Exploring Badlands National Park Through Science and Storytelling

Latest update June 15, 2019 Started on May 18, 2018

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
Expedition's summary cannot exceed 240 characters


Did you know that the National Geographic Society is currently offering Explorers a variety of funding opportunities in the fields of conservation, education, research, storytelling, and technology? To learn more and apply for a grant click here.
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I spent this past week at National Geographic's Explorers Festival which was inspirational and exciting. I'm more convinced than ever that we are on the right path with this model of involving educators in field research using citizen science protocols.

Now that the Festival is over my thoughts are turning to the field workshop. I am happy to report that the permits to do the field work are in! (Huzzah!) There is still a lot of work to do with packing and organizing but I feel it is doable. That said I wouldn't mind having the superpower to slow down time while I speed up so I can make sure things are ready to go.

Thanks for your commitment to this project! I am looking forward to the visit and meeting so many dedicated GTFs involving students in field research through citizen science.

I took a short pre-expedition scouting trip to the Badlands yesterday. As I expected, the wildflowers are thick. So too, unfortunately, is the yellow sweet clover which is a biennial non-native species that takes over every two years. I say unfortunately because the sweet clover tends to crowd out native species.

The sweet clover is not blooming yet but probably will be by the time we are there. On the positive side I believe the arthropods like it so that should mean a healthy population to monitor. According to this article, bison eat sweet clover so they will have a feast this spring.

I hiked out to the site we monitored for water quality last year and surveyed the impacts from the recent rains. No surprise, it looks very, very wet. Monitoring is doable but I think we might monitor two other sites this year that are a little easier to access. I expect them to be impacted too but accessing them does not require quite as much scrambling up and down slopes.

Full disclosure: I rarely go to Sage Creek just for field work purposes. I also go because I love the area. I came here before it was part of my classes and I will continue going even after my class location has move on. While I was tromping around I came across a Chocolate or Leopard Lily (Fritillaria atropurpurea). They are relatively rare in this part of the world although I'm told in Alaska they are abundant. I've only seen one other in the Park and that was near Deer Haven. I always get a little wow moment when I see something like this.

I stopped into the excellent Visitor Center to meet with Park staff about our time in the Park. I'm grateful that they have the bandwidth to work with our group this year. This year is shaping up to be interesting and exciting. Now all we need is good weather, no poison ivy, and the permits to come through.

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I have started the preparations for the field sessions in earnest. We have 11 people for the first and 16 (!) for the second. Much of the planning at this stage is for the logistics as well as the field work. Gear, transportation, and food all need to be thought through, especially as food has a superpower the others do not. If you don't get the food right an otherwise good trip will be a rough experience. But if everything else goes wrong, it will still be bearable as long as you have good food.

Feeding this many people in a camp setting requires some thought. The cook Maria and I decided we'd like to keep the food as local as possible. And what could be more local to the Badlands than bison? We are very grateful that Wild Idea Buffalo has signed on as a sponsor so one dinner will include bison.

Bison are a critical part of the Plains grasslands ecosystems that we are studying. And if it seems weird to eat them then I encourage you to read the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

From the book: The Honorable Harvest (ed note: practices that Wild Idea follows) asks us to give back, in reciprocity for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.

Gratitude and its offshoots, savoring and self restraint, can accomplish much to protect the other-than-human world, assuming that these attitudes are practiced as a way of life. But if attitude seems too unsubstantial to do much real good we have other, more pragmatic ways to reciprocate. We are partnering with a business that supports the ecosystem. We are supporting a park that protects the bison and the grasslands (hello gift shop). We will collect data about this ecosystem and share it with park managers. We will have experiences with the bison and the grassland that will go out as stories and learning to 8 different states through 27 educators plus what gets shared through social media (think of the multiplier effect.) All of these will have an impact that collectively add up to a benefit.

As humans we can't help but consume. We are heterotrophs, not autotrophs that make their own food. But if we live a life of literal and metaphorical honorable harvest we can practice reciprocity with the world ensuring its well being and our own.


Badlands and the GTFs

This year, there will be not one but two field expeditions for educators. The first on June 18-21 is similar to last year's expedition (see below) only hopefully with less rain. There is still plenty of room in this PD so if you know an educator that wants a professional development opportunity that isn't a sit-and-get please share this link with them and have them sign up today!

The second expedition is for current and former Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. We are convening to reconnect, re-energize and strategize. In addition, I am working on a project to develop the ability of educators to be explorer educators by intentionally seeking out experiences that they can use in their teaching, sharing them through storytelling. I am turning to the Fellows to seek their input on what this process looks like in their settings. My goal is to create a platform that will inspire and motivate educators to move into the explorer zone.

Photo: 2017 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows


Two things:

  1. When you do research within a national park, you have to submit the Investigator's Annual Report (IAR) about the work accomplished the previous year. I'm in the process of writing the IAR now. On the one hand, it's enjoyable to review the work we accomplished (i.e. the iNaturalist project). On the other, it's report writing.

  2. Preparation for the 2019 expedition has begun!

The dates will be June 18-21. South Dakota state urban entomologist Amanda Bachmann will return to assist with our entomology field studies. My colleague and fellow 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and ESRI consultant Kyle Treddinick will be co-presenting to teach us about how to use the power of story maps to tell the story of a place. And I will pilot Subject Matter Storytelling for Educators.

Educators can sign up on the South Dakota Discovery Center's website for this four day/three night opportunity. We'll be camping in the primitive area of Sage Creek (no water or electricity but there is a vault toilet). A limited amount of camping gear is available to rent for a small fee.


A Winter Visit

I took advantage of a bit of nice weather (sunny, temps in the 50's°F/10's°C, but windy) to dash out to the Badlands and visit the monitoring site yesterday. While we in the central part of the state were on the edge of the polar vortex and have a good amount of snow cover, the Badlands have been a bit warmer and a lot of their recent snow is melting.

You only have to visit the Badlands once when there has been any sort of moisture to learn that mud is a thing. A serious thing. Anticipating this I brought my Bogs boots and Yak Trax for hiking because not only would there be mud, there would also be ice and maybe some snow.

Despite my footwear the hike to the monitoring site was a slippery, slidey,messy one. I ended up on my behind once sliding down a small hill. One of my YakTrax popped off, I know not where, probably when I slid. The other was ruined. To be fair I had the walking Trax, meant for sidewalks and parking lots, not the Badlands with its clay mud and ice made by bison trample. I had to plan my route carefully as hills I would normally scamper up were soggy and slippery, leaving me on my knees grasping for scant vegetation. I ended up tucking my new camera which hung around my neck inside my fleecey pullover after one too many close calls as I slipped forward.

But I enjoyed the hike. I was outdoors. The air was warm. The sun was shining. I was in the Badlands. That I was covered in mud mattered not. I don't go outside to stay clean. This is why I have field clothes.

At the monitoring site, the approach to stream side entailed a muddy sharp drop. I opted to inspect the site from above rather than climb down to inspect up close and risk not being able to climb up. The site is at intersection of a smaller stream joining the South Fork of Sage Creek. Lots of water was running through both streams.

I encountered no bison on this hike. I have no idea where they were but they weren't near me which was just as well. I saw some as I drove out of the Sage Creek basin, lounging in the sun. I'm sure they enjoyed the respite from the cold just as much as I.

Here in South Dakota I know we have three more months at least until the warmer weather returns. I hope I will be able to get out there again during another break in the cold, this time with upgraded YakTrax and a carrying case for my camera.

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An Autumn Visit

Badlands National Park became a Park only 40 years ago on November 10. Prior to that, it was a National Monument. I decided to go for a short visit yesterday, Nov 10, not so much to celebrate but recuperate. I needed some calm and tranquility after the clamor and stress leading up to the election. Plus, it is never too early to start scouting for the next expedition which will be in June 2019.

Nature, despite whatever romantic notions we may harbor, is not always calm and tranquil. The day was windy, gusts of 35 mph plus according to the signs of the Beaufort Scale; the sky cloudy with patches of sunshine. The temperature was probably in the 30's F, single digits C. No matter. I bundled up in layers-two on the bottom, five on top, and my Boggs boots partly for warmth and partly for dryness-and off I went to the site where we collected water quality data in June.

I chose this hike because I think to know your site you should see it year round. Or at least year round as you can reasonably manage. I won't ever visit the site in bitter cold partly because I don't like the bitter cold, partly because I think it's foolish to be out in conditions like that without a team of people (I read To Build a Fire in middle school and have never gotten over it) and partly because I don't want to winter stress the bison.

And yes, I did see bison yesterday. The first was standing in my path, quite a distance away happily. I climbed a hill to go around him. I always go higher than the bison when I need to avoid them because I figure they are less likely to charge up hill than down if they have really taken a dislike to me.

Climbing the hill changed my approach to the monitoring site so I missed the poison ivy patch. As an aside, the poison ivy patch will feature prominently in a lightning talk I'm giving at the National Geographic Educator Certification Celebration during the National Council of Social Studies conference in Chicago at the end of this month. I will post the talk here after the event.

Climbing down the other side of the hill put me in a draw where I passed another bison who had hunkered down in a patch of tall grass high on the hill in its lee. To go higher than him meant getting closer to him but he was far enough away that I could walk quietly and quickly by. He must have been asleep because he didn't stir. Normally bison will look at you even if you are a ways away.

After I inspected the site, no snakes or ticks to worry about, I wandered around a little more. I was looking for new hikes and opportunities to add to the teacher class I will do in June. I am making notes already on things to add.

One of the things I am noodling on how to add is a hike or some sort of excursion in what I call the front part of the park where the geologic formations are. On my way out of the park I stopped at an overlook to look at some of these formations just because it's Badlands National Park. I spend most of my time in the Sage Creek wilderness area but the area with the formations is stunning, geologically interesting and frankly, iconic. I will need to figure out how to add time hiking here into the coursework.

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What happens after an expedition?

I can't speak for everyone else who organizes an expedition but after I got back from the field I put away the equipment, organized the photos, shared the field notes (as seen on this platform), and updated the project map with field work locations.

The iNaturalist observations have been added to this iNaturalist project.

I also uploaded the data. Since we have a small data set, it's impossible to draw many conclusions.

One of the conclusions that can be made from the data is that water in Sage Creek is very turbid or cloudy. The reason? Sage Creek runs through the Badlands, a highly erodible landscape. This data has been added to a story map of water transparency readings that will eventually be populated by water transparency readings from around the state. Students will analyze the water transparency readings for patterns and relationships related to geology and land use.

Even though the work with the data will continue, the actual field session is now complete with this final blog entry. The only thing that remains is set the tentative dates for next year. I have penciled in June 24-27. There will be some exciting additions and updates. Stay tuned!

In The Field

Thursday June 21: The Last Hike

Thursday dawned clear and cool, a glorious morning with the Badlands at their very best. Today we would hike out to the same monitoring spot and collect samples from the same locations, post rain. The other sites required crossing Sage Creek and while not in flood stage it was too high to cross safely.

A few of our company had to decamp early because of other commitments so after a debrief we who remained gathered up the collection bottles and headed out to the same spot.

On the previous hike on Tuesday afternoon, the one with the expedited return due to distant thunder, we had found a short cut across a low lying area. This morning however, the shortcut was full of water from the recent rain and heartily croaking frogs. We had to scrabble around and find an alternate route. This is Badlands Hiking in my experience, it's never quite the same twice.

As we passed the location where we heard the rattlesnake all was quiet. Good. We collected our samples and started the hike back.

We crested a hill and--delight!--encountered an abundance of wildflowers, many of which we had not ye seen. I don't know if the bison hadn't find that spot yet or just didn't visit this point but we saw an ground plum vetch (astragalas crassicarpus) also sometimes called buffalo beans, Indian breadroot or scurfpea, fruiting buffalo currant, scarlet globemallow, and echinacea or purple coneflower.

Since contributing to iNaturalist was both required and fun, we spent a happy time adding to our digital collection of forbs.

One of the things I used to tell people to calm their nerves about rattlesnakes in the Badlands is that the only place I had ever seen them was in or near a parking lot. I am going to have revise this as after the wildflower hill we did encounter another rattler which thankfully was not in the mood to make itself known. We only discovered it when a woman looking for a slightly less soggy path than the one I took saw the snake move. I had to take a few deep breaths when I realized I had walked right by it.

Within the same general area we saw a snakeskin, the same that some in the party saw on Tuesday afternoon. I mapped the snakeskin but not the snake as I am pro-snake even rattlesnake. (I'll share the map in the debrief section.)

We hiked by the weird poison ivy patch in full sun, avoiding it this time.

We were soon back at camp and ran our water quality tests. After a quick early lunch, it was time to pack up our kit. Ginny had readied the kitchen area to be packed up as well. We completed our tasks in the increasing heat of the late morning. As we finished our particulars, group by group departed until it was just Marge and I. After one last sweep of the campground, we too loaded up into our car and left.

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I have enjoyed every one of your posts. I loved your flexibility as an educator-ready to change and modify when events happen beyond your control. I am now ready and even more excited for my first trip to the Badlands next week!

Exploration and Stories Wednesday June 20 (PM)

After we got camp dried out, we moved the cook tent to make it a meeting space. It was time for the National Geographic Educator Certification Phase One training.

I believe I have written already about the Educator Certification but a short reprise for the new people. Educator Certification is a professional development opportunity for educators to equip them to teach about the world in innovative, interdisciplinary ways using multiple geographic lenses and the Learning Framework. The learning framework outlines the attributes of an explorer, the attitudes, skills and knowledge required to think and act like an explorer.

I am a big fan of the Framework. When I first saw it, my response was "This." It outlined much of what I was about as both an educator and a woman. That is a whole other post, though, the equivalent of a comfy chair and beverage conversation.

Educator Certification has three phases, the first of which is an orientation to the education mission of National Geographic and introduction to the Framework and geographic lenses. The first phase can be done online or in person. As a trainer, I usually embed the Phase One in any class I teach as a working lunch. However, for various reasons our lunch on Monday got shortened, we worked on other things, and we just never got to it. So I threw my laptop that had the Phase One PowerPoint in with the gear when we packed up Tuesday morning, thinking I would find an opportunity in the field.

And I did.

There is no electricity in this section of the Badlands so I ran my laptop off its battery. It was, I admit, a little surreal to be having this more formal session in the middle of the outdoors but in its own way it worked well. The educators were engaged, thinking deeply about the topics and I expect that many of them will go on to complete certification.

After the Phase One training we had another fabulous dinner by Ginny. After dinner we reconvened in the meeting space to read from the Stories of the Sioux by Luther Standing Bear which I had purchased in Wall.

The name of this expedition is Exploring the Badlands through Science and Storytelling. Most of the "story telling" was of the scientific kind; the water quality data, the arthropod inventory, the field notes and photos. But I wanted to include the stories of the Oceti Sakowin, the Native people as well since they are very much part of the cultural history of the Badlands.

As I read from the introduction, the coyotes howled. Ginny popped her head around the tent. Did you hear that, she asked. We had.

We read in the round each person taking a paragraph or two. None of us deserved the title of storyteller since these were not our stories, I felt. As we read, a bison appeared in the distance. He slowly made his way towards us. A bison in proximity never gets old so when he got close enough to the campground the group dispersed to take more photos. Unfortunately someone, not from our party, took a flash photo and this irritated him. As he walked by our site he snorted, his pace quick. He did not charge but there was a moment when he walked by my car that I worried.

We were done with the formal portion of our class for the evening. We socialized a bit, drifting off to our tents to a partly cloudy sky. For those that could stay awake or wake up in the dark there would be stars to view. I was not one of them.

Next up: The last hike.

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Anne, I definitely now want to do Phase 1 Ed Cert workshops outdoors!

Tuesday June 19 (PM) - Wednesday June 20 (AM) Rain and Rainy Day Exploration

The thunderstorm after dinner drove us to our cars. It passed quickly enough (less than an hour) and when we emerged there did not appear to be any damage to the camp. Not so with our crew. Some in the party discovered ticks on their persons. This of course sent us all to our tents and the vault toilet to do a tick check on ourselves. There were a few others who had one or two crawling about but Claire "won" with five.

For the rest of the evening, I thought every little itch or tickle was a tick.

We cleaned up the dinner dishes, regretting that we did not think to to put the dirty pots and dishes in the rain to fill. I was committed to a minimal waste expedition so everyone was responsible for both providing and cleaning their own plates and utensils.

The original plan for the night was to have a session of black light trapping of arthropods but Dr Bachmann wisely had decamped after the storm. Because of the soggy state of the camp, most of us literally stood around chatting, enjoying hot chocolate and each other's company.

Even though the storm passed the skies did not clear. Cell and data service ranges somewhere between intermittent and nonexistent in the Badlands and earlier during a moment of intermittent service I had been able to pull up a forecast for the night. Another storm was predicted and the radar looked ominous.

When the rain started up again, we lowered the cook tent canopy and I called it a night. I crawled into my tent hoping it would stay dry. I've had good luck in REI half domes before but this tent was new and untested.

Happily, the predicted thunder storm never hit but the rain continue more on than off throughout the night. I woke up at various intervals to its patter on my tent. I groped around, checking for drips and wet spots and finding none, drifted back to sleep. Around 4am when I awoke (still dry) I heard the first meadowlark.

The meadowlark's song is best described as piercing. I assume this is so it can be heard above the wind. I laid abed as long as I could until the literal and figurative call of nature as well as sense of responsibility caused me to get up.

I popped out of my tent and was surprised to see a soggy bison near but not too near. Fortunately he did not seem surprised by me. A surprised bison can be an ornery bison

I was grateful for my sturdy raincoat as I moved around camp but I sorely missed my rain pants. I had considered packing them but decided that my Quik-Dry pants would be sufficient.

They weren't. I quickly got soaked mid thigh down.

I wrestled the cook tent up and Ginny joined me to get coffee and breakfast started. Bless her, she understood the power of warm, comforting food.

Our original plan called for a day of field work. I suppose this is the point where citizen science differentiates itself from research. Research would go out in the field regardless because the data must be collected. As citizen scientists we had a little more flexibility in our plan.

As the rest of the camp ate breakfast and watched bison (another one had approached) I did a scouting trip to both suss out the condition of the roads given the night's rain and rework the plan for the day. Regarding the first matter the roads looked fine. Regarding the second, I decided to move our activities around and spend the morning in Wall, a stop that was originally planned as our final activity.

In addition to Wall Drug, Wall also hosts the only visitor center for all 20 of the National Grasslands. The staff treated us to an introduction to black footed ferret in the exhibit hall as well as a full length presentation about the prairie dog.

Wall Drug is best known for its billboards a hundred miles plus in either direction, campy tourist draws like the giant jackalope that you can ride and animatronic T-rex head, and donuts. Of course we stopped for the donuts and lunch but I encouraged people to visit the bookstore which offers a lot of university and state press publications about the West, the cafe for the artwork that has museum quality pieces, the rock shops because geology, and the hallway with hundreds (thousands?) of historical photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wall Drug can be an educational stop as long as you use your time well and don't get sucked up into the shops, like (ahem) the fudge shop.

In my defense, I also bought "Stories of the Sioux" by Luther Standing Bear.

The rain had stopped during our time in Wall. We returned to the Park and rather than go directly back to camp (still too wet to hike much, I thought) we retraced our drive along the Badlands Loop Road so we could enjoy the scenic overlooks. We had zipped by them on Tuesday on our way through the Park since I was eager to get to camp to get set up before the rain. That was not my original plan which called for stops and a hike.

We were fortunate enough to see Big Horn Sheep and lambs enjoying the now beautiful afternoon in addition to the stunning geology. The guide books all say the Badlands puts on its best show after a rain and I would agree but sunrise and sunset are just as breathtaking.

I think everyone has their favorite section. Mine is the Yellow Mounds. For years I tried to take photographs that did justice to the features. I wanted - and I'm not making this up - to match the purpley-red and yellow paleosols and green grass to paint so I could have an accent wall in those colors. But I never got a photo I felt did justice which is probably just as well.

Breathtaking but in a different way was the rattlesnake (yes, another one!) we saw in the grass off a parking lot.

Eventually it was time to return to camp. Ginny who had gone on a provisioning run would be waiting for us and we had other work to do.

Up Next: Exploration and Stories.

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I invited the educators who participated in this field session to put together a digital story about the expedition.

Claire Trainer, a middle school teacher from Chicago, created this story using Adobe Spark. She included all of her adventures, the pre and post expedition ones as well as the actual field work.

Claire probably should receive the Strong Heart award since she "wins" for picking up the most ticks.

I didn't tell you about the ticks?

That will be in my next installment. You can get a preview of it through Claire.

Claire's Story.


Thanks for sharing all of this Anne! I loved reading and watching Claire's story, as well as all of your entries. I took my family to South Dakota last week the same time you all were there, and I must admit that I wasn't expecting all of the rain! We took one of our rainy days to go to the Mammoth Museum in Hot Springs and another to the Museum of Geology in Rapid City. We ended up with one great day to drive to Devil's Tower and hike around it, did you get a chance to visit it on your trip into Wyoming?

Tuesday June 19, 2018. The Hike

The skies had cleared off while we were sampling arthropods and I was eager to get to a monitoring site. I knew Wednesday's forecast had a chance of rain so I wanted to sample while the weather was good.

We gathered our sampling equipment and set out. Hiking is slow in the Badlands. My experience is that the bottoms or lowlands fill with water and hiking through the uplands is something of a roller coaster. Up one hill, down another, and the draws are often filled with thick brush and cedar trees.

Complicating this lack of a flat route is that the footing is often bumpy due to the highly erodible soils. The lush prairie forbs and grasses hide a multitude of bumps and lumps. Add to that the holes from this critter or that and prickly pear cactus and you have a situation where you have to mindful of your footing.

You would think that since I had to pay attention to our footing I would have noticed the poison ivy but I didn't since 1)I was distracted chatting and 2)the poison ivy was in full sun and I wasn't looking for it. I'd only ever seen it in shade before. I led everyone straight through a patch of it, discovering my mistake only later when someone asked "Was that poison ivy we walked through?"

We quickly applied wipes to exposed areas and as of this writing only person turned up symptomatic. It could have been so much worse.

In addition to the poison ivy, we encountered, at a distance and primarily through hearing, a rattlesnake. The snake retreated under the bush and we did not see or hear from it again.

We hiked past our monitoring site but not by much. We backtracked and found it easily but actually getting to it was another matter.

We had to scramble down a rather sharp trail of about 20 feet and then descend another few feet to get the creek. Five of us volunteered to go. While there we took water temperature in the stream and bottled up two 250mL samples to bring back for testing. Conductivity required water temperatures above 20°C and we had to do conductivity before pH to ensure sufficient salt levels.

When we arrived at our monitoring site I heard faint thunder. As we headed back the thunder grew closer. We had to step lively.

We made it back just as it was beginning to sprinkle. We had to conduct our water quality monitoring test in the light rain. Fortunately, the new Vernier probes worked without a hitch.

We wrapped up our monitoring and it began to rain in earnest. We ate quickly and by then the full storm was upon us. We left the dishes and went to our cars, the only safe place in the campground during a thunderstorm.

Next Up: Rain and Rainy Day Exploration

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Anne and team, I'm SO enjoying these posts! Glad you didn't have any adverse effects from the poison ivy...OR the snake! The photos, videos, and commentary are so inspiring, and I almost feel like I'm there with you (envy, next year?)

Tuesday June 19, 2018 - Arthropod Sampling

We were ready. Equipped with nets, jars and phones loaded with the iNaturalist app we walked across the campground road and began sampling. It didn't take long for the observations to start. Within a few minutes people were inspecting their jars trying to identify what they had collected. We kept Dr Bachmann busy running up to her to show her our jars, sounding for all the world like 8 year olds. "It''s so cute!" "Oh, cool!" "What is it?"

One of the purposes of this expedition was to start populating a Project on iNaturalist with insect and forb observations. We didn't devote enough time to do a full blown Bio-Blitz but that may be something we consider in future years.

My second favorite moment during arthropod sampling—the first was seeing everyone so enthusiastically engaged in the field work—was finding a dung beetle and a little ball of dung. They are fascinating creatures and I could watch them for hours. If I have a favorite insect it would be the dung beetle which also goes by the name of Tumblebug.

We spent nearly an hour in the field gradually working our way to the creek. I think if the creek hadn't created a physical barrier we would have continued on. Happily the skies cleared a tiny bit so much so that I decided we had enough time to hike out to our first water quality monitoring spot before dinner.

*Next up: The Hike *

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Field Session

Internet was spotty in the field so these entries are ex post facto. Rather than create a long single post with everything I will roll them out in chunks. I have invited the educators to contribute their experiences as well. I'm keen to see what they say.


The day started out overcast and gray with rain predicted for later. Regardless, we loaded up and departed pretty close to our target departure time of 8 am. We were in a caravan of 6 cars, a necessity since departure times and destinations after the field session varied. Before entering the park we convened just outside because of course we got separated en route.

Fortunately, we did not have long to wait until we were all there. Our research permit got all of us in and we traveled on to our first stop the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The day had cleared off; blue sky and sun and clouds greeted us. I was glad because first, I wanted the full on postcard, technicolor experience for the educators and second, every photon of solar energy would dry things out that much more quickly.

We were met at the Visitor Center by Ranger Stacy, the director of supervisory education (meaning she works with kids and teachers), toured the paleontology lab, and had a short presentation by Stacy outdoors. We didn't have time to enjoy the displays, the movie or book store because we wanted to go to the Fossil Talk, about a 20 minute drive down the road.

The Fossil Talk is as much about the geology as it is about the fossils. The Parks geology--and boy does it have geology--is dramatic. The visible layers start with the inland seas 75 million years ago and end with the deposition of eroded material from the Black Hills 30 million years ago.

We traveled on after the Fossil Talk to the Conata Basin picnic area where we had lunch. While our cook Ginny assembled the fixings, we wandered over to the Pig Dig. This was our first up close encounter with the Badlands soil. We were quickly schooled in its clay properties thanks to the rain from the night before .

After lunch it was on to the campsite. The Sage Creek Rim road was closed due to the recent rains which meant going out to Wall and then backtracking along another road. Once were back in the park we saw the bison herd, the mothers and cinnamon colored calves. That was a photo stop.

The road in that section of the park was soft around the edges but otherwise passable. Even the road into the campground itself was fine. Not surprising given the previous night's rain, the campground was mostly empty.

Within moments of our arrival in camp, Dr. Amanda Bachmann pulled in. She was leading our entomology survey. But work before play so our first task was to set up camp and help Ginny, the cook, set up the kitchen. The skies were far from clear and between the forecast calling for thunderstorms and the gathering gray clouds I wanted to make sure we weren't doing this work in the rain. I've set up camp in the rain before and to me it always feel like once something is wet it never really dries out.

Camp up, kitchen started and it was out to a nearby field to sample for arthropods. With our extremely intermittent access to service we would wait to upload our observations to iNaturalist.

The field we chose to sample was selected more for its proximity than any sign that it would yield interesting observations. There were a few flowering plants but since the skies were looking gray I wasn't comfortable hiking out any distance.

We assembled ourselves, got our nets and bug jars and dispersed.

Next up: Arthropod Sampling

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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.

Next Up: The Field Session

What is each participant most excited about?

Excellent question. I wish I'd thought to ask them.

Judging from their conversation I think they were excited about doing field studies in the park and bringing that back to their teaching. Two of the participants were former Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. The rest were GTFs in spirit meaning they EMBRACED the idea of teaching about the world and empowering their learners to make it a better place.

We did a Nat Geo Certified Educator in the field and when they all shared their teaching missions I wanted to cry with joy. They got it. They totally got it.


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.


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.)


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! :)

How did I just see this comment? YES!

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.


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


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.


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.

if I can't get down there for another scouting trip, 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.


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!

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