Staff Shares EROS Story, Sharpens Communication Skills Through OLLI

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When they step out of their science or engineering realms, staff members at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD, often tell a different story about the work they do.

In many ways, a more interesting story.

Photo of EROS' Doug Daniels speaking to a class in Sioux Falls, SD

Doug Daniels of the U.S. Geological Survey's Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center speaks to an Osher LIfelong Learning Institute class in Sioux Falls, SD

(Credit: Young, Steven (Contractor) M. Public domain.)

Get them out of the office, and they will shatter myths (no, EROS is not a secret government facility). They will educate (did you know Landsat 8 operates with the same amount of electricity as it takes to run a hair dryer?) And they will offer up unvarnished truths (EROS does not lead the climate change conversation; it just provides the unbiased science that helps inform the discussion).

They do all this through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—or OLLI, for short—in Sioux Falls.

OLLI organizes short-term, non-credit classes that are taken primarily by retired adults interested in continuing their learning in areas as diverse as history and current events, health, creative arts, literature and writing, and science and technology.

EROS Classes Are 'Like Buying Concert Tickets'

It turns out those lifelong learners love EROS, says OLLI Director Nancy Wehrkamp, whether Center staff presents to them in town, or they bring their class out to EROS. “We open up typically at noon the day we do registration for each of our terms, and a lot of times, the EROS classes have been full by like 12:05, 12:10,” Wehrkamp said. “It’s like buying concert tickets.”

Class members enjoy visiting the radome, she said. They like the maps and monitors produced from free and open Landsat data, as well as other satellite data. But what really resonates with OLLI participants is finding out about “the unbelievably smart, gifted, talented people at EROS, and their work that is affecting the whole world,” Wehrkamp said. “That’s what is eye-opening for my OLLI members. There are so many people that just don’t have any idea about what’s going on out there.”

Here’s how that new-found knowledge becomes valuable to EROS, said June Thormodsgard, who was a leader in the Science and Applications Branch at the Center for 20 years before retirement. She now is on OLLI’s Leadership Council, working with curriculum development and taking a lead in bringing in speakers to present on science topics—not only from EROS, but organizations like Sanford, Avera, and others as well.

Telling the EROS story can only help build a sense of community around and in support of the Center, which is important at a governmental level if budgets get crunched and programs find themselves in potential jeopardy, Thormodsgard said. As a government organization itself, EROS’ work “is paid for by taxpayers … so I think every government employee should feel compelled to assist the community in their knowledge base,” she said.

At the same time, it’s not unusual for class participants to inquire about careers at places like EROS. That information then gets passed on to children and grandchildren, Thormodsgard said. “People find out, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s this kind of facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and my grandchild just got an engineering degree from SDSU. I wonder if he could come out there to EROS,’ ” she said. “What I’m saying is, knowledge about EROS in the community can help bring more talent out to EROS.”

Scientists, engineers, and others at the Center who have presented to OLLI classes speak highly of the experience. Geographer Birgit Peterson has expounded on the history of fire in America, as well as the fire mapping that EROS does. Retired Chief Scientist Tom Loveland does land change presentations, and Doug Daniels with The Aerospace Corp. has presented seven different variations of the space systems theme.

Telling a Different Story

It’s a different conversation than you would have presenting to a group of your science and engineering peers, Peterson agreed. In her presentation, she touched on 150 to 200 years of large fires burning in this country. How the biggest fires haven’t always been in the American West, but in Maine. How certain conditions—heat, wind, and dryness—most often fan the flames. How lightning is always a culprit in wildfires, but so is logging, agriculture, and once upon a time, even coal-fired trains.

As she discussed fire mapping done by EROS staff, Peterson said she found her audience was drawn not only to the expenditure of their tax dollars to acquire satellite data, but also to the science that is done as a result of that data.

“I think you have a group of people who are more interested and more aware, but not necessarily informed exactly about what we do out here,” Peterson said. “I do think the science part of it is something that comes as a surprise to people.”

As he talks about how land cover and land use have changed and are changing across the planet, Loveland said it’s inevitable that audience members ask him about climate change and whether it is real. He opens up that discussion by emphasizing that EROS’ responsibility in this complex issue is to ensure that the most objective information is available.

“They’re very open-minded people. It’s fabulous fun,” Loveland said. “I say to them, ‘What I can tell you is that if you consider the land changes that can affect climate, the evidence in the satellite record is strong, and there’s a high probability that the changes in the land are contributing to climate change.’ ”

Like Loveland, Daniels steers clear of the politics surrounding climate change when the topic comes up, emphasizing instead the importance of educated opinions based on measurements.

Sharing the Importance of Space

“I tell them that Landsat is a measuring tool, and you would never hire a plumber or carpenter to come to your house without any tools,” Daniels said. “Landsat is a tool, and the data we get from Landsat is information. Our scientists take that information and they derive results. Now, we can quibble with the results all we want, but the fact that we want and need information is really above all that.”

Beyond those conversations, Daniels likes to put the work done at EROS in terms that are easy for his audience to understand. He said he wants his audience to gain an appreciation for how important space is in their everyday lives, whether it involves GPS tracking devices on their cellphones, or their use of Google Maps.

“There’s a part of me that likes to teach,” Daniels explained. “Plus, I find the questions that I get from the group are always entertaining. And I love the interactions during class and after they’re over.”

OLLI can be an educational process for EROS presenters as well. They learn how to communicate better, Peterson said. At conferences, where attendees often speak the same scientific language, that isn’t so much of an issue. But every now and then, she sees the eyes in the audience starting to glaze over, and knows she needs to do a better job of making sure everyone is on board with what she’s saying.

“I know I get a lot out of sometimes stepping back and really kind of going through in my mind, ‘How would I explain this to a lay person?’ ” Peterson said. “I know it sharpens my own thought processes, and it makes me a better overall communicator by having to sometimes do that.”

Thormodsgard said she’s discovered that when EROS scientists and engineers package their work for a laymen’s audience, “they communicate the ‘why’ so much better than they do when they go to a symposium, where they’re presenting their scientific findings.” Given that, she thinks it would be good for OLLI speakers to give their presentations in the auditorium at EROS, and not just to the science staff.

“Birgit gave one of the best EROS presentations I’ve ever heard,” Thormodsgard said. “Why? Because she wasn’t attempting to communicate to a bunch of scientists. She was attempting to communicate to a group that wanted to know why it was important to the world. That’s why it would be good for them to share their presentations at EROS … because those are the stories we should be telling.”