A Christmas Carol from Central Texas

I’m finishing up the last of my midterms, and soon I’ll be off on Christmas break. It’s been such a busy semester for me that I haven’t been able to post as much as I’ve wanted to.

During my sophomore year in high school, I’ve been having a great time learning about chemistry, world history, and a lot more. I’ve also been enjoying strength training, getting stronger to battle those invasive species!

I love the Christmas season because it is so festive, and when I was younger, I created a fun video called An Invasive Carol where I get to play Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and all the ghosts too! If you haven’t had a chance to see it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. (It’s a classic! :-) )

I hope that you and your family have a merry Christmas!

Your friend,
Ben

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Can Invasive Species Hide from Drones?

The Giant Reed can run, but it can't hide from drones (Photo credit: InView Unmanned Aircraft by Fasicle Wikipedia)

The Giant Reed can run, but it can’t hide from drones (Photo credit: InView Unmanned Aircraft by Fasicle Wikipedia)

Many researchers are using drones to help find and identify invasive species in those hard to reach places. Here are just a few recent articles about where they are using drones to hunt invasive species:

Learn more about drones with Hot Science – Cool Talks

You can learn more about drones this Friday, November 21, 2014, with the latest Hot Science – Cool Talks presentation, Drones: Myths, Facts, Hacks, and The Future, by Dr. Todd Humphreys, Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics with the University of Texas at Austin.

The presentation starts at 7 pm in Welch Hall, but be sure to arrive early, since fun science activities will start at 5:45 pm!

Dr. Humphreys will talk about how we can use drones in the future and how that may be different from how movies portray drones. He and his team were the first to show how GPS hacking can take over a drone.

The invasive plant Giant Reed (Arundo donax) better be on the lookout!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Drones, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Invasive Species

Texas Invasive Species and the Camp Fire Nature Celebration

Kids learn how to battle Texas Invasive Plant Species with the Invasive Hunter Academy

Kids learn how to battle Texas Invasive Plant Species with the Invasive Hunter Academy

The impact of invasive species in Texas has been in the news lately!

Invasive species are not native to our environment, and when they are brought to our native ecosystems, whether by accident or on purpose, they can cause both economic and environmental damage. Invasive species come in all types, including insects and animals.

Insects, such as the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, can, yes, stink, but more importantly they can attack our fruits and vegetables.

Animals, such as the Eurasian collared dove, can crowd out our native dove populations, such as the mourning dove and white-winged dove.

Zebra mussels are a big concern. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, along with great partners like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, are trying to stop their spread through Texas lakes and waterways. Their larva are so tiny that they cannot be seen by the naked eye, but they grow rapidly into a tremendous problem, hurt aquatic life, and can threaten our water supply.

Invasive plants are also a big problem to our native plant species and crops.

Camp Fire Nature Celebration in Austin

To help kids learn more about plant invasive species, I’m bringing my Invasive Hunter Academy to the Camp Fire Nature Celebration on Saturday, November 8, 2014, at Mueller Park in Austin, Texas. The event is free and lasts from 9:00-11:00 a.m.

Not only will you have fun creating your own battles with invasive species action diorama, you’ll also get a chance to have fun with nature with many activities, including:

It’ll be lots of fun for Central Texas kids and families. This Saturday morning will be a perfect time for young naturalists to learn about nature and invasive species. I hope to see you there!

Your friend,

Ben

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Filed under Camp Fire Nature Celebration, Invasive Hunter Academy, Invasive Species, Zebra Mussel

How dyslexic students can advocate for themselves

Commander Ben salutes all dyslexic students in front of Lake Travis near Austin, Texas.

Commander Ben salutes all dyslexic students in front of Lake Travis near Austin, Texas.

October is dyslexia awareness month. I want to share with you my greatest tip: advocate for yourself.

Advocating for yourself is of the utmost importance. If you do not advocate for yourself, not only will people not understand your condition, they may even consider you resistant to learning or lazy. (And dyslexic students are not lazy!)

How can you advocate for yourself through your words and actions?

  • Use your words. Go and talk to your teachers directly, explain your difficulties reading, and ask them for their help and understanding.
  • Do the best that you can in your subjects, even the small assignments. This will show that you’re a hard worker, and you don’t let your dyslexia hold you back.
  • Stay positive. Not only will this help you in coping with dyslexia, this will prove to others that you’re resilient and strong. You won’t allow the challenges of your learning difference to get you down.

As dyslexic students, we have more challenges than other young people, and I believe that helps forge us into steel. Steel is very strong, and our experiences, our efforts to overcome challenges, and even the failures that we learn from will give us the strength to achieve great success in the future.

Learning Ally and the Sound of Reading

I made the Sound of Reading documentary last year to help shed light on the struggles of having dyslexia, and how Learning Ally has helped to provide audio versions of textbooks and other printed materials to dyslexic students and those with learning difficulties. Their audiobooks give students, like myself, the opportunity to learn and be successful.

Texas Book Festival and Rawson Saunders

At last year’s book festival, I had the opportunity to interview director Luis Macias about his Embracing Dyslexia movie. Many thanks to Ms. Mandy Tucker and Rawson Saunders for giving me the chance to talk with the director and the talented students from the Rawson Saunders school.

In 2014, Rawson Saunders students will also be sharing their latest works. Be sure to visit them if you’re at the Texas State Capital this weekend for this year’s Texas Book Festival.

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Dyslexia, Dyslexic, Learning Ally, Rawson Saunders School, Texas Book Festival

Periodic Table of Hot Science Selfies

Dr. David Laude's Chemistry Cool Talk at UT Austin

Dr. David Laude’s Chemistry Cool Talk at UT Austin

My friends and I enjoy taking selfies. I enjoy science, and I thought what better way to bring the two together (like an exothermic chemical reaction!) at last month’s Hot Science event about chemistry at UT Austin.

The first Hot Science – Cool Talk of the Fall 2014 semester, How I Learned to Love Chemistry, by Dr. David Laude was packed! There was a huge rainstorm before the event, but that didn’t discourage young and old chemistry enthusiasts from attending in force (F=ma).

I think this is the most people that have ever been to a Hot Science event. If anything, the rain made people more determined to learn, especially with the pre-lecture activities. Everyone came out, including friends that I haven’t seen in years. The entire Welch Hall main auditorium was full with standing room only. What density (D=m/v)!

Many people, including myself, a friend from school, and our chemistry teacher watched the event from the overflow auditorium. (I even arrived early!) Even with the time delay in the video simulcast, Dr. Laude’s talk was enlightening (c=2.9×10^8 m/s).

And now for the chemistry selfies!

Dr. Jay Banner, Director, UT Environmental Science Institute (ESI), is the best!

Dr. Jay Banner, Director, UT Environmental Science Institute (ESI), is the best!

Dr. David Laude, UT Chemistry professor, gave a lively and interactive talk about chemistry. Loves to blow things up!

Dr. David Laude, UT Chemistry professor, gave a lively and interactive talk about chemistry. Loves to blow things up!

Ms. Melinda Chow, coordinates fun events and activities for the UT Environmental Science Institute.

Ms. Melinda Chow, coordinates fun events and activities for the UT Environmental Science Institute.


Mr. Patrick Goertz, my great chemistry teacher!

Mr. Patrick Goertz, my great chemistry teacher!

More chemistry selfies

I am in an electron shell of knowledge with Theodore Gray's The Elements book

I am in an electron shell of knowledge with Theodore Gray’s The Elements book

Theodore Gray’s The Elements book in print and on the iPad is an excellent and fun way to learn about the elements in the periodic table. I’ve used his book to learn more about the elements in my high school chemistry class.

While I’ve enjoyed looking through the printed book, the app is more interactive and offers animations. To help dyslexic readers, I hope that the creators of the app, TouchPress, will publish an update that allows you to highlight portions of the text and use the iOS text-to-speech accessibility feature to have my iPad read the content out loud.

Bismuth, a cicada, and a live oak tree join me for a chemistry and biology mashup selfie

Bismuth, a cicada, and a live oak tree join me for a chemistry and biology mashup selfie

Bismuth (one of the most beautiful element structures), a cicada (at least its exoskeleton), and a live oak tree (Yea, biology!) wanted in on the selfies too.

Extreme weather at SXSW Eco

The next Hot Science presentation whirls in next Monday, October 6, 2014, with a special event at SXSW Eco.  Dr. Kevin Klosel will talk about Extreme Weather and Uncertainty in Forecasting.

During this year’s SXSW Eco event, you’ll learn about the science behind extreme weather, like tornadoes and superstorms, and how meteorologists factor in uncertainty.

Sounds like another super Hot Science is on it’s way, and the forecast for selfies with Dr. Klosel are favorable!

Update: Remember that this special event is free and is at the Austin Convention Center (and not at UT Austin.) The National Weather Service is bringing a tornado machine, and you’ll also be able to create lighting with a Van de Graaff machine and erupt snow to create an avalanche. Sounds like lots of fun!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Chemistry, David Laude, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Environmental Science Institute, ESI, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Jay Banner, Melinda Chow, SXSW Eco, The Elements, Theodore Gray

Trash and Treasure at the Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup

Volunteer divers hauling up trash from Lake Travis (Is that part of a house?)

Volunteer divers hauling up trash from Lake Travis (Is that part of a house?)

I had a chance to be part of the Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup event earlier this month, and you’d be surprised what the cleanup volunteers found!

Ms. Sarah Richards, Executive Director, and Mr. Geoff Hensgen, Program Director, of the Colorado River Alliance invited me to be part of the press boat for the event, and what an exciting honor it was!

Commander Ben and Sarah Richards on the marina dock getting ready to board the press boat.

Commander Ben and Sarah Richards on the marina dock getting ready to board the press boat.

Divers near Starnes Island

One of the many boats with divers near Starnes Island for the Lake Travis underwater cleanup

One of the many boats with divers near Starnes Island for the Lake Travis underwater cleanup

Our press boat left early in the morning from a nearby marina and traveled to Starnes Island on Lake Travis, where scuba divers were hauling up trash from underwater and storing the trash in orange nylon bags. It was surprisingly cool in the morning. We had rain and colder weather (for September in Texas!) leading up to the event, and volunteers said it was one of the cooler cleanups that they remembered being part of.

Volunteers met for the clean up at different spots around Lake Travis, including shoreline clean up sites near Pace Bend and Tom Hughes Parks and dive locations near Arkansas Park and Cypress Creek Cove. Approximately 1000 shoreline volunteers and scuba divers took part in this event. Wow!

The divers could see about 15 feet below the surface of the water, and with the low water levels because of the Texas drought, they were able to find trash at depths that would normally be harder to see in.

Map of the 2014 Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup locations (Map credit: Colorado River Alliance)

Map of the 2014 Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup locations (Map credit: Colorado River Alliance)

At the intersection of a inlet to Sandy Creek Park from Lake Travis, Starnes Island is only accessible by boat, and it was a critical clean up site since many party boats dock near this island and throw their trash overboard (ugh!). The scuba divers brought up bags and bags of trash, and boats would bring the trash over to the Lake Travis Marina where it was collected and hauled away for proper disposal.

Lake Travis Cleanup press boat crew outside of the Hudson Bend collection site

Lake Travis Cleanup press boat crew outside of the Hudson Bend collection site

I talked with Ms. Shaun Marie Auckland, Conservation Coordinator for Travis County Parks, who said Travis County became involved in 1994 to provide volunteers with access to the parks and to help scuba divers dispose of trash with trash barges.

Packed volunteer event at the Oasis

The Lake Travis Cleanup volunteer party at the Oasis was packed!

The Lake Travis Cleanup volunteer party at the Oasis was packed!

After the clean up, the volunteers celebrated with food, drinks, and door prizes at the Oasis restaurant overlooking Lake Travis. There were many educational booths for kids of all ages about Lake Travis, the aquatic food chain, water quality, and more.

Some of the Colorado River Alliance educational materials

Some of the Colorado River Alliance educational materials

Colorado River Alliance volunteers talking about the ecological water food web

Colorado River Alliance volunteers talking about the ecological water food web

Commander Ben and Colorado River Alliance education volunteers give a thumbs up to this year's Lake Travis Cleanup event

Commander Ben and Colorado River Alliance education volunteers give a thumbs up to this year’s Lake Travis Cleanup event

I enjoyed hamburgers, chips, and iced tea with volunteers at the party after the event, and I sat with volunteers who were cleaning up around the low water crossing below Mansfield Dam.

From volunteer Dean Woodley, I learned that the concrete structures on the Sometimes Islands were part of the materials that were used to build Mansfield Dam. The blocks were likely the base of tall pulleys that were used to haul material down to the dam. (I wonder if they were like Archimedes’ pulleys that I’m learning about in my World History high school class.)

Commander Ben and volunteer Dean Woodley at the Lake Travis Cleanup Volunteer Party at the Oasis restaurant

Commander Ben and volunteer Dean Woodley at the Lake Travis Cleanup Volunteer Party at the Oasis restaurant

Commander Ben and Finley the Fish overlooking the Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis

Commander Ben and Finley the Fish overlooking the Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis

During the volunteer party, the event organizers showed some of the unusual items the volunteers brought in, including sunglasses and a pink flamingo. I heard that someone also found an iPhone (not working – no surprise), and at a past event, they even found an old car motor.

Some of the unusual underwater Lake Travis Cleanup items found (is that a catfish skeleton?)

Some of the unusual underwater Lake Travis Cleanup items found (is that a catfish skeleton?)

Some of the unique objects found by Lake Travis Cleanup volunteers

Some of the unique objects found by Lake Travis Cleanup volunteers

For this year’s event, they announced the winner of the most unusual clean up item: a plastic bottle with a note in it. The note was a reward for a missing wedding ring. Hope someone found it!

TV coverage of the event

Getting ready to hop back on the press boat from Starnes Island with KVUE cameraman J.P.

Getting ready to hop back on the press boat from Starnes Island with KVUE cameraman J.P.

As part of our press boat, I met J.P., a friendly cameraman from KVUE who shared his experiences filming many events around Austin. I also saw the KTBC camera crew covering the event during the after party at the Oasis.

Sarah Richards being interviewed by KVUE about the Lake Travis Cleanup event

Sarah Richards being interviewed by KVUE about the Lake Travis Cleanup event

Science activities for primary and middle schoolers

Bringing the River to Our Schools mobile museum (Image credit: Colorado River Alliance)

Bringing the River to Our Schools mobile museum (Image credit: Colorado River Alliance)

During the school year, the Colorado River Alliance has educational activities for primary and middle schoolers. Kids in grades 3-5 can take field trips to LCRA building near Red Bud Island on Lady Bird Lake for hands-on activities to learn about water, wetlands, geography, and more.

The Colorado River Alliance also created the Bringing the River to Our Schools mobile museum to give 7th graders a high quality STEM experience and to educate the next generation of water stewards.

These are great programs for young naturalists and remind me of my science classes. I loved learning about biology in my freshman year in high school. This year, I’m learning about chemistry, and we’re going over the structure of the atom in class right now.

Celebrating 20 years of Lake Travis Cleanup volunteers

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup celebrates 20 years!

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup celebrates 20 years!

The Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup started in 1994, and on September 14, 2014, celebrated 20 years of helping to clean Lake Travis, a vital water supply for the people and animals of Central Texas. Next year, the 21st annual event will be on September 13, 2015.

This year’s successful volunteer event was organized by the Colorado River Alliance, Keep Austin Beautiful, and Travis County Parks.

Commander Ben and Geoff Hensgen at the Lake Travis Cleanup volunteer party

Commander Ben and Geoff Hensgen at the Lake Travis Cleanup volunteer party

Thanks again Ms. Richards and Mr. Hensgen for inviting me to be part of your wonderful event. How great it was to see so many enthusiastic volunteers, both above and below the water, helping to keep our native ecosystem clean!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Colorado River Alliance, Geoff Hensgen, Lake Travis, Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup

Lower Lake Travis Water Levels Reveal Secrets and Trash Too

Map of Lake Travis Sometimes Islands and Mansfield Dam (Image credit: LCRA)

Map of Lake Travis Sometimes Islands and Mansfield Dam (Image credit: LCRA)

A few years ago, I created a a video about my journey to the Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis, near Austin, Texas. These islands are only visible when the lake waters are low, such as during the terrible drought that we’ve been having. You shouldn’t be able to walk to these islands from Mansfield Dam Park, but I did.

How has the Lake Travis water level changed?

Lake Travis is considered full at 681 feet above sea level. Here are the historic high and low lake water levels:

  • December 25, 1991, was the historic high at 710.4 feet (+29.4 feet above full)
  • August 14, 1951, was the historic low at 614.2 feet (-66.8 feet below full)

Water level when I made the Terrible Texas Drought Reveals Sometimes Islands on Lake Travis video:

  • November 2011 average was 626.52 feet (-54.48 below full).

Water level today:

  • September 13, 2014, shows a water level of 622.97 feet (-58.03 feet below full)

Wow! The water level is -3.55 feet lower now than when I made my video in the fall of 2011. We rely on Lake Travis for our drinking water in Central Texas, and the lake is only 33% full!

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup (Image credit: Keep Austin Beautiful)

Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup (Image credit: Keep Austin Beautiful)

The lower lake levels reveal a lot about Lake Travis, including tree stumps from submerged forests and structures that used to be hidden underwater. I also saw a lot of pioneer plants that started growing on the islands. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of trash too.

Thankfully, the Colorado River Alliance, Keep Austin Beautiful, and Travis County Parks have been organizing volunteers for 20 years to help clean up Lake Travis, both above and below the water.

Their Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup 2014 event is tomorrow, Sunday, September 14, 2014, and there’s still time to register to be an underwater or shoreline volunteer at the Keep Austin Beautiful website.

You’ll make a difference to our native ecosystem (an average of 5 tons of trash are cleaned up each year!) and they have a fantastic Thank You party with free t-shirts, food, and door prizes at the Oasis afterwards. It’s a great event for all ages!

Your friend,
Ben

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Filed under Colorado River Alliance, Keep Austin Beautiful, Lake Travis, Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup, Sometimes Islands, Texas Drought, Travis County Parks