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Expert Profile: Falconer Genevieve Zaloum

In Arts, Features on May 2, 2016 at 9:14 pm
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Zaloum and one of the falcons she brought with her to the bird day fair


S
unshine the snow white Barn Owl swoops majestically through the air before landing amidst the crowd. “She might be a bit nervous,” Falconer Geneviève Zaloum says, before fetching the bird from between the spectators. However, it’s hard to imagine such a majestic looking creature (and fearsome predator) could be easily intimidated. Sunshine is one of many birds of prey that were shown at Ottawa’s Bird Day Fair held May 31st in Andrew Haydon Park.

After the show, I got a chance to do a Q & A with Geneviève about her falconry career and the birds she trains and advocates for.

Dylan Copland (DC): What is your job at Falcon Environmental Services?

Geneviève Zaloum (GZ): Since I started in 2009, I’ve had the opportunity to do a little bit of everything; from taking care of the animals to training, to visiting schools and educating children. It’s a very dynamic position.

DC: What sorts of animals do you work with?

GZ: I only work with birds of prey. It’s constantly interesting though because I think each one has their own personality and style. They have their own quirks and each one does its own thing, so I’m always guessing at what they’re going to do next. You have to learn how to interact with each individual.

DC: Can you describe one of these unique animals personalities?

GZ: Figaro, the Harris Hawk, presented last Saturday, is 18 years old. Born in captivity, and having always been amongst humans, this is a bird who knows the business. No matter where we are, I can count on this bird to do the job! He is comfortable around people, and loves his perches. It is not any Harris Hawk that can accomplish that, however the years of experience and the many handlers this bird has encountered makes him an extremely valued asset to our bird team.

DC: What inspired you to get into this line of work?

GZ: Well, I knew I always wanted to work with animals. I have a B.Sc. In Zoology, but I think I have the ability to work well with not only animals, but also people because you have to be open and answer the public’s questions and to have the patience to listen to people. I like doing it all and the dynamic nature of the position is what makes it exciting.

DC: What is one of the most memorable experiences you have had while working with birds?

GZ: One of the most wonderful experiences so far in my career has been training our Great Horned Owl, Darwin. In order to have an owl that is comfortable in schools and show presentations, we made the decision to imprint. In the wild, babies imprint on their parents, and therefore associate themselves as that species. However, in our case, we wanted Darwin to associate himself as human, and therefore we raised him ourselves. I can honestly say that it was one of the coolest experiences watching this little owlet grow into an adult. We acquired him at three weeks old, and as any baby does, he mostly ate, slept and pooped! As he started to get older, he started to explore his surroundings more and more. Looking around, trying to access taller surfaces, flapping his wings to get those muscles working! The rate at which he grew was just unbelievable, doubling his weight in just a couple of weeks, growing in size, in plumage and in courage. It didn’t take long for him to be able to access heights, and soon travel a few meters at a time. By the age of two months, he was fully feathered and flighted. Being able to witness the entire process is a moment in my career that I will never forget.

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DC: As an educator, what is one thing about the animals you work with you think everyone should know?

GZ: I think it is important that everyone know that these birds, although they look very friendly during a show, are still wild birds at heart. They maintain their wild instincts despite being born in captivity and this emphasizes that a bird of prey should never be considered a pet. They have no affection towards their trainer, but trust that we are not there to cause harm. This makes for a very different relationship than one may be used to when working with animals.

DC: How can an individual get involved in helping to protect these animals or conserve their environment?

GZ: There are many rehabilitation centres that encourage help from volunteers. This can be offered through help with installations (cleaning, preparing food) to helping with fundraising activities that better inform the public of risks and threats to different species. Otherwise, projects that promote protection to nature reserves, nesting success of certain species can also be supported.

DC: What do you like to do in your free time?

GZ: I like to figure skate and snowboard! Falconry is hunting which occurs mainly in the fall. When there’s no hunting I have time to participate in other activities.

DC: Where do you see yourself in the future?

GZ: Right here! I’ve made it!

Falcon Environmental Services, based out of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, features both both educational and business divisions. The company specializes in the removal of unwanted birds and animals from human development sites such as: airports, military installations and landfills using techniques like: live trap and release, falconry, trained dogs and pyrotechnic devices. They also provide teaching seminars and demonstrations on ecological preservation and birds of prey at schools and public events in Canada and the United States.

You can find them on the web at http://www.faucon.biz or at http://www.falconed.biz.

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Canada’s Creatures of the Night

In Features on May 2, 2016 at 8:56 pm

creaturesofthenight

We began our walk along the dark trail guided only by the beams of light provided by our head lamps and flashlights. The low, constant hum of crickets could immediately be heard from the brush lining the path and was occasionally punctuated by the chirp of birds that had bedded down for the night. We approached our first bait station, located near the trail entrance, to see what creatures our fermented brew had attracted.

By day, Ottawa’s Mud Lake is host to a wide variety of active creatures from snapping turtles, to blue heron and all manner of insects, but by night, the wooded areas surrounding the lake transform and — if you’re lucky or have a particularly attuned set of eyes – a very different set of creatures can be seen.

On this evening, a group of visitors had gathered at Ottawa’s Mud Lake to explore the often overlooked bio diversity of the area at night.  A prized sighting would have been a nighthawk or screech owl and our eyes periodically darted up to the sky hoping to see the silhouette of one of these illusive creatures.

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Preparing for the upcoming night walk at Ottawa’s Mud Lake.

Spotting nocturnal animals is a fun activity, but it’s also an important one if we are to know the makeup of Canada’s biodiversity. Nature Canada conducts a bio count in the spring and fall seasons as both a fun public event to help people connect with their natural environment, but also as a scientific exercise — to highlight the importance of paying attention to the state of Canada’s local biota. Shifts in the biological makeup of an area could signal environmental changes or problems that we as stewards of the environment need to know about.

We had no luck at the first bait station. Our mixture of brown sugar, oats, yeast, molasses and maple syrup should have done the trick to attract some of Canada’s over 2000 species of moths, but the cool night time temperatures of the approaching fall season were hindering our bait’s effectiveness.

“Moths are cold blooded so it may be too chilly for them this evening,” Our guide Alex MacDonald said. “They actually need to warm up in order to digest their food, otherwise they can’t eat.”

We carried on deeper into the woods, a rabbit stopped to observe our group at one point, its eyes glowing eerily from the reflected light of our camera flashes. At our second bait station we encountered not moths, but a group of white banded ants that our sweet potion had attracted. The ants quickly scurried away from the gaze of our lights, but we were able to get a close look at a black spider that had set up a web between two bushes nearby.

As we made our way to the final bait stations, we stopped to look out on the lake. A muskrat bobbed up and down in the dark water as it made its way to the far shore.

At the final station we found that our bait had attracted a moth! It stayed still long enough on the tree for us to identify it as a sharp-winged shade. Based on what we know about moths (and our own limited success at spotting them at the Mud Lake nature walk) in the fall season, moths become more difficult to see due to falling temperatures. However, there are plenty of other nocturnal creatures that can be seen year-round in the Canadian environment.

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Field guides are used to determine what plants or animals are seen on nature excursions.

Chris Earley is an Interpretive biologist at the Guelph Arboretum at the University of Guelph, where he’s been leading night time nature walks for close to 20 years. He says that many of Canada’s nocturnal creatures can still be seen when the temperature drops including: great horned owls, barn owls, flying squirrels, rabbits, coyotes and other small mammals.

“Nature walks are actually a great winter activity,” Earley said. “The freshly fallen snow makes it a very pretty environment to go owl watching.”

Earley leads evening nature sightseeing events and workshops called Owl Prowls in which a group of visitors learn about the creatures before heading out into a wooded area at the arboretum to attempt to spot or hear the owls using territorial calls.

Earley says going out and exploring Canada’s nocturnal creatures can lead to some interesting nature stories and sightings.

“One time, As I was doing a screech owl call we actually had a flying squirrel swoop down and fly over our head. It was a really cool thing to see.”

For those interested in going on, or organizing their own, nature walk we offer the following tips to improve the experience:


Dress Warmly

 Often times you’ll be standing still listening for creature noises or stopping to examine an animal you’ve come across. Don’t underestimate the drop in temperature during the night.

Bring Flashlights, but use them sparingly

 Flashlights will not harm nocturnal creatures, but they will scare them off. It’s often best to let your eyes adjust to the natural light reflected by the moon than it is to use battery powered lights.

Bring a recorded owl call

 Recorded owl calls are a great way to induce a barn or screech owl to return a call, but use them sparingly as owls will assume a potential rival is infringing on their territory and you don’t want to disturb them too much! It’s best to start with small owl sounds first, like the saw-whet owl, and work your way up to the larger owls because the calls of larger owls will scare away the smaller creatures.

Be as quiet as you can

 In the dark, listening to creatures can be as important (and rewarding) as seeing them with your eyes. Naturalists are just as happy to hear an owl as they are to see one. However, you do stand a greater chance of seeing animals if you’re not making a lot of noise.

Have people look in different directions

 Organize your group so that your eyes cover as much of the surrounding area as possible. A sighting is a sighting whether it’s done by you or someone else!

Know the trails before heading out

 The last thing you want is to be lost out on the trails in the middle of night. Make sure you have prior knowledge of the pathways and always no how to get back to the entrance. Bring a map, if possible, and ensure you have some a cellphone in case of an emergency.

Thanks to Alex MacDonald with Nature Canada, Chris Earley with the University of Guelph and Casey Whiterock with the Stanley Park Ecological Society for providing information for this article. For those looking for more information on the Guelph Arboretum’s Owl Prowl events, please visit http://www.uoguelph.ca/arboretum/. For information on the Stanley Park Ecological Society’s  Creatures of the Night theatrical Nature Walks visit http://www.stanleyparkecology.ca.

 

A Taste For Tea

In Features, News on April 30, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen April, 2011

Server Maya Oka-Pregel moves between the pairs of attendees. At the front of the windowed room, 31-year old Venk Prabhu stands and spouts facts about the drink his guests are sampling.

“Green tea is never steeped with boiling water,” Prabhu explains, even as Oka-Pregel begins pouring the next offering, a black tea, into small, white cups. “Wait for it to cool at least six degrees before you pour it.”

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Venk Prabhu and his wife Priya Prakash. The couple own Shanti teas, a tea import company in Ottawa, Ontario.

Prabhu and his wife, Priya Prakash, own Shanti Teas, an import company that brings organic and “fair-trade” teas from Asia, the Middle East and Africa to Canada. Tonight he is here to spread his knowledge to eight guests attending a tea workshop at the Grounded Kitchen and Coffee House in downtown Ottawa.

He has been in the business just two years, but Prabhu knows his tea. Twelve examples are brought out in succession, and he is able to offer up history, facts and proper preparation techniques for each.

Shanti, which started in an apartment in Toronto, has become Canada’s largest importer of purely organic teas, its owners say. Prabhu and Prakash brought the company to Ottawa to allow Prakash to work on a degree in naturopathic medicine. Shanti Teas has storage in Ottawa and warehouses in Montreal and Vancouver.

In the overall world of tea, it’s a small player. Shanti expects to gross $450,000 in 2011. Last year, it imported an estimated 15 tonnes of organic tea.

But the company sees much potential for growth as more people move to the market for organic tea, which comes from a growing process deemed free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Standards, however, can vary from country to country. Shanti’s tea is certified by Ecocert, a Quebec-based company set up in 1995 to certify organic products.

Tea had a 12-per-cent share of the non-alcoholic beverage market in 2008, according to Agriculture Canada. Data from Statistics Canada show that the Canadian market for tea and coffee totalled almost $1.5 billion in 2008.

The majority of Shanti sales comes from private-label teas it packages and sells to retailers and coffee shops. It also sells its own tea brand, which is available at Ottawa outlets including the Urban Pear, the Flour Shoppe and C.A. Paradis.

Melissa Summers, owner of the eat-in “cupcakery” the Flour Shoppe, which operates just around the corner from the Shanti Teas office, says the organic teas are popular with her customers.

“All of them have been fantastic sellers, the blends are very unique,” Summers said.

“The customers love it, often times the’ll walk over to the Shanti tea store and look for some they can bring home.”

Retail tea chain Teaopia, which is opening its 35th store in Hillcrest, Ont., this week, says more people want organic products.

“We will continue to expand our organic line,” says Elise Cappuccitti, director of communications for Teaopia, which does not carry Shanti Teas. “Certainly there’s a demand for it, and customers will choose organic over nonorganic if given the choice.”

Cappuccitti cautions, however, that an organic designation is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of tea leaves.

After the tasting, Prabhu sits relaxed in his chair as he rapidly relays stories, information and his tea philosophy.

“Tea is the one thing in life where you’ve got to slow down. It’s not like coffee -you can’t forget about it because it will over-steep, you can’t use boiling water because then you will burn the leaves. There’s so much to pay attention to that you almost have to forget about everything else that’s going on in your life -it’s like meditation.”

Slowing down, however, is not in Prabhu’s business plan. He says he works 20 hours a day, if not at physical labour, then in thinking about his company’s strategy, the next move he will make.

Prabhu began his university studies in engineering, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and then changed his focus to architecture, in which he obtained a master’s degree at Carleton University. But he doesn’t see himself as a fullfledged architect until he better understands the cultures of the world, which he feels is essential to the art.

“To learn about cultures takes time,” he explains. “I feel like when I’m 50 or 60, I’ll be more responsible to do architecture then.”

In the past year, Prabhu has travelled to Sri Lanka, Japan and Egypt to inspect tea farms. He says he prefers those that let him simply show up and look around. He says it’s very important the farms treat the workers well. In the future he plans to go to China, Kenya and South Africa.

tea pickers

Tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. Prabhu routinely travels to foreign countries where he can inspect the tea crop and its growing process.

Recently, Shanti teas were given as a gift to winners at the Genie Awards In Ottawa. The company holds tea tastings and workshops to boost awareness of the drink.

The company’s next event is a tea blending workshop on March 25 at 6: 30 p.m. at Grounded on Gloucester Street. Attendees will learn about which teas mix well and will be able to make their own blend. Other events, including a chai tea preparation workshop, are scheduled for April.

Prabhu says the company’s goal is to increase the size of the organic tea market and lower the price of organic tea for consumers.

“We want to have the largest selection of organic teas,” he says. “We have to support organic farming because it takes a farm three years to convert from non-organic to organic. Recently, we had a farm (we buy from) convert back from organic because it was losing too much money.”

 

Inside the Mud Lake Biodiversity Project

In Features on January 3, 2015 at 6:48 am

“Do we have this one yet?” Harold Sotomayor asked his friend and project partner Patrick Killeen after we came across a white capped mushroom covered by bushes to the side of the trail.

“Well, let’s snap a photo of it anyways, just in case.”

Welcome to the world of the Mud Lake Biodiversity project, an ongoing citizen science experiment in which the goal is to document and record every living organism in the Mud Lake area of Ottawa, Ontario. The project, which has attracted photo contributions from outside members of the community, is a brilliant mix of deductive science and taxonomic gamification and has helped its creators learn a lot about their local environment and its biodiversity.

   mud lake biodiversity

Sotomayor explained the initial idea stemmed from the television show and video game Pokemon which he used to watch and play as a child.

“When I started, the idea for the project was to create a catalogue like a Pokedex” Sotomayor said. “I genuinely thought we would come out here and find like five birds. I had no idea about how much I did not know.”

Home to over 200 species of birds, around 50 varieties of moss and hundreds of different trees and plants, Mud Lake is a naturalist’s dream. Located just west of downtown Ottawa, the area contains many ecological biomes including: a riparian section along the bank of the Ottawa river, a woodland area and wetlands around the lake itself.

Unlike the mass of wildlife found at Mud Lake, the project has remained reasonably quiet and contained. For the past four years, Patrick and Harold have been making trips out to the lake with a camera and documenting any life they find. Nothing is omitted from the project. Plants, animals, fungi, insects… even bacteria and protists, which Harold collects and analyzes at home under an electron microscope, are included and added to the growing database and website.

under microscope

“We began with just animals and plants, but once people started visiting the website, we sort of felt an obligation to expand and include everything,” Sotomayor said.

Patrick Killeen, 20, makes up one half of the pair. He is currently a computer science student at the University of Ottawa and is credited by Harold as having the greater taxonomic knowledge of the two.

white breasted nuthatch

“I wasn’t really interested in biology before the project,” Killeen said. “Growing up my dad would tell me stuff and I was sort of forced to learn the information. But then, after the project began, I actually wanted to learn so that’s when I gained a huge boost of knowledge.”

Harold Sotomayor, 29, is the creative mind behind the enterprise. He is currently using the site to work on his programming skills while working part time and also managing the biodiversity project.

The two have been able to parlay the project into educational opportunities with outside organizations. Harold and Patrick have led educational tours through Mud Lake with adult high school students as well as by leading tours at Nature Canada’s fall bio blitz event.

The pair want the project to remain small and and without ads and said their next goal is to include more of the areas diverse mosses and insects. They are also collaborating on a for-profit historical Android application video game about western American slave trade.

For those interested in learning more about the project, or contributing to the growing collection of photos you can check it out at: www.mudlakebiodiversity.com. The site is also expected to receive a coming user interface revamp in the coming weeks with new graphics.

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The Rapid Growth of Community Gardens in Canada

In Features on January 3, 2015 at 6:39 am

Vancouver now has over 75 of them; Halifax 25; and Ottawa, at least 40. No matter where you look in Canada, community gardens are becoming one of the country’s quickest growing outdoor activities as more people look for a way to get outdoors, grow their own plants and get back to nature.

A community garden is an urban green space allotted to the growing of plants by the public. All manner of plants can be grown, from herbs and vegetables to fruits and flowers. The green space is divided into plots and each plot is assigned to the public on a first come first serve basis. The spaces themselves are as diverse as the plants grown on them. Some are hundreds of plots large, while others only have allotments numbering in the single digits.tools edit

The community gardens are typically run by local groups that may organize a single or group of gardens. Anyone can apply to be a community gardener, but in many cities, plots are being filled faster than new gardens can be created.

Jordan Bouchard is the Interim Coordinator of Just Food’s Ottawa-based community gardening network. He’s seen first-hand the rapid increase of community gardens in the city.

“Community gardening is growing quickly,” Bouchard said. “We’ve more than doubled the amount of urban gardens in Ottawa in the last five years.”

It’s popularity has grown to the point that city websites are warning of wait times to receive a spot.

“Some waitlists are years long,” Bouchard said. “Because of this, many groups are working towards getting more set up in the city.”

There are a multitude of factors behind the recent surge of popularity of community gardening. Some people, like community gardener Brad Mitchell, 47, find tending to a plot of fruit and vegetables a good reason to get outside and into nature.

“I like to get my hands dirty,” Mitchell said. “Some of the gardeners will go and plant fully grown vegetables, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching a plant grow from seed and raising it all the way up.”

Mitchell spent five years waiting to get a shot at tending a space at the Laurier and Bronson community garden in Ottawa. While waiting, he volunteered by mowing the grass between plots, helping friends tend to their gardens and by doing general maintenance work around the site.

Mitchell grows beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other vegetables that all appeared to be growing well, but he said there are a few dangers gardeners should be on the lookout for.

“Since the plots are so close together, everything grown is organic. Because of this, we get bugs and pests that will come in and eat the produce,” Mitchell said. He pointed to one of his leafier plants which was dotted with small holes and bite marks.

Another problem gardeners face is thieves who will steal produce. Mitchell said he has lost a fair amount of vegetables to other humans who have picked freshly grown vegetables from his garden.

“I came in one day, and one of my eggplants was just gone. Then I came in the next day, and the second one was gone,” he said. “And not only that, but whoever took it had snipped off the buds, so no more would grow.”

While taking food that a person has not grown is never encouraged, some gardens have begun to implement open pick spaces to combat food theft. The idea being that if someone is going to steal food from a garden, they should do so from a more communal plot that doesn’t belong to any one particular gardening member.

Despite the problems, Mitchell has now been growing for the past five years and said he still enjoys coming out nearly everyday to tend to his plants.

While gardening may be a fun outdoor exercise for many, there are also practical reasons why one might choose to grow in a community space.

Silvia Quintana, 50, works a patch of tomatillos at Ottawa’s Strathcona park. She says that gardening gives her an opportunity enjoy the outdoors, but also has economic and practical benefits.

Quintana watering her tomatillos at the Strathcona community garden in Ottawa.

Quintana watering her tomatillos at the Strathcona community garden in Ottawa.

“Tomatillos are very common in my home country Mexico, but not so much in Canada,” Quintana said. “Some people here know how to use them, but many people don’t even recognize them.”

Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are used in salsas and dips like guacamole. Common in Mexico, Quintana says she would have to pay upwards of 15 dollars for a bag of them in a Canadian supermarket.

I come out every couple of days [to tend to the plants], but mostly for pleasure,” Quintana said. “They’re a very hardy plant and can grow well on their own.”

Quintana is able to reap multiple harvests per season from her tomatillos and says she has more than enough left over to give to friends and family.

As the public’s enthusiasm for local urban-agricultural spaces has increased, support and resources from government and non-profit groups has been made available to help those looking to garden in an urban environment.

putting on netting

Vancouver has instituted tax breaks for landowners who develop green spaces on their property. The city now allows developers to classify community gardens as class eight recreational property, reducing the cost owed to the government to about a third of typical commercial property tax fees.

In Ottawa, Just Food, in concert with garden organizers and the city government, works with an $80,000 a year budget to provide tools, equipment and construction materials to those looking to work in or organize a community garden.

And in Halifax, the Halifax Garden Network organized a creative initiative in 2013 called the Urban Agriculture Tour which brought together a group of growers from the city. The gardeners toured a host of local growing spots and exchanged ideas on what to plant as well as thoughts on gardening techniques.

For those who may be interested in joining a community garden, more information can be found on your city’s community gardening network web-page including: contact information of local garden organizers as well as helpful information on how to start working a new plot of land.

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Algonquin’s support lab of the future

In Features, Technology on March 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

“Some of you have been around long enough to remember 1996, the famous 1996,” Algonquin College President Robert Gillett recollected at the annual President’s Breakfast at the start of the year. “Where we made a decision at a time when two levels of government made major cut-backs, we had a $20 million deficit… and we decided to invest heavily in information technology…. Today we enter phase two of that plan.”

Director of the Learning Resource Centre Tammy Thorton

The College is transitioning towards a fresher, more technologically savvy school and from the student support lab under renovations in room C102, which opened January 6, the College is banking heavily on students bringing their own technology, such as cell-phones and laptops to use as learning tools.

The first of its kind in Ontario, the fresh and excitingly new $500,000 study area’s successes and failures will largely determine how the college shapes its spending and innovation strategy moving forward.

The lab is expected to accommodate 80 to 90 students and will feature “four distinct learning spaces”. These include an informal couch seating area, a more formal area for group and private study, five group collaboration stations, which are small, semi-private rooms with long tables and computer chair seating that include a big screen television students can hook their computers up to for presentations and “dirt walls”; semi-translucent blockades that can be written on and finally, the more public group work stations.

The centre is also employing library technicians to help students navigate Algonquin’s e-library, which features books, journals databases and a collection of other resources students can use for reference.

“The lab does not have fixed computers,” Director of Learning and Teaching Services Glenn Macdougall said. “Rather, each desk will have wireless and wired connectivity [to the internet].”

This all leads to the big picture: the school’s plan to go fully mobile by 2013. According to officials, this means that all students will need some sort of mobile device that can connect to the internet by that year.

Even though a good per cent of students already have smart phones or other internet capable devices, what if not all students can afford such technology? The plan could alienate potential students and brings questions of academic fairness into play.

“All mobile, I think that’s a bad idea because what if the network goes down?” Small and Medium Enterprise Management student Ibrahim Elmi, 26, said. “There should always be a pen and paper alternative because we’re paying tuition.”

However, manager of the centre, Tammy Thornton is touting the redesign a success and early results appear to be good. Since its opening, the lab is seeing around 1000 students enter each day between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. when users are counted.

The College is also encouraging students to take a survey on their website to provide feedback on the new area.

Passing by the lab, it always appears to be full of people, but then again, so was the old lab, when it only had hardwired PCs with print capabilities. Because of this, it’s hard to say the lab is having an immediately recognizable benefit right now. The new place certainly looks nice: it’s all fresh, green-paint and curvy couches, and it is certainly very cool that you can write on walls and host group presentations on big screen TVs. But in a school where most programs are hands-on, technology and trade oriented, how much benefit can a wireless lab have for the average Algonquin student’s education?

At the very least, it seems to be giving students an outlet. Rules are more relaxed in the newly designed lab; students can bring laptops and chat as well as work together. The e-library acts as a great reference area for those looking to brush up on their learning.

Perhaps the best way to view the new lab is as a marker to a fundamental change of thought when it comes to administering post-secondary education. The learning environment seems to be moving away from the formal teacher-gives-assignments-students-do-assignments ethos and towards individual, self-directed learning. We’re seeing the institutionalisation of the user-directed learning brought to us by the internet.

We’ll have to see how the College’s enrolment and dropout rates change in the future to know for sure how effective in improving education the new lab is.

Renting a room? Here what to look for

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 7:24 am

I was greeted at the door of the sixth room I visited that day. I hoped this one would be different.

I had come up to Ottawa a month early from my hometown London to look for a room to rent for the upcoming school year.

“Please come in,” the owner said.

After touring the expensive Woodroffe condo we got into the gritty details. And for about the fifth or sixth time that day I heard the same thing:

No friends, no overnight visitors, no laundry between certain hours. Eat, sleep, study and go to school.

This is the life many landlords, who listed rooms to rent on the Algonquin SA website, expect a student to lead while paying rent to live in their home.

Thankfully, after making two Greyhound bus trips down to Ottawa, I managed to find a fair landlord who treated his tenants like human beings and not escaped convicts.

Unfortunately, not all landlords have this view.

I have a list of rules that I usually give them,” Ottawa area landlord Jim Westaway said. Tenants must keep their area clean, stick to doing laundry between certain hours, cannot have overnight guests and the living room — that’s off limits.

“I live here also,” Westaway said. “it’s my place; if you leave (the rules) too open, they abuse it. I don’t want people doing their laundry at 11 p.m. and making a racket.

When asked if the same rules apply to him, Westaway said: “The rules do not apply to me, not as an owner, I don’t think they should. I should have at least more privileges than they do.”

“But I do respect them.”

Does this seem a bit harsh? Over-protective? How could the trust inherently needed in a rental agreement sink so low?

Another landlord, Maryanne M., (who did not want her full name identified), offered one explanation.

Maryanne placed an ad on the SA website looking to rent out a room in her house. She received an email from someone claiming to be from out of town. They didn’t know the city well, they said. They also proposed a deal: they’d send her a cheque for $5000, she could take off the first and last month’s rent and mail back the remaining money through Western Union.

Suspecting rental fraud, Maryanne went to the police. She was right.

“It’s a popular move,” an attendant at Ottawa Police information said. “I’d definitely recommend people to be aware.”

Beyond money transactions, landlords have to be wary of whether students will respect their home.

“I’ve had people just trash the place,” Algonquin Pembroke student and landlord Kristin Bennett said.

Thankfully, there’s a flip-side to the Ottawa room and board scene.

David and Michelle Vesey live on a quiet street in south Ottawa. They call themselves an “empty-nest couple”, having had three sons who have all moved out. This year, for the first time, they rented rooms to two Belgian students, Kathleen Devivier and Anne-Sophie Wijnen in Canada to study international business at Algonquin and improve their English. The two parties communicated over facebook before deciding anything.

“Our vision as corny as it sounds, is this is their home,” Dave Vesey said. “I mean we aren’t mom and dad, but we can be if you want.”

The students have access to the kitchen, living room and the outdoor hot tub and pool.

Of course, the house has rules: drugs aren’t okay, and if you smoke, you must do so outside.

“We wanted to go outside (of Belgium) and learn and see another culture,” Devivier said.

She also said there have been no problems while living in the Devey’s house.

Mitchell Coogan has been around the rental block. Coogan, who works as a real estate financial analyst for the government, has been renting out a room in his house for 12 years.

Like the Vesey’s, he started by renting to foreign students, but grew tired of the communication barriers.

“They were teenagers, but very much on the tab of their parents,” Coogan said. “It was different because it was more integration into the household, not just room and board.”

In 12 years, Coogan has never had to kick a tenant out, and said he has had very few problems.

Coogan sets no particular rules. He finds coordinating shower times useful as there’s only so much hot water to go around, but beyond that, “It’s mostly just respect everyone in the house.”

“The reason I’ve had good experiences is I’m a very straightforward guy,” Coogan said. “I’m not their parent, but it’s not a business enterprise and people get that.”

In his experiences he’s also noticed a trend when people come to view the room.

There’s the early bird who comes a month or two before the school year to look around and see other places. Next are the middle-time-frame people, who often take the place on the spot and finally, the late rushers who frantically make contact before classes begin.

“I get a million calls from all over the world a day or two before school starts,” Coogan said.

So it seems in rental agreements, respect is a two-way street. If you are planning to rent a room in the future, beware of jaded landlords who will impose overly harsh restrictions. Scout out prospects early to avoid the late rush, communicate before signing a rental agreement to fully understand what is expected of you and remember that while you are paying for your room, you are living in someone’s home and need to respect them and their property.

Living away from home is a big step in a person’s life and it can be much better than just eating, sleeping studying and going to school.

Ottawa’s libraries changing with technology

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 6:27 am

Feature written for webcitybeat.com

Twenty years ago, if you took a book out from the library, a date was stamped on a card by a librarian and put in an envelope at the back of the book. All borrowing was catalogued on cards this way.

Now digital databases hold that data. Librarians can see which books have been checked out, when they’re due back and which branches hold a certain book a patron is looking for. All of this can be done at home by the public, too, saving visitors a wasted trip to the library in search of books or information.

As the age of the internet continues to change the way we live our lives, the older public database of knowledge, the library, is finding it must evolve to keep up.

At a cursory glance, it’s hard to give libraries a fighting chance in remaining relevant in a society permeated by immediately available information.

E-readers are making headway in local markets. Devices like the Kindle, and Sony E-Reader allow users to download virtual copies of books onto electronic devices they carry around with them. Hundreds of books can be stored on one device, meaning you don’t have to lug around hardcopies of reading material. The literature can be downloaded from online stores which have ever increasing catalogues that span from classic to modern works.

Smart phones are a big innovation for mobile phones. No longer do you need to be hardwired to a network to be able to access universal information. Cell-phones are less about making phone-calls than about tapping into information. Games, news reports, weather, websites, and social networks are all available on mobile phones.

Google, the world’s most used internet search engine, took in around US$6.50 billion in 2009. The site catalogues literally billions of internet web pages. Site visitors punch in key words for their search and Google lists the most relevant webpages in return. The site features services such as Google books, Google maps, the email service Gmail, and more, allowing users to consume lifetime’s worth of data.

Google has a completely transparent philosophy when it comes to information. They are known supporters of network neutrality, which is the idea that internet providers should not in any way influence the type of sites users should be able to access. The other side is that Google believes that privacy is a thing of the past. The company has faced numerous accusations of storing private search information of its users.

Is our traditional economic model of dollars and cents turning into bits and bytes?

“One of the big questions is: if all this [information] is online, why do we need libraries?” Professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa Mary Cavanagh said.

Cavanagh has been around libraries. She spent 15 years working in them in places like Kingston, Ottawa, Regina and Gatineau before taking a position at the University. Cavanagh has seen first-hand the changes that have shaped, and continue to shape Ottawa’s library system.

She describes herself as looking like a librarian, and she fits her self-description well, if perhaps a modernist version of one. She wears glasses and a scarf and her hair is mid-length and graying.  Upon talking with her she seems to both be able to keep up quick, frivolous banter while retaining a capacity for deeper conversation.

“The definition of library may be changing. Maybe it’s not about books it’s a place you can go and plug-in and ask experts,” Cavanagh said.

Libraries now have services where you can reserve books from home online, pick them up, and use an automated check-out machine. You may never have to consult a librarian again.

Libraries also house an expanding e-book selection. Due to registration limitations, visitors are allowed to check-out 10 e-books at a time.

We’re also seeing them transition into social spaces, Cavanagh explained.

Libraries in Ottawa are setting up teen spaces.  These are places where youth can go use the internet, listen to music and hang-out. In what seems contrary to traditional library culture, talking is allowed in these areas. Where has the “shhshing” librarian gone?

They seem to be changing, too. Quickly, library employees need to become experts. Patrons often have much of their research already done at home, through internet searches, and come to libraries searching for more obscure answers or material.

The trend towards expert services is taking a bizarre turn in the coming rent-an-expert service, in plans for Ottawa libraries. Visitors can come into a library branch and check-out an expert in a field and perhaps go and talk with them over a coffee. Cavanagh gives the example of a practicing Christian coming in and renting an expert on Islam for the afternoon.

However, in terms of competing resources of information, present day libraries haven’t faced this kind of competition before.

“It’s a revolution,” Cavanagh said.

So what if libraries lose in this race to provide information? There are certainly advocates for reducing the funding public libraries get.  In the midst of recession, libraries in developed countries are facing tight budgets and are relying on foundations or private support to get by. Cavanagh cites library closures in the U.K. as an example.

Will we see a return to the privately funded libraries of the past? Will they disappear completely?

When asked to imagine what she would do in a world without libraries, Cavanagh imagines herself starting informal book services.

“I would start bringing books to coffee shops and setting up stands saying, ‘can we put books here?’”

“I’d hack databases, trying to get at information,” Cavanagh said.

Vanessa Menor is a librarian at the Nepean Centrepointe library in Ottawa. The library, located by Baseline station and near Algonquin College, is known as a district branch; it holds one of the largest collections of books and biggest range of services in the city. The branch in particular holds one of the biggest amount of Asian material in Ottawa.

Menor has been a librarian for 10 years, so she wasn’t around to see the transition from stamped cards to computer database catalogues, but she said she has still seen changes.

“[Librarians] are not interacting with people as much as we used to, which is a shame because we’re good resources,” Menor said.

During our interview an older man came up and asked about a cook book he had made an inquiry about earlier. Menor adeptly searched the computer at the library’s info desk, they had previously planned to have the book transferred from another library, to Centrepointe. The man claimed to not need the book anymore as his wife’s sister had a copy and he was going to borrow it from her instead. The entire searching process took about 30 seconds.

Menor runs senior’s programs at the library, including a senior’s internet learning course she will be teaching that afternoon.

However, it’s the youth that Menor says the library has a hard time attacting.

“[Teenagers and early adults] we’re completely losing,” she said. Once they hit that age, there’s nothing here for them.”

“We find we get more interest in the technology programs,” she said. “We also have someone coming in to talk about social networking – Facebook and Twitter.”

Outfront of Nepean Centrepointe, library patron Bill Paul has nothing but praise for the services offered at Ottawa libraries.

“I think it’s very well run and we’re lucky to have it,” Paul said.

Paul has been coming here since he was a kid and said he will use the library for years to come.

He claimed he comes mainly for fiction books.

Even the youth demographic Menor claims to have lost still represent a portion of the library’s visitors. A group of high school students  in the back were hanging out in the teen zone of the library checking Facebook messages, surfing the internet, and listening to music.

The senior’s course is attended by around a dozen people in the library’s basement.

The lesson begins with teachings on how to enable the auto save feature in Microsoft Word, followed by how to put attachments on emails. To anyone who considers themselves even remotely knowledgeable with modern technology, this would seem like very basic stuff.

The lessons proceed at a stop-and-go pace, the seniors (students) often need help navigating the computer menus.

“We just got our first computer,” student Dorothy Turner explained.  Dorothy is here with her husband, Carman. At the time, the pair were trying to figure out how to use Google.

“We’re coming in next week for a meeting with a technician at the library to go over more advanced stuff.”