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“Why Woody?” – for an honorary degree

A very nice reporter from the Toronto Star asked me this question on the phone yesterday, as I was standing in a field in Milton, Ontario, next to 16-Milgiant 2e Creek. I was collecting seeds from Giant Hogweed, an invasive and somewhat toxic plant (see right).

Tomorrow, York University will confer an honorary degree on Woody Harrelson. Back in January, when I wrote my nomination letter, I had no idea that the announcement of this would coincide with the recent release of a popular commercial movie, starring him! I also had no idea as to how receptive the university committee responsible for Honorary Degrees would be to our nomination! After all, universities are very conservative institutions, as I found out from the raised eyebrows, back in the mid 1990s, when I had the temerity to suggest to some colleagues that we ought to consider nominating Oprah Winfrey for an honorary degree. At the time, she was dictating what America and my local Mum's Book Club was reading, through her book selections.

There have been a lot opinions offered about York conferring this degree on Woody Harrelson, in response to the CBC story. In the wake of my interview with the Star reporter, I think there's a few things worth mentioning from my answer to her question "Why Woody?"

1. The whole idea can be traced back to 2006 and the conversation that IRIS started about making York's course kits carbon neutral. Along the way, not only did we discover a huge interest amongst our students in the issue of climate change, but we also learned a lot about how unsustainable the publishing and printing industry is, in terms of how it produces books:  inks, paper, and the energy footprint of shipping books; akin to shipping bricks, a friend in publishing has told me.

2. Then, in August 2008, I was invited by the committee organizing our Fall Green Week, to suggest environmental and sustainability-related documentaries for screening. Since I am always forcing my family to watch educational docs, I had lots of ideas, as did others, and we had a lively discussion. I thought that An Inconvenient Truth was too ubiquitous to have much appeal at the time, and that Who Killed the Electric Car, was just a wee bit too boring. But Go Further was different from anything that I had ever seen, and might just be the ticket for an undergraduate audience. It was not at all preachy and took a very different approach to engaging youth than  found in the standard lecture.

3. When we screened the film, through a colleague at York, who turned out to have a brother in publishing, we also learned about the companion book to the documentary, which is incredibly sustainably produced. From him, we learned that the appearance of these kinds of books tends to have limited appeal to the purchasing public. This is why the books in stores don't tend to look like the Go Further book: they don't really sell that well. In other words - environmentally friendly, unshiny, dull-looking books don't cut it on the shelf - YET.

So there you have it, the boring story of why I got involved in this nomination. We did a bunch of research into and learning about a couple of key items of academic life - documentaries and books and learned about Woody Harrelson, too. And, as a good academic should be, I was also rather skeptical about the nomination venture. As I  wrote in my  letter:

"Mr. Harrelson has turned out to be an embodiment of our new York slogan and our old motto, that the way must be tried. Who would have thought that the goofy bartender from “Cheers” would turn out to be such an important environmental leader and activist?"

If universities are to be leaders, then we must be receptive to different modes of teaching and learning, and be prepared to recognize and honor them.

Dawn Bazely

A Bird in the Hand

Mist nets were not new to the YSTOP students. They had helped Brian Hickey set them up at dusk at on their first night at the King Campus to try to catch bats, though despite their patience no bats flew in.  But this time, with the mist nets set up as part of a session with Dr. Bridget Stutchbury in the woods behind their York classroom, their patience was rewarded with the capture of a chickadee. The students were delighted to have a chance to hold the bird in their hand, before it was released. Urban and rural students marvelled at the tiny, resilient creature, with a growing respect for the complexity of the environment we share with them.

Bridget also shared information about the Birds in the City project, and explained the technologies that are used in tracking and identifying individual birds to understand their migratory and reproductive behaviours. It was another example for them of how field work is connected to laboratory studies.

Invasive Species

On the final evening of the YSTOP program, students were asked to identify environmental issues they had learned about during the week, and then, in groups, to write about an issue of their choice. The following is what one group wrote about what they had learned about invasive species. They had learned was about invasive species in a session with York grad students Corinne Sperling and Margot Sloan, which included a scavenger hunt to locate invasive species on the York campus.

Ever wonder how dandelions started growing in our country? Well, a dandelion is an example of an invasive species, meaning Canada is not its native country. It could have been brought over by boat, car, plane, etc. There are many examples of invasive species in Canada, including Norway Maple, Norway Spruce, common teasel, Japanese knotweed, dog-strangling vine, white clover, white poplar, lilacs, ivy, common tansy and the garlic mustard plant. Oh, and that grass you see all over Canada? Yeah - that's an invasive species, too, called Kentucky Blue Grass.

Our Urban Experience

The students in the YSTOP program spent a day exploring the urban environment, travelling from York University Keele Campus, where they were staying, to Kensington Market via TTC, then south on foot to Queen Street and then back on the subway with a stop at Yorkdale for a late lunch.  When we were at Kensington market we discussed the study done by the York Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry in conjunction with Streets are for People on the effect of pedestrian Sundays on air quality. Yorkdale was one of the first enclosed shopping centres in Toronto, and is interesting for the impact that such malls have on the environment, relying on air conditioning and travel by cars.

For some of the rural students the trip gave them their first ride on a subway, and for many, even those who live in the city, it was their first ride on a streetcar. Included in this post are some images and some writing that the students generated from their trip.

Our urban experience was about learning what goes on in the city, such as the transportation, tall buildings, crowded streets, big malls and fewer forests. Transportation in the urban setting is different because there are street cars, subway trains and tunnels. There is a greater population in the urban setting and public transit helps to reduce the amount of pollution being produced by people travelling around the city.

The urban environment is the TOTAL opposite of the rural environment. The urban environment has more people and modern technology than the rural environment. As we found out, there are lots of people crowding the cities from different backgrounds and cultures. We got to experience new things like sour cream and onion flavored crickets and empanadas. The transportation in a rural community is very different from the transportation in the urban community. Many people in the urban community choose to ride their bikes and take city transit, like the subway, bus and street cars, which help decrease the pollution.

Urban Wildlife

Urban Wildlife


Urban Landscape

Urban Landscape





In the subway

In the subway

Advice for Doing Field Work

After two days of doing various field work activities with Dr. Brian Hickey, from the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences, with Dr. Dawn Bazely, and with York University graduate students Sheila Colla and Jason Gibbs, a group of students wrote the following advice about field work:

 Collecting water samples                   Examining water samples
 When doing field work, you need to be prepared for outdoors. Everything you do is hands on, so get ready to get dirty! Remember to always be organized, on time, and ready to go. You will be collecting data and interacting with the environment. For example, you may be observing insects, determining water quality, examining plants and the stars. You may also be taking your field work into the lab to study it more. You could find yourself setting up traps, for example, to capture bats. Another thing you could be doing is learning orienteering, getting prepared and learning your directions and surroundings so that you can find your way around. Field work connects you with the environment and its creatures.







Students involved in the York/Seneca YSTOP , wrote this entry:

YSTOP is an environmental camp where you do activities which shows different environmental professions. YSTOP is also for students who aren't necessarily considering college or university and shows them college or university isn't just work, it can also be fun.  It gives all the students amazing learning experiences. This program provides follow-up mentorship from graduate students and professors for students who are interested in one of the many environmental areas covered in the program.

At YSTOP students perform field and lab work to examine the environment. Students also learn how to use new scientific technology to examine micro-organisms. This program gives the students a view of what environmental scientists do and that it doesn't always involve being in an office!

YSTOP – three essential skills for not getting LOST

Laura Zeno and I did an afternoon session with the grade 8 YSTOP students last Monday. The goal was to improve our map reading, compass use and tree identification.

Why? Well, if you know how to do all this, you should never get lost. It turned out that only one of the 32 students and teachers in the room had NEVER been lost. We figured out, that this might mean that out of a crowd of 1000 people, only perhaps 30 will be worth taking directions from! Getting lost is normal, so how do you work around it?

Kurtis, in Grade 8, described how he always notes landmarks, directions, and distances when he is hiking in the bush. He makes a mental map. Laura told us about asking for directions when she and a friend got lost in downtown Toronto. We listed famous explorers, and asked why they are mostly men, and how most of these Europeans, like Cartier and Champlain, in fact relied on the help of local peoples to find their way around. We looked at maps from York University's map library and learned about scales - large and small. We discovered that students lived around Lake Simcoe in the north and in Toronto, near Lake Ontario in the south.

The students all got a really useful gift - a carabiner key ring with a compass, and I gave them homework of watching one of my favourite movies, "Romancing the Stone", in which a tree is an important landmark on the treasure map. Go Joan Wilder!

Dawn Bazely