Tag Archive: OLLI

Letter O: OLLI

OThe Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, “A Health Club for Your Mind,” has been in Fairbanks almost since the turn of the century. Originally Adventures in Lifelong Learning and then Alaska Lifelong Learning, the name was changed to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in 2006, after the Osher foundation provided funding. The program is currently part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions, open to students 50 years and older.

Members celebrated OLLI’s 10th Anniversary in 2010. There are now 800 members in OLLI.

All instructors are volunteers, and many are current or former UAF faculty members. Most are delighted by the eagerness and willingness to ask questions that characterize OLLI students. I know I was, when I taught a class in basic genetics! As a general rule there are four sets of 4-week classes a year, in March, April, October and November. This spring I’m taking seven: iMovie and iDVD, Beringia, and Ancient Sumer in March; Alaska’s 1964 Earthquake, Climate Variability and Change, iPhone and iPad, and Alaska Weather in April.

As you can see I tend to go for the science and computer classes, but those are far from the only ones taught. There are classes in art and handiwork, computer applications, exercise and recreation, films and photography, healthy living, history and politics, literature languages and philosophy, science and mathematics, and social studies. In addition there are field trips and special interest groups.

There are OLLI programs across the country. All are university affiliated and received funding from the Osher Foundation, but they are run independently. Is there one where you live?


AtoZ 13 logoIf you’re looking for the A to Z Challenge post, click on the logo to the left or scroll down.


The top foot of my 3′ snow stake as of 7 am 4/15/13

The sun rose this morning at 6:14  and will set, after 15 hours and 15 minutes, at 9:29 this evening. We’re still gaining about 6 minutes 50 seconds a day, but it doesn’t feel like spring. We’ve had hardly a thawing day this week until yesterday, but the forecast suggests a little warming this week. That means highs in the low 30’s for the most part, with chances of snow. The snow stake says we still have two feet of snow on the ground.

I tried to take a picture last night about 9, but there was too much reflection in the window. I’ll try again this morning, since I have to get up early to make my OLLI classes—no less than three tomorrow. One on Feet, Teeth, Ears and Eyes for us old folks (tomorrow’s ears) at 9 am, one on Oceanic Deep Water Formation at 1 pm, and one on Alaskan Authors at 2:45. Tomorrow’s Your Inner Fish at 10:45; Thursday is Genealogy for two hours in the morning, and Friday is Beringia (the land area that included Alaska, Eastern Siberia, and the dry land that is now the Bering Sea when sea levels were lower during the Ice ages) at 10:45 am. And my Q post, the only one not written for the A to Z Challenge, needs to be written before Friday. Busy week!

Sunrise this morning was 6:10 pm, with sunset not until 9:33 this afternoon for 15 hours 23 minutes of daylight. We’re still gaining almost 7 minutes a day, but the snow, while pretty wet lately, is far from gone. The snow stake shows just under a foot still on the ground. There’s been enough melting that the path to the shed (and the tricycle) is impossible to shovel – it’s ice. Too bad, as they’ve plowed the bicycle path, though the tenth of a mile of dirt road to get to it is a horrible mixture of mud, ice, and potholes. But the edges of the raised beds are poking out of the snow, and at this rate I’ll be able to see the soil in the beds beds themselves pretty soon. It was actually above freezing this morning at 7 am.

I’ve started wearing my athletic shoes when I go anywhere, just tossing the boots in the car in case I encounter ice. I’m actually getting to attend evening functions, like The Stoned Guest (P.D.Q. Bach) Friday night. I need to start the beans next week, and the squash the week after that. Time to start visiting the greenhouses, too – I rely on them for culinary herb plants and flowers.

If only I weren’t so busy with OLLI classes this month! Northern vegetation changes and archaeological science Monday, iPhoto and digital photography Wednesday, astrophysics Friday, and a weekend workshop on fiction writing at the beginning of next month. Hope I can remember to keep the plants watered!

p.s. at 4 pm: temperature +57°F and I had to take off my jacket and turn on the air conditioning driving home! Still plenty of snow, though — the snow stake says 8″, though lots of bare ground, as well as mud and puddles,  are showing.

One of the problems faced by teachers at any level is questions.

Very young children are full of questions – the problem is keeping a class from disintegrating into chaos. Somehow parents, school and adults in general manage to turn that questioning off, at least in the classroom. In teaching college courses, I found that it was very difficult to get students to ask any questions. And a good teacher relies on student questions, if only to provide feedback on whether he or she has gotten the point across.

I recall a math class at Harvard where the professor was totally stunned by the abysmal results of the first test. Most of us hadn’t had the least idea of what he was talking about, but were so confused we didn’t even know what to ask. If some of us had just spoken up and said “I don’t understand that,” he might have realized what we only understood in retrospect – he had not bothered to find out exactly what the preceding class had covered, and a large and essential chunk of the necessary background to what he was teaching had never been covered. In this case, I think we were all afraid of looking stupid in the eyes of the other students.

I’m not talking about huge lecture classes, of course. But in smaller groups, often with a graduate assistant, questions do need to be asked – and frequently are not. As a result, those who teach in college settings generally plan their lectures assuming there will not be many questions.

Many of our local OLLI classes, for adults over 50, are taught by college professors, often retired. These lecturers plan their courses as if we were college students, with a typical student’s reluctance to ask meaningful questions. It doesn’t work, at least not in Fairbanks. We older students are full of questions, especially when our instructors are active researchers of what they are teaching.

The final lecture of “The Mesozoic of Alaska” was supposed to cover marine reptiles and pterosaurs. Well, the marine reptile – an ichthyosaur discovered on the North Slope – was indeed covered, in the last five minutes of the two-hour class. I had to ask about the pterosaurs after class.

I think that Pat (who is not retired) intended to give a brief overview of what kinds of dinosaur fossils have been found in Alaska, followed by the story of the excavation of the ichthyosaur (which turned out to have co-discovered by Carl Benson, one of my dissertation advisors) and the trace fossils of pterosaurs. He passed around casts of fossils of numerous types of dinosaurs found along the Colville River, told stories of floating the Colville hunting for dinosaur bones in the thawing banks, and showed artists’ conceptions of the living beasts. And he had to field tons of questions.

I won’t go into the classifications of Saurischia and Ornithischia, you can look at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Here in Alaska, we had Edmontosaurus (a duck-bill) chowing down on the vegetation, accompanied (not always on the Colville) by ankylosaursThescelosaurus, hadrosaurs and Pachyrhinosaurus. They were eaten by large and small two-legged predatory dinosaurs: big-eyed Troodons, the Tryannosaurid Albertosaurus, and another small, pack-hunting killer, Sauromitholestes.

The pterosaurs? They were here, as shown by a trace fossil of the “hand” of one. Their bones are so delicate that it is no surprise fossils have not been found yet in Alaska, but they were here. At least there is no problem with their possible migration, which is still hotly debated for the land-dwelling dinosaurs.

Don’t forget to comment for the drawing — I’m including all relevant posts.

The OLLI classes are on again, and my favorite teachers are back – this time, with a course on the Alaskan Mesozoic.

What’s that? Well, the Mesozoic is the “Middle period” of multicellular life on earth, lasting roughly from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. It is probably better known as the age of dinosaurs, although many of the animals of the time often looked on as dinosaurs – weren’t. And the fossils of many of these animals are indeed found in Alaska – which has led to a new look at dinosaurs.

I missed the first class of the series, on the paleogeography of Alaska, but a good deal of it was put together at the Geophysical Institute, where I used to work. I already knew that the mountain ranges that make up most of Alaska were originally island chains, carried into the state on the moving Pacific and Arctic plates and crushed against it. The north slope was actually at a higher latitude than today during the Mesozoic, and while the world (and Alaska) were a good deal warmer then, the sun was still below the horizon 24 hours a day in midwinter. Plants cannot grow without sunlight, herbivores would have a lean time of it in winter, and carnivores need herbivores to survive. It is difficult to imagine cold-blooded reptiles managing this (there are no crocodiles or snakes in mainland Alaska today) so the discovery of dinosaurs, but not fossil crocodiles, at these high latitudes has forced some reconsideration of their cold-bloodedness.

So what are dinosaurs? That was the Saturday lecture.

First, they are diapsids. That means they have two holes (other than those for eyes, nostrils and ears) in their skulls. In contrast we mammals have one on each side and are called synapsids, and turtles have none and are called anapsids. Don’t think you have one? It’s behind your cheekbone, and your jaw muscle passes through it. Feel above your cheekbone and clench your jaw, and you can feel the muscle. Well, dinosaurs, crocodiles, lizards and birds have two such holes.

In order to be a dinosaur, however, something else is required. Diapsids (think reptiles) started out sprawling. At some point some brought their hind legs under themselves – somewhat earlier than we mammals learned the trick – and began to use their forelegs as grasping hands. The first dinosaur probably looked like a large (but not too large) featherless (we think) bird.

And dinosaurs, as defined by being diapsids with upright rear legs and three-toed grasping forelegs, include birds. Furthermore, discoveries over the last ten to fifteen years have made it clear that many perfectly good, classic dinosaurs had feathers. After all, feathers make excellent insulation, as demonstrated by the down parka I wear.

So far, we’ve learned also that some creatures often lumped with dinosaurs are in fact not dinosaurs. The sail-backs often included with dinosaurs, for instance, are in fact synapsids and are our own distant relatives. Pterosaurs and marine reptiles, though flourishing at the same time as dinosaurs, were not dinosaurs, though they were diapsids.

I know there were marine reptiles in Alaska, but I’ll be fascinated to hear about pterosaurs in our long, dark winters. Did they live here, even in the summer? Did their wings allow them to migrate?

Next week we’ll focus on plants, but the final week is scheduled to cover the marine reptiles and pterosaurs. If you can’t wait, there is some information on a PBS NOVA program.

(P.S. That’s a Pterosaur skull that Pat Druckenmiller is holding.)