had stopped to check the rain gauge when I dropped it.

The weather is still a concern. Rain and more rain. We will do our work in the rain. We won't melt. It will make a good story, if not today then someday. This is how explorers roll.

What is each participant most excited about?

Preparation Stage

I did not expect rain. Heat, yes. Thunderstorms, of course. But rain not from a thunderstorm but just rain? No. This part of world is rather arid meaning rain is the exception rather than the rule.


Looking ahead at the forecast rain is predicted. To be precise Tuesday will have a passing morning shower and Wednesday will have heavy rain tapering off. No word on when this heavy rain will start or when, exactly, it will start to taper off. Thursday will be mostly cloudy.

I cannot begrudge the Badlands this moisture. I visited September last year after a hot, dry summer and the landscape was as brown and dead as November's. I don't know what the bison ate or how they put on their winter weight. I won't lie. I worried for them.

And I do recognize that in the rain you learn the Earth's secrets that are hidden to those that venture outside only in fair weather. A few weeks ago I was driving through Yellowstone National Park. A thunderstorm had just blown through. Off the side of the road a male bison stood and shook his head. Water arced from his mane. It was unexpectedly graceful and surprising. How did I not know they did this?

While there is much to anticipate I don't relish the clay mud that will accumulate on our shoes making us walk like Frankenstein until it grows heavy enough to fall off. Scraping it off is a fool's task. You will have to repeat it in moments and it rarely comes off just because you poke a stick at it.

And, to look at the bright side, at least we aren't on the Ghosts of the Ancient Forests expedition that started with six days of rain and conditions at one point that were described as Icelandic. Having been to Iceland this has meaning to me.

Bring on the Franken-Mud :)

All is in readiness. Mostly. Oh, I still have a few things to do.


  • Calibrate the probes
  • Update the GPS shared filed on all the devices
  • Add the t-tubes to the field equipment
  • Charge the charger b/c we are a good half hour from any public outlet. I'm also bringing my Biolite (the original, not the Campstove2) with plenty of sticks just in case
  • Print out the NPS permits
  • Buy Gorilla (TM) tape
  • Fill the water cans
  • Pick up the food from the farmer's market
  • Etc

But for two days out, I feel like what needs to be done is doable. Nothing is worrying me other than the usual concerns you have when using equipment you have never used before in a higher stakes environment. And yes, I like to flirt with Mr. Murphy.

Some of my worries are dampened because I am going into this expedition with a double dose of inspiration. I've been following National Geographic's Explorer Festival #NatGeoFest twitter feed this past week, jumping online to watch the live stream when I could which wasn't nearly as often as I wanted to. Open Explorer's own David Lang (follow on Twitter @davidtlang and @openexplorer) spoke as did several others that helped rocket my vision for exploration, education, science, and story telling. Some of my educator explorer colleagues were there and they posted a picture where they looked a little bleary eyed with the caption "This is what happens when you get idea drunk and a joy hangover". I got giddy just on the fumes of tweets. I can't imagine what being immersed in all that goodness was like. Idea drunk and joy hangover indeed.

The picture below is of the classroom. There will be 10 of us from six states at these seats in 48 hours. Each will have a Rite in the Rain notebook for journaling and a hand lens. Each of us will have a story to tell, about travel, about discovery, about exploration.

Regardless of the tasks that need to be done, I am so ready.

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I have butterflies in my stomach! Can’t wait to take this journey with you all virtually! :)

That's awesome! Very excited to be following along!

What's that adage about if you don't like the weather wait five minutes? Apparently there's a similar truth for expedition planning. If things aren't going well, wait five minutes.


Since my post this morning most of the issues have been resolved.

The permit I was waiting for was approved. I actually felt a little giddy at that one.

The menu has been drafted. I think we will be eating well especially since the greens will be from B&G Produce

So will the eggs, biscuits and granola.

I'm quite excited about including their food in our expedition for two reasons. First, I believe in local food. Local food builds the local economy and helps create a more resilient food system.

Second, it's good stuff. Their greens stay fresher longer. This is actually important for the field. We'll have coolers of course, but it's hard to replicate refrigerator temperatures in the field.

I found out thanks to the kick it staff at Badlands National Park that my research permit will get the entrance fees waived. Even if I had sent the paperwork in on time this particular educational activity does not qualify for a fee waiver.

The software has been released so I will be able to have multiple devices which are Androids in the field plus the ruggedized Chromebook. Being able to send teams off in separate directions will take a lot of the pressure off our schedule.

You can see in this photo I'm charging up the probes and the hand held device. This is field equipment preparation 2018. I did a trial run with the temperature probe and the device and it works well. Tomorrow I put the equipment through its paces when I test drive the pH and conductivity probes.

I will still bring the ruggedized Chromebook I bought to use in the field. Chromebooks are more common in classrooms than Android hand helds so I think it's important the educators have options.

Still no dissolved oxygen probe but I knew when I ordered it getting that in time was a crap shoot.

The weather forecast for the Badlands has improved. I'm not getting too excited about that yet, though. I expect it to deteriorate and improve at least 8 more times before we actually get there.

The only thing that needs to be resolved is finding the lost key. After this pow/pow/pow of good news, I'm hopeful it might actually happen (but still prepared to pay $200 to replace it.)

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Love this! What do you think about replicating it at other national or state parks? I live near one and this expedition of yours is making me think BIG! :)

I am less than a week out from the expedition.


I am still waiting on a permit, some of my monitoring equipment hasn't shipped from the supplier yet, I've had to buy an additional device for monitoring because software for the other devices may or may not be released in time (promised to be released in the second quarter of 2018 which technically isn't over yet but still) (and having only one device for all three monitoring sites has changed up the agenda), the menu still needs to be finalized, I submitted fee waiver paper work late which means we might have to pay (I thought it had to be submitted a week in advance, not two), and I lost the one key with keyless entry fob to our vehicle yesterday and it's $200 to replace it.

And the forecast calls for mostly cloudy while we are there. On the plus side, that means we won't be baking in the sun. On the not plus side, I so wanted to showcase the Badlands breathtaking beauty to the educators. The Sage Creek basin at a Golden Hour literally leaves me breathless.

And on the really not plus side that means mud since the forecast also calls for rain the day before we are there.

Welcome to the week before the expedition.

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It wouldn't be the brink of something great, without little obstacles popping up, right?! So excited to follow this journey! :)

Trials come and go. I need to remember that.

And thank you for following!

I love muddy-boot pictures... Can't wait to see where your expedition leads!

In my last post, I wrote a little about the water quality monitoring work we will do using GLOBE as part of the expedition. This monitoring is, no surprise, one aspect of the science we will use to explore Badlands National Park.


We will also use iNaturalist as part of our scientific exploration of the Park. According to their website, iNaturalist is a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. To use iNaturalist, you take a picture of a flower or insect or bird or mammal, upload it to the iNaturalist website where it will be geo-located on a map (this is the organism occurrence part). The observation is then made available for others to help identify or confirm the ID made either by you or the iNaturalist app itself (aka the crowdsourced species identification system).

Easy. And oddly satisfying. I started using iNaturalist three years ago as part of National Geographic’s Great Nature Project which is now defunct. I like the idea of not just archiving but mapping the photos I take of flora and fauna which consists mainly of flowers and insects. I do have a few mammals and birds but my camera and photographic skills are not good enough to capture many of those.

I have created a project for the expedition on iNaturalist that will curate all the photos taken by the expedition members. I do this in part because one of the requirements for the educators on this expedition is to contribute to iNaturalist. Having all their observations in one place will make it easier for me to review their work. This expedition is a professional development opportunity to equip them with knowledges, skills and resources they can bring back to their work and iNaturalist has a lot of potential in the classroom.

That said, the main reason I created a project is to have an easily accessible database of observations for future participants on this expedition. By creating a project each year and then organizing them under an umbrella project we will be able to search for and find what was seen and where. How many bison/prairie dogs/bighorn sheep were reported in previous years? Where did we find scarlet globemallow? Has anyone reported seeing a chocolate lily before?

Going back and looking at what was done before is an important process of science. That is how data becomes information and begins to weave the story of a place.

For example.

In 2015, I visited the Badlands near Sage Creek campground in mid-May. I took a lot of pictures, uploaded the photos, and did not look at them again since I was all about the adding observations. In 2017, I again visited the Badlands in the same general area, took more photos, and later on as I was adding my photo of tumblebugs (aka dung beetles) I noticed someone else had made an insect observation nearby. Curious, I clicked on it. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be my own observation of tumblebugs two years previous.

In that moment, a small snippet of the story of tumblebugs in the Badlands began to surface, namely if you want to see tumblebugs on bison poop, you might want to get to the Badlands near the campground in mid-May. That’s not to say they are inactive the rest of the year or don’t live other places. They very well could be active and present elsewhere and I just haven’t seen them yet. I still inspect every bison poo pie I walk by during the warmer weather but so far no tumblebugs.

To see if I could unearth more of the tumblebug story, during my recent visit in mid-May I took some time to scout out the bison poo near the campground (did I mention bison wander through the campground? And poo?) And sure enough I saw a tumblebug.

My hope is that as we-meaning all the people who are going and will go on these expeditions- explore, take photos, and revisit these photos we will find the little stories of Badlands National Park

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I am far too excited for this PD :)

One of the ways we will explore the park through science is by conducting water quality monitoring studies. When designing any water quality study there are multiple questions to consider. Chief among them are what do you what to know and why. In a perfect world these are the questions that determine everything else you do; how you will collect the data, where you will collect the data, and so forth.


The world is not perfect and the reality is that these questions—what do you want to know and why—are asked in a context of pre-existing parameters. One such parameter for our project is that we are citizen scientists, not researchers, and that informs both the temporal and spatial scale of our project. Our project is smaller in scope in time (we are monitoring for days instead of weeks) and space (three to four sites instead of dozens) than a fully developed research project conducted by a university or agency would be.

But just because the project is small does not mean it is without value. Citizen science projects can be particularly useful for baseline inventories that provide a series of snapshots of conditions on the ground. And the happy coincidence is that baseline inventories of water quality are one of the research needs of Badlands National Park according to the National Park Research Permit and Reporting System. I am not expecting our data to be used in the Park management plan but we will make it available to the Park research staff for their information.

Another parameter is that not only are we citizen scientists, we are GLOBE citizen scientists. GLOBE is an international science and education project sponsored by NASA to engage students in research. Being a GLOBE project expands the number of potential users as well as usefulness of the data by making the data available through the GLOBE database.

GLOBE protocols are written to be classroom friendly yet scientifically informative. This means the equipment and the procedures may not be exactly what a researcher would use but they still quality data, primarily because everything is extensively documented. Often times data is suspect not because the methods to collect are inferior but because they are unknown.

Sometimes pre-existing parameters can limit a project but in this case being GLOBE citizen scientists (our parameters) actually helps us answer the questions what do we want to know and why. The not-so-short answer is we want to build and populate a longterm data set of certain physical and chemical properties of Sage Creek in order to track changes in and contribute to understanding of the watershed.

And about that watershed. I consulted with the Park research staff in siting our monitoring spots. Since we are working within a Wilderness area everything needed to be accessible on foot, no motorized traffic. Because of some of the logistical constraints, we will stay within easy reach of the campground. Perhaps a backpacking expedition to go further into the Park along Sage Creek may be in order some day but that's something to grow into, not start with in my opinion.

The monitoring spots are documented in a folder on Gaia GPS. After my initial consultation with Park staff, I looked at a map and selected three sites. As I said in a previous post, one of my original sites based on a map turned out to not be suitable and by not suitable I mean not anywhere near water. This is the sort of thing that makes field work "adventurous".

I am honest enough to not want TOO much adventure when it comes to monitoring. There's a fun hashtag on Twitter called #fieldworkfail and I'm happy to not contribute to it more than that one unfortunate incident losing a GPS last year on the Cheyenne River.

And no, I don't want to talk about that.

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The logistics and preparations continue!


I have received one of two permits I will need to do field studies within the National Park. The first is for water quality testing. We are collecting water out of Sage Creek to test it. The video below has one of our testing sites. The second, submitted last week, was to collect (and release) arthropods through sweep netting and black light trapping. We will be working with our state urban entomologist so no bugs will be harmed during this activity.

I also have updated our expedition website with a packing list for the educators. This was a wee bit challenging because packing lists are so individual. One person's necessity is another person's luxury. I finally gave up trying to create the perfect-for-everyone list and just shared a modified version of the list I use for the Badlands. Everyone will have the basics, at least, and we will review the gear requirements the night before we head out. If someone realizes that an essential item was not on the list it can be easily acquired before we go.

One of my to dos is I need to create a list of supplies we will need as an expedition; things like field guides, monitoring equipment, tools and Gorilla tape. I am working with an outfitter to provide the meals so I will defer all things food related to her. (Note to self: apply for funding to assist with food costs.)

In the equipment department, I am looking at acquiring wireless probes from Vernier for pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity. The models I am interested in are due to be released in June. Fingers crossed that they will be available in time. If not, I have some older probes I can use.

National Geographic, being National Geographic, has an extended lesson plan on exploration including planning a micro-expedition. Some of the resources provided for the lessons are quite useful, a way to document and communicate the expedition. I know from experience that this will be much easier to do next year if I document my efforts and—just as important—update my documents with lessons learned post expedition.

You should post a photo when you have it all packed up. Expedition packing photos are the best!

Great idea! I love looking at expedition photos, the ones that tell the story of how, exactly, they lived on the expedition.

Glad you found that lesson helpful, Anne. You have Kenny Broad and Anne Haywood to thank for making that one possible. And, I agree it would be great to see packing photos!

I went to Badlands National Park this past weekend to scout out the water quality monitoring sites. Bison roam freely in this part of the park which presents its own challenge. (See the video).


The wildflowers are coming on now. I saw some old friends and a few that are new-to-me. If the moisture keeps up, this will be a good wildflower season which means a lot of entries from the expedition into iNaturalist.

My hope is to make at least one more scouting trip before the entire team of teachers arrives. I selected our monitoring sites from a map and want to visit them in person. My first scouting visit made me realize that what looked like an excellent site on paper was not suitable in real life. But if I can't get down there, I can live with the adventure of "discovering" the site. That is part of the fun of being an explorer.

I can do a trip in a long day but I prefer to camp overnight and head out hiking first thing. Unfortunately any camping will have to wait for a replacement tent as my tent pole cracked and I slept in a rather misshapen tent, my repair attempts with medical tape not withstanding.

As I walked around the Badlands, I couldn't help but get excited for the teachers and maybe one day students--particularly students from urban areas--to experience this place. You just never know what you will see.

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Expedition Background

Exploring Badlands National Park through Science and Storytelling is an initiative to immerse both teachers and students in Badlands National Park so they can explore through field studies, photography, hiking, and observing.


Our goal is to build the understanding of and passion for the outdoors in general and this biome in particular through immersive, science based experiences and then tell its story through photography, maps, journals, and more.

We kickoff in June 2018 with a group of teachers who will spend one day in class preparing for the expedition and learning the protocols, and three in the park, staying at a base camp in the Sage Creek Wilderness area while we explore.

Looking ahead, the plan is to bring youth from urban areas so they can have their own experiences and tell those stories while adding to the historical data sets from the field studies started by the teachers. Ultimately, the hope is to create an archive of data, stories, and experiences from both teachers and students that tell a richly textured story of Badlands National Park.

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I'm interested in the intersection of science and storytelling: qualitative and quantitative techniques for getting at the truth of a place. Looking forward to seeing what you discover!