Center for the Performing Arts staff member Medora Ebersole is using her experience as an education and community programs manager to develop an interdisciplinary project aimed at increasing knowledge of pollinator behavior—from bees and bats to birds and butterflies—in order to benefit food production efforts and battle the use of pesticides worldwide.
In the Pollinator Corridors project, “citizen scientists” use a field guide—instructions for making the guide are found on the project website, pollinatorcorridors.psu.edu—to collect pollinator observations and then submit those observations via a special app called HoneycombPSU. A map pops up showing all the observation sites as the data is automatically uploaded to a website and to datacommons@psu, a Penn State data sharing resource. The observations are then accessible to other “citizen scientists”—gardeners, farmers and anyone else interested in pollinator behavior—around the world. The resulting information is useful not only for farmers and gardeners, but also for policy makers and ecology researchers.
So how did someone with a fine arts background get involved in observing pollination patterns?
“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of art and science,” explained Ebersole. “And I’m kind of a ‘doer.’”
The explanation is a bit more complicated than that, but still underscores Ebersole’s status as a Penn State staff member who’s making an impact.
Ebersole has worked at the Center for the Performing Arts since 2007, developing educational programs and related activities for students and other CPA patrons. In 2011, she developed materials for a school-time matinee performance of Red Sky Productions’ “The Great Mountain,” a retelling of a Native American story where a young girl discovers the transformative power of nature and the importance of courage. Ebersole’s goal for teachers was to encourage students to think about ways they could improve their own communities.
That concept of “doing good” was in the back of her mind when she talked to a colleague, Eliana Lizarraga Heredia, in Bolivia, who develops educational programs for a natural history museum, the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, in the city of Cochabamba. Ebersole is a frequent visitor to Bolivia and Peru with her husband, Karl Zimmerer, a Penn State geographer, and met Lizarraga during one of those visits.
Lizarraga was seeking activities for children ages 9–12 that combined art and science. After some brainstorming sessions in person and through email, the Pollinator Corridors project was born. Lizarraga was looking for high-impact ways to use the museum’s extensive arboretum and natural history collection to connect traditional farming knowledge and the natural science curriculum being taught in school.
“The increasingly prevalent use of cell phone technology seemed the prefect bridge,” noted Ebersole. Students text their pollinator observations from schoolyard gardens and the museum compares results for occurrence of pollinators at each site, with the goal of building pollinator nectar corridors through citizen science.
Since those early conversations, Ebersole has made connections across Penn State and obtained help from some key individuals to get the project off the ground. The project team also includes Ken Tamminga, professor of landscape architecture, who has lent his expertise in ecological design and restoration, and Maurie Kelly, director of informatics and Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access with the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. Penn State Graphic Design faculty member Peter Lusch assisted with the design of the handheld field guide.
In fall 2014, the Learning Factory, which provides Penn State Engineering students with practical hands-on experience through client-based capstone design projects, selected Pollinator Corridors as a project for that semester. Four students worked with Ebersole to develop the field guide, app and project website. They were advised by Khanjan Mehta, director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program, who, Ebersole said, provided valuable expertise.
Now that the project has been launched, Ebersole’s goal is to raise awareness and increase participation by citizen scientists. She is sharing information about the project in the Penn State community through her affiliation with the University’s Center for Pollinator Research. In February, she will attend the Citizen Science Conference and Gathering in San Jose, Ca.
“This project is about activism, and trying to make a difference,” Ebersole said, noting that pollinators play an essential role in food production.
She recalled the words of Edward O. Wilson, who, in the foreword to the book “The Forgotten Pollinators,” wrote: “…one of every three mouthfuls of food we eat, and of the beverages we drink, are delivered to us roundabout by a volant bestiary of pollinators.”
According to Ebersole, citizen scientists can make important contributions. “They have the opportunity to bring observation skills into fuller dialogue with one another, contribute to pollinator population trend monitoring, and envision networks of nectar corridors that sustain pollinator abundance and diversity for food-growing,” she explained. “The data could conceivably be shared all over the world.”