Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

RARE: What the hellbender is a hellbender?

First things first. What on earth is a hellbender? Often called “snot otters” or “old lasagna sides”, the hellbender is a large salamander that can grow up to two and half feet long. Rivers throughout Missouri, Arkansas and much of the southeastern U.S. once supported up to 8,000 wild hellbenders, but today fewer than 600 exist because of habitat modification.

 imagePhoto by Brian Gratwicke

“Most aquatic salamanders have gills, but these don’t,” herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters explained. “They have flaps running down the side of their bodies to take in more oxygen directly through their skin. If there is silting or pollution in the water, the hellbenders have more of their body to clog than other aquatic species.” 

Because of this unique anatomy, hellbenders require fast-flowing, unpolluted rivers. The silting Watters described can be a consequence of damming, which can stir up loose particles in the water and reduce water flow. Silting and other pollutants have caused a rapid decline in the hellbender population. In fact, current populations are only 30 percent of what they were in 1990.

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Siltation of a waterway

“We are now seeing species once reported to be healthy but with small recognized ranges becoming exceedingly threatened and rarely encountered in the wild,” said Cameron Siler, herpetology curator. “Recognizing these population trends early and acting immediately to identify critical habitat for protection is necessary for the survival of rare species on our planet.”

According to Watters, the most important thing is stabilizing the hellbender population by preventing further decline and fostering conservation research and initiatives. As an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) near-threatened species, the hellbender is protected at a federal level. However, populations will continue to decline unless governmental action also protects undammed rivers. In the meantime, zoos are stepping in to help save the hellbender.

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Hellbenders developing in eggs, photo via Saint Louis Zoo

In November of 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo celebrated the world’s first captive breeding of hellbenders. The decade-long effort yielded 63 hellbenders. Since then, the Saint Louis Zoo has successfully bred an additional three populations, introducing over 214 new hellbenders to the world. The Saint Louis Zoo’s breeding success is an example of effective and applied research. 

“The more we know about every endangered species, the more we understand what conservation methods work best,” Watters said. “The more examples of endangered species that we have, the more we can better protect them in the future.”

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A hellbender from our herpetology collection

 Want a closer look? The museum’s hellbender specimen will be on display beginning Sept. 13 as part of our newest exhibit, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. For more information, check out some documentaries like the one below about this curious creature.

RARE: The end of the monarch reign?

When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards? 

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A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection 

The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!  

“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”

In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.

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Graph via www.xerces.com

Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.

 “I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”

 But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.

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Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration

“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”

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A full-grown monarch

 To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.

Racing to End Stereotypes

If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory, then you know that scientists aren’t usually known for their athleticism. Brains? Yes. Brawn? Not so much. But at the Sam Noble Museum, we’re all about busting stereotypes. Take Katrina Menard, for example. 

Menard is the invertebrate curator (a.k.a. bug chick) at the museum. She is also a competitive athlete and finalist in this year’s World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. On Monday, Menard will face off against cyclists, swimmers and racers from across the globe for a two-hour demonstration of human strength. 

The ITU bike route 

So, what does an Olympic-distance triathlon look like? A 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. All in all, that’s about two hours of non-stop adrenaline. To prepare, Menard spent anywhere from 7 to 11 hours in training per week during the winter. How does she find the time? 

“For ExplorOlogy, I had to take my bike with me to Black Mesa,” Menard answered. “I always have to take my running shoes to the field! I work for a place that is really constructive about my races, and that’s wonderful.”

 

Menard has trained in the field in countries like Africa and Australia

 Menard joined the triathlon scene three years ago after picking up cycling around Norman. Despite running track in college, Menard didn’t run her first triathlon until 2011. After her first race, the Red Man Spring Triathlon, she was hooked.

Menard means business on the track

But the transition from athlete to scientist hasn’t always been so smooth. In high school, Menard struggled with bridging the gap between jock and science-lover. Thanks to her supporting parents, Menard realized that having two passions was a blessing—not a curse.

 “You can be athletic and scientific,” Menard explained. “You can be successful at both, and it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a girl.” 

The women’s triathlon sport is gaining ground in Norman as the University of Oklahoma works to establish a team. Menard hopes to get even more involved in racing in the future as more women enter the sport. But for Menard, it’s not about soaking in the spotlight or becoming an inspiration. It’s for the love of the sport.

 

Menard and her fellow triathletes 

“You should race because you’re passionate about it,” Menard said. “I never did it to inspire other people. I did it because I cared, because I enjoyed the sport.”

 For updates about Menard’s upcoming race, keep an eye on the ITU website. Good luck, Katrina!

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel.”

If you’re friends with us on Facebook or Twitter, you’re probably used to seeing unending streams of adorable children digging for fossils in the Discovery Room. But why should they have all the fun? Every year, the museum offers an adult-only fossil field trip for Paleozoic buffs, fossil collectors, paleontology enthusiasts and everyone in between. Cool, right? You can thank our sponsors—Arvest Bank, Republic Bank & Trust and Fowler Honda.

  

Here’s the 411: Your two-day journey begins at the Sam Noble Museum Friday, Sept. 19. Our invertebrate paleontology curator, Steve Westrop, will lead participants into Oklahoma’s Paleozoic past with a look at some of Oklahoma’s finest fossilized specimens. Then, on Saturday, we hit the field.

 

On Friday, see some of the museum’s finest specimens like this pentremites

“On this trip we’ll go back to the Devonian Period, about 400 million years ago, when Oklahoma was covered by a shallow sea,” Westrop explained. “We’ll collect the shells of extinct animals that lived on a muddy sea bottom.”

Even though this event is adults-only, finder’s keepers trumps all. Whatever you find on the dig, you get to take home. Talk about a conversation piece! How often do you get the chance to hold millions of years between your fingers?

A specimen collected on a previous Fossil Field Trip

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel,” Westrop said. “We can’t actually go to the past but if you know where to look, evidence of the past is all around us.”

 So, what should you bring for the big trip? Comfortable shoes, casual clothes, a sack lunch, snacks, plenty of water and—of course—your sense of adventure. We will leave the museum at 9 a.m. and return around 4 p.m., so brace yourself for a day of nonstop discovery.

 

Past participants dig up prehistoric sea life

According to Westrop, participants will leave the trip with several interesting fossils and an appreciation of how life and environments change over time. But wait, there’s more! Don’t forget the wealth of memories and insanely cool story you’ll have to share over your new conversational piece. Are you ready for a little time travel? Enroll today!

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Forensic Files Series Leads OU Student to Museum

“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”

 Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.

Video, Diatoms in Action

Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.

 Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler. 

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Wu in the field

 “During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.

 Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species. 

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Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle

 “I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”

In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.

“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”

Education 101

You’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to your child’s education – especially in the summer. It’s important for parents to do their homework before enrolling in educational programming, so grab your pencil! Class is now in session.

 Lesson 1 – Not all Education is Equal

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Unlike many educational programs outside of school, our curriculum is developed by trained educators to complement the statewide plan. Additionally, our educators strive to go above and beyond the Oklahoma Science Standards, providing additional science education to students who may lack opportunities and resources.

 “We provide out of school opportunities for students to engage in science and explore the world that they can’t access in their schools,” said Jes Cole, head of education. “We are really fortunate to be a complement and to help supplement Oklahoma schools for science education.”

 By teaching Oklahoma children the joy of experiential learning, the museum has molded statewide science education. In the past year, 1,245 participants enrolled in our public education programming, and the museum has impacted 219,380 students through field trips in the past decade.

Lesson 2 – You Don’t Need a Classroom

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Nothing is more terrifying to a teacher than watching his or her students discard precious information over summer vacation. But there is something you as a parent can do, and it starts with Summer Explorers.

Summer Explorers is the Sam Noble Museum’s summer educational programming for students ages 4-14. We offer a wide variety of courses throughout the summer - covering everything from baby to animals to pond scum, world cultures to paleontology. It’s a chance to see the world behind the safety of gallery walls.

“There aren’t many summer camps that have the same security that watches over priceless artifacts in the same area as my priceless kiddo,” said Amy Davenport, parent of a former Summer Explorer. “Whenever we drop Zoey off to class, we know she is in great hands.”

Lesson 3 – Learning is for Life

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If you’ve ever heard the term lifelong learner, then you know that curiosity is not outgrown. Adults love digging in the sand for buried fossils just as much as their children, especially when playing for keeps.  That’s why the museum offers family and adult-only public programs.

 “Everyone is a lifelong learner, and everyone’s always wanting to learn more,” said Cole. “We try to offer what other educational institutions cannot, and that’s how we design our adult programming.”

In addition to inspiring new interests, adult education also strives to answer everyday dilemmas with specialized scientific knowledge. From preserving family heirlooms to mastering macrophotography, these programs foster learning for life.

 Exam Review

 Summer brings ample opportunity to enroll your child in educational programming - but will you make the correct choice? Every right answer begins in a book, so study up using our education website! Come see what science education is all about, and discover our school of thought.

A Mammalogist’s Homecoming

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 What comes to mind when you think of summer? Melting popsicles? The smell of freshly cut grass? Lazy days by the pool? For mammalogists across the country, summer means one very important thing – the annual ASM conference.

 What’s ASM, you ask? The American Society of Mammalogists was founded in 1919 to promote interest in the study of mammals. To do so, the organization issues regular publications about upcoming news while maintaining extensive online photographic database that covers a wide variety of animals.

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First ASM Conference in 1919

“The ASM fosters the next generation of mammalogists by providing small research grants, fellowships, internships and honoraria to promising students,” said Edward Heske, ASM president. “We offer a welcoming and supportive environment where young scientists can grow and move out into their new professional universe, and what could be greater ‘return on investment’ than that?” 

Every year, the members of this prestigious organization meet face-to-fact to catch up with old friends, exchange research and discuss current events in the field. If nothing else, the conference is an amazing opportunity for scientists to learn from and encourage one another as they pursue their passion.

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The 2012 Conference in Reno

“Many of us see each other only once a year at the meetings and, on a personal level, it’s like a big annual homecoming,” said Eileen Lacey, ASM president elect. “Aside from the social component, it’s a very stimulating chance to talk about the science and the organisms that are of greatest interest to me, so a very rewarding professional experience as well.”

Why are we so excited? Because this year’s conference will be held in Oklahoma City from June 6-10!  Meetings are typically held in major cities like Portland, Philadelphia and Reno, so the 2014 selection comes as an honor. Many of our Sam Noble Museum mammalogists are already gearing up for the conference. Get ready! We’re attending this year’s conference and (of course) bringing you all the details! Stay tuned, friends.

Ornithology Bands Together

If you’ve driven by the Sam Noble Museum at any point since November, you may have noticed a rectangular, grass prairie sitting just behind the museum. No, no – we aren’t slacking on our chores. The tall brush houses several species of birds, some of which are extremely difficult to observe and track. That’s why a team of ornithologists hit the field last week to do a bit of bird banding before the March mowing.

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Volunteer Robin Urquhart holds a Lincoln’s Sparrow

It all began last fall, when Joe Grzybowski, ornithology research associate, discovered several species of sparrows hunting for food in the tall brush. One of these species, the LeConte’s sparrow, is an exceptionally secretive animal that researchers seldom stumble upon. In fact, only 3,000 LeConte’s sparrows have ever been banded, only one of which was recaptured at a later time.

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A LeConte’s Sparrow outside the museum

 Ornithologists engage in banding as a means of tracking species migration and monitoring populations. Each metal band, issued by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, contains a serial number and is sized for each species. Fortunately, Grzybowski has a banding permit and was able to lead the team through the process.

“A small conscious change in landscaping practices can help support a variety of wildlife,” said Tamaki Yuri, ornithology collection manager. “For example, the hawks we have seen around the field this winter are evidence of healthy populations of grassland birds and small mammals in the field.”

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The team bands sparrows outside the museum

 In just two hours, the team banded six sparrows of four different species – two LeConte’s, two Lincoln’s, one Song and one Savannah sparrows. Given the high winds and limited time, Yuri says she is pleased with the results. The team will use this information to track population growth for the area in coming years.

 “If these birds know that the grasses exist, they will come back next year,” said Yuri, “and it is important to have more research on the LeConte’s Sparrow.”

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Yuri holding a LeConte’s Sparrow

Why We Love Picky Volunteers

Christie Godec looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.

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Godec sifts through sandy soil

 Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains.  The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godec can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs. 

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Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked 

Five years ago, Godec moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.

 “It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godec said.

 A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.

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A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin

As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godec believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset. 

“For me, it’s fun,” said Godec. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.” 

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One of many micropicking cabinets

 Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godec, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.