Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Lemurs had their 15 minutes of fame, back when DreamWork’s Madagascar came out in 2005. This year it’s time for IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to shine a spotlight on this primates.

We discussed before how nature documentaries influence the public’s understanding of science, and mostly increase the general public’s science literacy. Which is why I was curious to test the effect of the Madagascar movie: what did it teach the general public? Did it result in the public’s new understanding of lemurs? During my visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I had the perfect opportunity to find out. During  the 40 minute car ride, I asked acting driver and education specialist Chris Smith. And here’s what he told me:

This is the second installment of our participation on Lemur Week. For Part I, click here.

Sci-Ed joins Lemur Week (video)

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Come back Wednesday for another video on Duke Lemur Center, when we’ll explore some of Chris Smith’s strategies when talking lemur science to the public.

Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

Here at Sci-Ed we started investigating reasons that may explain the fear of bugs. We mentioned repulsion, disease-carrying potential, cultural aversion, and even deeper philosophical issues. Now, we list suggestions to encourage the general public to value insects:

  1. Changing our perception of the bug. Phillip Weinstein recommends we “put insects in a more positive light, and to remove such fears as may be passed on from parents, zoos and museums can play an integral educational role.” At the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, Dan Babbit creates a safe and fun environment for visitors to learn more about insects and arachnids. Which brings me to the next topic…

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
  2. Creating mesmerizing museum exhibits.  At the Smithsonian’s insect zoo, visitors can face their fears by watching the daily tarantula feedings. Children sit on the floor in expectation, and adults toughen up to touch a cockroach atop a researcher’s hand. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors can watch students and volunteers pin butterflies for the museum’s lepidoptera collection. (An epic collection, housed in a three story building, library-style: each book-sized spot contains one box of butterflies or moths). If you catch curator Andy Warren, you may even get a behind the scenes tour of oddities in the moth and butterfly world.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
  3. Fostering cool class projects, like spidernauts. Babbitt, who keeps a space spider in his freezer, has talked to Sci-Ed earlier about engaging the public and raising their interest in arthropods. Stories like the space spiders brought a lot of attention to those invertebrates. Jumping spiders were sent to the space station and broadcast to thousands of classrooms on Earth. Kids accompanied the arachnid’s journey by observing their own hand-caught spiders. After the experiment was over, one of the spiders, Nefertiti, was flown back to Earth and housed in the Insect Zoo. Visitors who may walk right past a spider exhibit felt compelled to stop and ask about the space spider.

  4. Exploring resources. Websites have resources for kids, such as a bug identification chart (pdf) and “mini-beast” mansion tutorial.   Bloggers such as Alex Wilde and Bug Girl are popularizing the insect topic.

  5. Taking advantage of outreach programs. According to entomologist turned psychologist Jeffrey Lockwood, “About 20 percent of children fearful of spider and insects report learning their aversion from parents”. Kids are not innately afraid. During a visit to the University of Florida Entomology Department, I asked resident expert Stephanie Stocks if she observes the parent effect during school visits. Much like Dan Babbit, Stocks brings zoo bugs in tow. She reported that, up to second grade, children are unanimously curious. Some older kids, however, learned from their parents that they should step back. Arachnologist Chris Buddle visits kids in their classrooms and describes the experience in his blog – along with a powerful call to arms. Buddle states that spending time teaching kids about entomology is always worth it.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
  6. Participating in pop culture.  Like we said before in Sci-Ed, using storytelling and heroes to teach science won’t hurt. One study (pdf) found, unsurprisingly, that children did much better at identifying Pokémon types as opposed to animal or bug species. Films such as A Bug’s Life and Antz took the anthropomorphic route. In the words of Lockwood, “If turning humans into insects countenances hate, then turning insects into humans has the opposite effect. Artists humanize insect heroes by transforming their alien features into eyes, mouths, heads, and appendages more like our own.”

    A Bug's Life. Photo credit:  Walt Disney Pictures.
    Anthropomorphized insects in A Bug’s Life. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
  7. Keeping a pet bug.  Curator Andy Warren told me he was once afraid of spiders, which sounds like a peculiar setback for an entomologist. Warren conquered his fear after caring for a pet tarantula. One study tracks thousands of children to look into the effects of  keeping an invertebrate pet. The authors observed several benefits from keeping a pet insect that go way beyond loosing fear of bugs and contribute to an expanded view of ecology and science.

I might get a pet beetle myself. And hope that one day we won’t need to start classes by asking if anyone’s afraid of bugs.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

  • Balmford et al. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science 295 (5564): 2367b, 2002.

  • Prokop et al. Effects of keeping animals as pets on children’s concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates. International Journal of Science Education, Vol 30, No 4, 431-449, 2008.

  • Snaddon et al. Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002579 , 2008.

Star Wars: Identities, or “Learn psychology, you will. Hrmmmm.”

The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker's Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia
The exhibit features concept art, costumes, props and many other pieces from the movies. Pictured here is Anakin Skywalker’s Podracer from The Phantom Menace | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia

Anyone who has been following my posts knows that I have a huge weakness for sci-fi and science, and if someone was to marry the two of those together, I’d be there immediately. Especially if it involved Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or Middle Earth.

Well, it happened.

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is currently hosting Star Wars: Identities. Star Wars: Identities is a travelling exhibit that highlights human development using the mythos of the Star Wars universe. I had been keeping an eye on this exhibit as a few years ago I had been to the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit in Montreal, which was excellent, and the same organization (X3 Productions) was responsible for this one. And when I found out they were using Star Wars to teach people about psychology, I knew I had to go.

You see, we all have questions about how and why people turn out the way they do. Even people raised under the same roof can have wildly disparate personalities, and can view the world through very different lenses. The exhibit highlights the difference between Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and how, despite coming from the same planet and having (similar) genetic makeup, their lives take two very different trajectories based on their experiences and the environments they are exposed to.

So, I headed down to Ottawa Aviation and Space Museum with my parents in tow to check it out. Upon entry, you’re given a earpiece and a wristband that you can use to trigger the various displays. The exhibit is structured around 3 main themes, each of which has several stations: Origins, which looks at your species, your genes, your parents and culture, your Influences, which investigates the role of mentors, friends and marking events, and finally, your Choices, which include your occupation, personality and values.

Perhaps my favourite part was how, at each of these 10 stations, you make decisions and choices that help form your Star Wars character (mine is below). Are you good? Evil? A Wookie? A merchant? What do people from your planet do to celebrate? All of these choices are substantiated by psychological theories – for example, the station around personality asks you to fill out a short questionnaire based on the Five Factor Model of personality traits. Another station looks at how your culture can affect you, and how moving from one culture to another impacts your development using a theory called Acculturation (which, incidentally, is the focus of my PhD dissertation). Each of these is illustrated by contrasting Anakin and Luke (and occasionally other characters), and highlighted using clips from the movies.

Following my visit to the museum, I had a chance to chat with Sophie Desbiens, the Communications Manager for X3 Productions (the organization behind the exhibit).

Q: I understand that you consulted with psychologists at the Universite de Montreal to help with the design of exhibit. Can you tell me more about that?

The exhibition’s scientific content was created with the collaboration of a few scientists directed by the scientific content team of the Montreal science center. When we set out to explore that scientific notion of identity we wanted to make sure we were up-to-date and on point with contemporary ideas and theories for that type of subject.

Q: How did you ensure that the science wasn’t lost amidst the lightsabers and props?

That was easy in a way since the props are there to illustrate our point. As mentioned before, we take the Star Wars characters to explain identity. More precisely, we follow the evolution of Luke and Anakin Skywalker who were born on the same planet with very similar genetic background and see how they turned out to be completely opposite personalities. Also, the SW universe is very well known, people are familiar with the story and the characters so it is easy to take this as a jumping off point to go into more abstract subjects like genetics, mentorship, etc.

Q: Why Star Wars?

Why not? 😉 And as I said before, the characters and the story have been around for over 35 years now and still going strong. Why? Because it is the story of all humans in a way. George Lucas has always said he was influenced by Joseph Campbell when he wrote Star Wars and it shows as we have all the archetypes of every mythology here: it is the journey of the hero. The hero’s journey is most often than not a coming of age story, and in this we find the perfect connection to explore how someone grows up, acquires a certain identity throughout trials and tribulations.

I chose to be a Wookie fighter pilot, who goes around doing vigilante missions and saves the world multiple times.
I chose to be a Wookie fighter pilot, who goes around doing vigilante missions and saves the world multiple times.

Q: How is the exhibit set up?

Again, the Star Wars universe is perfect to illustrate the 10 components of identity we chose to explore. There is the notion of your Origins: Species, genes, parents, culture, your Influences: mentors, friends, marking events, and Choices: occupation, personality and values. All of these are part of your identity, they are the forces that shape you.

When you look and compare Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywlaker, all these 10 aspects have shaped them:

Luke was born on Tattoine, he is the son of Anakin who has a high-level of midichlorians in his blood, he is human. Luke’s mentors are Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, they (and his friends) will influence him towards the light side. Meanwhile, Anakin ended up being mentored by Palpatine who influenced him towards the dark side.

Q: What is your favourite part of the exhibit?
My favorite part of the exhibition is that I can create my own SW character with an RFID bracelet throughout the visit by answering questions related to those 10 aspects of identity. Also, we learn how characters are created in fiction as well as in real life.

Finally, I think it is really interesting to see the difference in how visitors create their avatar. Adults will tend to go along with reality, or something close to who they are, however the kids will naturally go for the complete opposite and be totally creative in their avatar.

Q: How has the exhibit been received?

Fantastic, not only from SW fans but also from teachers and especially parents who are glad that they end up having discussions with their teens because of this exhibition.

Q: How long are you in Ottawa for, and where are you heading next?

We are in Ottawa until September 2 and then we are setting up to move the exhibit for the European leg of the tour.


If you’re in the Ottawa area, I thoroughly recommend checking out the Exhibit. It is a travelling though, so if you can’t make it to Ottawa, keep your eyes open and hopefully it will come to a town near you soon. Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors and teens, and $13.25 for kids and include admission to the Aviation and Space Museum as well. They only let in a certain number of people at a time though, so I recommend buying your tickets online in advance (they have allocated time slots and let in ~50 people every half hour).

Disclaimer: I did not receive financial remuneration or any other incentive to attend the exhibit. I’m just a giant nerd.

Spidernauts: when thousands of kids followed a spider’s journey into space

I’ve never experienced microgravity. But a red-backed jumping spider called Nefertiti did.

Living vicariously through Nefertiti were over 2,000 middle school students who watched the arachnid’s adventures.

As true experimenters, the kids maintained control groups on Earth: their own hand-caught spiders, housed in salad-box habitats. This is the story of “spidernauts,” the intrepid spider astronauts, and the young scientists-in-training that they inspired.

Nefertiti in search for flies in her space habitat. Photo by NASA via Wtop.

A spider, a human and their epic journeys

I first learned about Nefertiti’s journey while on an excursion of my own. It was in the midst of rockets, gears, and artifacts that I explored NASA’s Johnson Space Center as an envoy from Owen Software. Trying to soak all in, I attempted to decipher Soyuz’s panels in Cyrillic alphabet while also learning about non-human travelers deliberately sent to the space station. Each trip sends a crew of three Homo sapiens, a handful of Arabidopsis, C. elegans, Drosophila and several other species to space.  It is an exceptional opportunity to study the effects of microgravity on living beings. For example, the zebrafish (Danio rerio) is our vertebrate proxy for the study of bone development in absence or gravity.

Until recently, the use of NASA’s studies was limited to academics—scientists who can interpret the results in the published data. The space station website keeps a list of publications, but as Jean Flanagan discussed last week, there’s still a chasm between available data and data that can be translated to a middle or high school classroom.

But something changed, and that change was personified by arthropod ambassadors flying into space. Butterflies and spiders were sent to the space station and this time, thousands of middle school children watched. On Earth, the students conducted their own experiments with these butterflies and spiders.

Red-backed jumping spider. Photo by NASA.

“Different habitats, similar beasts.”

That is how Chris Buddle, arachnologist and professor at McGill University, describes the two species of spidernauts. The pair was composed of Nefertiti, the red-backed (Phidippus johnsoni), and her companion Cleopatra, a zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus).

The idea of observing jumping spiders was actually proposed by an Egyptian student as part of a contest. Jumping spiders are active hunters, who dart over unsuspecting prey—as opposed to catching them in a silk web like most familiar spiders. The main goal of the jumping spider study was to investigate how their predatory behavior be affected by microgravity. Would the spiders be able to leap?

On the phone, Buddle sounded enthusiastic about the project, but unsurprised with the spider’s ability to adapt to microgravity.

“They have draglines, micro hairs on their feet … and exceptional eyesight. Their body responds quickly to directionality, doesn’t matter whether they are in a horizontal surface or vertical surface.”

And it turns out he was right: the spiders were able to move around, leap, hunt and feed.

From space to the classroom

The spider’s scientific adventure was chronicled by Moreno and colleagues in “Butterflies and Spiders in Space: Space Life Science Investigations for the Classroom.” In summary, the study reports that 3,000 teachers and an estimated 180,000 middle school students worldwide followed the extraordinary lives of those arachnids, using internet lessons via BioEd Online.

Students study painted lady butterfly larvae at Rodriguez Elementary School, Houston, TX. Photo credit: Delinda Mock, via NASA.

BioEd Online is an initiative by Baylor College of Medicine, designed to address needs of science teachers and help them spice up their lessons. The site has teaching materials, powerpoint slides, videos, online courses and podcasts. While Nefertiti was in her space home on the space station, BioEd Online offered videos, images, and lessons on space spiders. In one of the videos, “DIY Spider Habitat,” kids learn how to repurpose a plastic salad box into a spider home on Earth. (Check out the wonderful teacher’s guide.) But Nefertiti is not the first to star in online lessons; a previous space investigation with Painted Lady Butterflies paved the way to following space animals with live educational lessons.

The benefits of this project are immense. By creating their own experiments, students start to experience science. According to a poll taken after the experiment was over, 80% of participating students showed interest in science careers, and 39% found extra ways to contribute to the experiments, “such as writing poetry, using measurement data for math problems in an Algebra class, planting a butterfly garden, and keeping butterfly journals,” teachers reported.

After space, the spider’s final destination: the Insect Zoo

Nefertiti currently resides in Dan Babbit’s freezer. The entomologist, who also manages the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, told me of the third leg of Nefertiti’s journey. “We got an email out of the blue from Bioserve—the company that put together the spider unit.” In a mix of surprise and astonishment, Babbitt reminisces: “this spider should go somewhere.”

This is how Nefertiti ended up at the Insect Zoo. “I was surprised with the amount of interest that people had,” said Babbitt about the crowd Nefertiti drew in the brief weeks before the spider’s death of natural causes.

Babbitt is currently trying to preserve Nefertiti, so that she can continue to inspire museum visitors—both children and adults.

“One of the big things we push throughout the museum is observation—anything we can do to help people look more closely at an object or specimen or the living insect.”

Chris Buddle believes Nefertiti and the spidernauts are a wonderful, compelling story.

“The fact that there are spidernauts is something that thrills me.”

In his blog, he tries to demystify the public’s phobia surrounding the arachnids.

“There’s a lot of fear, and the best way to battle fear in science is with stories, facts and evidence.”



Moreno NP, Vogt GL, Denk JP, Stodieck LS, Countryman S, Thomson WA.  Butterflies and Spiders in Space: Space Life Science Investigations for the Classroom. Gravitational and Space Biology. 2012; 26(1): 77 – 87.

Moreno NP, Erdmann DB.  Addressing Science Teacher Needs. Science. 2010; 327: 1589-1560. DOI:10.1126/science.1182432.

Can a museum object be more like a dog?

About a month ago I visited the Adam Lister art gallery. In one art exhibit, an artist had placed a gumball machine filled with what he called “tiny art”. The machine had a sign that encouraged people to play, by inputting one dollar and turning the knob. Puzzled, I scrambled for quarters to feed that gumball machine and find my prize. In return, I received a small plastic shelled ball – similar to the toy-filled shells in arcade gumball machines. Instead of a toy, the plastic ball held a piece of tiny art, created by one of the local artists in the community.  An art gallery has a different goal than a museum, but still, I thought we could re-use that idea. Can an exhibit encourage participation? From that moment on, I decided to learn more about the concept of a participatory exhibit or museum.

A piece of tiny art is hidden inside its receptacle. Photo by the author.

Participatory museum

The participatory museum is a concept advocated by Nina Simon. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, she designs interactive exhibits that offer visitors a chance to create art. For example, the museum houses a table display with empty mason jars, paper, and pen, which invites visitors to share a memory. This idea is analogous to a “message in a bottle”. So far, visitors have already shared thousands of memories in jars, which go on display in a museum wall, side by side with the museum’s art collection. Some powerful, emotional memories have been stored (such as a mother’s note to her deceased son in Iraq). One take home message here is: art is no longer something you simply stare at.

I interviewed museum specialist Laura DiSciullo, who offered one such example of participation: “interaction may involve strangers interacting, or visitors interacting with past and future visitors by leaving a comment. There were times when I was the only visitor in an exhibit, but the experience was still interactive in that I could see what previous visitors had contributed, and leave my own contribution.”

In addition, she mentions exhibits that  “have elements geared toward intergenerational learning, esp. a family of visitors interacting. Not only are the adults helping the children learn (and perhaps vise versa), but it is also a social, bonding experience for the family.”

Social Objects

In her TED talk last November, Nina Simon states that “museum objects should be more like dogs”. Dog owners out there might understand what she means: you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Nina Simon sees museum artifacts as social objects. Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation. Specifically, they are a “safe social object that mediates an encounter that otherwise wouldn’t have happened”. Dogs and social museum objects are opportunities for conversation; they mediate conversation between strangers.

Teens discuss the stacks of money demonstrating income disparities among different races. Photo by Terry Gydesen at The Participatory Museum.

In her book, Nina Simon invites us to “imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation”. This is how she defines the concept of social object. One social object example comes from a Santa Cruz museum exhibit that shows the income disparities between white and black populations in the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? A group of teenagers stares in shock at two piles of dollar bills, with wildly different heights. For Ms. Simon, the exhibit is mediating a serious conversation (income disparity) between a group of strangers (teenagers and other museum visitors), that might not have happened otherwise. Another powerful example of social objects is the wrecked car displayed at the Jeremy Deller: It is what it is: Conversations about Iraq exhibit, which prompts visitors and an invited expert (a veteran, journalist, or scholar) to debate.

A wrecked car after an explosion in Baghdad. This social object sparks conversation at Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago by photographer, Analu Maria Lopez.

Bringing social objects to science museums

Science museums already offer opportunities for visitors to participate, mostly via interactive exhibits. But how do we bring debate, especially one that continues after a visitor leaves the museum?

Many science topics would benefit from serious discussion. Evolution, climate change, human origins, or vaccination (considering the current “antivax” climate) are a few that come to mind. How can science museums use social objects to help foster debate?

The Hall of Human Origins, at the National Museum of Natural History, emphasizes the evolutionary relationships between early humans and anatomically modern human. The hall welcomes visitors with a provocative message: “what does it mean to be human?”. It lines up reconstructions of early humans (such as Australopithecine and Neanderthals) that culminate with an impressive wall of skulls. Standing in front of that wall, one can join conversation that is invariably going on: some children are terrified, other are curious. I saw it for the first time when I was there with my sister, who is an MD. She unconsciously switched to doctor mode and starting point out to causes of death based on what she saw on skulls. “Here’s a brow fracture; this guy suffered a blow to the head”, or “that poor guy must have had a massive toothache.”

The hall also offers a lecture series called HOT – short for Human Origin Topics – that focus on controversial science and philosophical questions (e.g., evolution or religion). But perhaps the most popular object in the hall – and a great example of a social object – is the MEanderthal photo booth. Visitors line up to take their photo, which will be morphed into a Neanderthal version of themselves. Long lines form in this particular object, and people interact while waiting in line.  Laura DiSciullo told me that MEanderthal is “a fun conversation piece for friends and families, or perhaps strangers waiting in what can be a long line for this popular feature.”

Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

Other science-based institutions offer social objetcs and exhibits. The National Zoo has a pizza playground, with the goal of teaching children where their food comes from (pepperoni does not sprout from the ground). The Perot Museum of Nature and Science displays a giant drill in their energy hall that – and if this seems controversial it’s because it is – that illustrates hydro fracking. DiSciullo also reminds me of “the world population counter [at the Hall of Human Origins] that continually increases, and the large display saying how much of our DNA we share with other species (including bananas).”

How can science museums become more social?

The process starts during exhibit design. DiSciullo explains that, during design, educators advocate for learning outcomes. One example, used by some museums, is the GLO, or Generic Learning Outcomes: “ [GLO] describe all the types of learning that can take place – learning facts is one possible goal for visitors, but not the only one.” In addition to learning, museum educators also encourage other outcomes, such as “helping visitors make connections between things they already know, or express themselves creatively, or make a positive behavior change based on what they’ve learned.” We’ve all seen programs like the one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, where visitors receive card to instruct them on sustainable and health decisions.

Nina Simon urges museums to answer the following questions: “how do you want visitors to learn from or interact with each other? Do you want to promote dialogue…? Do you want to promote group collaboration? Do you want visitors to respond to each other, to help each other, to create things together?” With those goals in mind, museums aim for a learning outcome of social interaction.  As museum consultant Darcie Fohrman reports to Simon, “In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We want people to ask strange questions and say, ‘I don’t get this.”

My Top 3 Geology Education Models

I love models. Specifically dynamic, non-digital models. I love building something and then seeing it work. And apparently, lots of other people enjoy them, too. There’s something about seeing something work in real life (if still a model) rather than on a screen that drives home a process and helps people really understand what’s at work. Whether it be science, technology or engineering, models are necessary for designing better products, and understanding processes we can’t always observe directly.

Geology, in particular, is a science that requires models to study hard-to-observe processes. Geology may happen too slowly, over millions of years, or too quickly.  The scale may be too big, or too small. Geologic processes can occur unexpectedly or they might just be too dangerous to get close to. Models help scientists study these processes, but they also help students and adults of all ages understand processes – and get them excited about learning, too.

Instead of writing specifically about the benefits of models in the context of science education, I wanted to share a few of my favorite geologic models that I have been able to develop over the years to get people excited about learning geology.

#3: Tectonic Forces

My current work at the National Museum of Natural History includes developing geology programming for a new education center that we will be opening this Fall, called Q?RIUS.  (Can’t pronounce it?  Just say “curious”.) When the website it up, I’ll be sure to let you know.

One experience in the works involves modeling how tectonic forces cause layers of rock to fold and fault through compression. Many universities do this in their geology courses, and post their videos online. In a museum setting, however, these models need to be developed so that even a 5th grader can operate it with minimal, or no supervision.

The model I have put together with the help of NMNH geologists and the exhibits department still needs some minor improvements, but most of the visitors who have tested the prototype have become really excited about tectonic forces. They have made strong connections between the model and the geologic structures they see in mountains and road cuts.

The model is a thin, rectangular cell, constructed of clear plexi-glass. The top is left open so that visitors can deposit layers of colored sand and flour. On one side are three rectangular bars that slide inwards, compressing the layers of flour and sand causing them to fold and fault.

NMNH Geologist Ben Andrews tests out a model to teach about tectonic forces.  Photo by the author.
NMNH Geologist Ben Andrews tests out a model to teach about tectonic forces. Photo by the author.

My favorite visitor comment came from a girl in middle school who said it was fun and interesting to see something like this because diagrams and digital animations, like what they see in school, don’t feel real. Feedback like this affirms the importance of physical models as part of the learning experience.

#2: Landslides

The summer in which I was finishing my master’s thesis I signed up to teach a weeklong course in geological engineering to high school girls from around the country that came to visit Michigan Technological University. The program was called Women in Engineering, and fortunately I was granted the opportunity to lead this session despite not being a woman.

Each day for one week I would lead two two-hour-long sessions, repeating the same content, so by the end of the week the whole session went as well as it could have.  Sessions were filled with multiple experiences, but the wrap up at the end was modeling a landslide, or a failed dam. In this demo I had to do quite a bit of prep work, but it was worth so much more than the effort. I was able to access the concrete lab, where I shoveled buckets of sand into a large sieves to isolate 2 grains sizes of sand. Dirt was collected from outside the building, along with some pebbles.

The geological engineering lab had a number of metal containers, about 60cm long, 20cm wide and 20cm deep into which we made dams and hills. At one end students layered the sand with thin layers of dirt and saturated them as they built up their structure.  On the top they placed a thicker layer of dirt. To add some scale and context, we had them place Monopoly houses and hotels on the slope.

High school girls made models of landslides in Women in Engineering.  Photo by the author
High school girls made models of landslides in Women in Engineering. Photo by the author

At the back of the dam or slope was space to allow us to pour water, which would begin seeping through the structure, over-saturating it. Now gravity would take over, and over the next five minutes we would slowly watch the top layer of dirt become wet and begin to slowly sag and slump. I would ask the girls to look for signs of impending disaster, but I’m pretty sure they were only waiting for their Monopoly house to fall over with the landslide.

#1: Volcanic Clouds

My first experience teaching was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.  I was in the environmental education program, and was also able to conduct my research for my master’s degree on Santiaguito, the local volcano. At first, my focus was on the volcano and working with the country’s geological and meteorological institution, INSIVUMEH. But I soon became excited about getting others excited about learning science.

Both of the schools I worked at were very small (one teacher) and were located on plantations that butted up right to the flanks of the volcano. I thought this provided an opportunity to teach something about a very personal subject. About every hour or so the volcano would have a small eruption, producing a small cloud of ash that would float away, so I asked my students why the ash cloud floated away and didn’t just fall to the ground.

Answer: buoyancy. To explain why, the classes made large cubes out of tissue paper which were lightly glued together. Each face was about 1.5m X 1.5m. At one corner of each cube we left an opening into which we injected hot air with a hair dryer. Despite the logistical difficulties of creating three large cubes in a tiny classroom, we were able to complete the project, and early one morning before it warmed up we went out onto the soccer field and began blowing hot air into the cubes.

Well, the first two cubes didn’t take flight, so I was understandably getting nervous.  Fortunately the third and final cube was a success.  Even before it lifted off, those holding it down could feel it beginning to pull upwards as we were filling it with hot air.  After the countdown and release it began to lift slowly into the air and the younger kids began to trying to jump up and catch it.

Hot air-filled cubes stay afloat for the same reason as volcanic clouds: buoyancy.  Photo by the author.
Hot air-filled cubes stay afloat for the same reason as volcanic clouds: buoyancy.  Volcano Santa Maria looms in the background, with the active Caliente Dome of Santiaguito behind the palm tree, just to the right.  Photo by the author.

Oh, and right after it took off, the volcano erupted.

Let’s Model!

Kids, adults, students of all ages, and lifelong learners can all benefit from using models.  One thing to keep in mind when teaching with models, however, is that they are not perfect analogies, but certain aspects of them are relevant to understanding a physical process; a case in point is the volcano and the buoyancy of the hot air balloons.  Nonetheless, just as important as helping us understanding science, models are very successful in getting people excited to learn science, whatever it might be.

Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

Update: twitter readers have contributed cases where captive breeding programs have saved species from extinction, and have (or are in the process of) released animals back to the wild. Many zoos also hold the last remaining animals of their species. Examples of successful conservation cases include (but are not limited to): Ozark hellbender: salamander, Houston toad, Kihansi spray toad, Socorro doves, Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, Arnold’s giant tortoise, California condor, and the previously mentioned golden lion tamarin and  black-footed ferret.

“He had black fur and a horn on his head,” my sister said. She came to DC for a few weeks and spent many afternoons visiting our local zoo. After one of those visits,  she hurried to Google Chat to report that a big tall bird was chasing her behind the fence of his enclosure. My sister described the bird as having long fur-like feathers and a horn. She has never seen anything like that before and was genuinely curious. She was familiar with the belligerent bird’s neighbors, the rheas (ratite birds like ostriches and extinct moas). Rheas are native to South America, as are we, and we’ve seen them before while growing up in south Brazil. “Mystery bird” was about to become a perfect example of zoo education.

Rhea at the National Zoo. Photo credit: Rory Harper.

What justifies the existence of zoos? Questioning the goals of zoos.
The role of the zoo has evolved to prioritize research, education, and conservation. Some people still condemn the existence of zoos based on zoo’s past life of pure entertainment. It is true that zoos started as menageries and amusement parks, but they have come a long way since the late 1800s. Currently, laws protect wild animals and guarantee their welfare (e.g., Animal Welfare Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act). Accreditation bodies make sure zoos and aquariums offer great care for their animals.

The field of animal research  benefits from zoo experience. Zoo keepers, researchers, and vets have learned a lot about animal care as zoos evolved. Improvements in husbandry have led to increased longevity of animals in captivity. In his book At Home in the Zoo, published in 1961 and covering the previous thirty years on the Manchester Zoo, Gerald Iles mentions that “animals which were once either difficult or impossible to keep in captivity are not only thriving but breeding. Longevity records are constantly being broken.”

Zoos have an essential role in conservation. Back in the 60’s, Iles already said that “…the animals of Africa have been reduced by 80% within the last hundred years… and 600 species of animals are tottering on the brink of extinction.” Currently, zoos have their own breeding programs to help in cases of dwindling populations. All efforts in captive breeding have led to increased research. Like author Jake Page put it, “many zoos have become places of rigorous scientific research… coupled with an active effort not just to preserve in captivity those creatures that are endangered in the wild, but… to understand, save, and replenish unique natural habitats.” Besides breeding endangered animals (e.g. the successful golden lion tamarin breeding program, or the black-footed ferret breeding program), zoos are also investing in displaying less popular animals.

Still, there are many people and organizations out there who dislike or choose not to believe in this new role of the zoo. People like Peter Batten, who in his book Living Trophies states that “primary reasons for zoo use are only remotely connected with learning.”

Do Zoos actually educate?
A study at the Edinburgh Zoo tracks visitors who enter a primate exhibit ‘Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre’ in the Edinburgh Zoo. The exhibit is outfitted with a behavioral research center, and on many occasions researchers are present and working with the primates. The study aimed to determine if watching the researchers had any impact on visitor experience.

Behavioral researchers at Primate Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Bowler, 2012

The study followed visitors and measured their dwell time in the primate exhibit, in the presence and absence of primate researchers. They found that visitor dwell time increased in correlation to presence of researchers. Bowler and colleagues claim that “…parents were often seen explaining the research to their children … what was happening in the research room.” But are visitors simply drawn by the “activity” (as opposed to passive viewing)? How do we know if the research observation is translated in education?

Another study aimed to identify the effect of animal demonstrations and of interpreters (the docent equivalent in zoos and aquariums). With a similar approach, Anderson et al. followed visitors and measured dwell time on Zoo Atlanta’s Asian small-clawed otter exhibit. In this study, researchers also surveyed visitors before and after they entered the exhibit. The survey attempted to find out if visitors’ perceptions of otters changed after their visit. Did they actually learn?

Zookeepers and interpreters were present in the otter exhibit. They talked to the public about the otters, and showed their natural behaviors through demonstrations (see section about demonstrations below). Some visitors were offered a sea otter demonstration, a demonstration accompanied by interpretation (albeit read from a script), and some were not offered demonstration or interpretation (i.e. signs only). The study attempted to measure the effects of interpreters, animal demonstrations, and signs on visitor learning. They determined that the visitors spent an average of two minutes  passively strolling the exhibit (i.e. with signs only and no human presence), compared with six minutes when animal demonstration was taking place, and eight minutes for animal demonstration plus interpreter. The survey results indicate that visitors preferred to watch the demonstrations. By comparing pre- and post-visit questionnaires, researchers believe that “visitors attending an animal demonstration retained large amounts of the content material weeks after having attended the animal demonstration.”

sea lion and keeper in the training demonstration. Keeper has a whistle and a bucket of fish for rewards. Sea lion is rewarded when she shows her flipper for inspection (for example, during a vet exam). Photo credit: Rory Harper.

Aren’t animal demonstrations just entertainment in disguise?

Most zoos offer animal demonstrations. I had a chance to watch sea lions on their training sessions. The zookeepers bring two of the animals out, while the public lines up to watch. The demonstration is in fact a training session for the sea lions: keepers reward the animals for certain behaviors, like rolling over, exposing their fins, allowing themselves to be petted. The sea lions receive rewards of fish and squid after they allow the keepers to treat them with eye drops, or rub their flippers. The goal of this training is not to amuse visitors, but to facilitate animal care. You can’t force a 500 lb marine animal to roll over to ultrasound their abdomen. The training counts on voluntary animal participation and proves very effective for animal care and also for their mental stimulation.

Besides, it is a great opportunity for science education and for spreading a message of conservation. The keepers talk to the public about sea lions in their natural habitat, their anatomy, their innate differences from seals. They also mention that the two older sea lions at the zoo were rescued from the wild as pups when their mothers died as result of sea contaminants. The image of helpless orphaned sea lion pups in a polluted sea is a powerful one.

Zoo keeper puts eye drops in sea lion’s eyes. Sea lion is rewarded with fish for complying. Photo by Rory Harper.

Educating by creating affective connections.

Jake Page mentioned that an affective connection with animals greatly helps conservation:  “It is difficult to be concerned about the fate of an animal you have never seen. Even a two-dimensional film representation of an animal does not have anywhere near the same effect as seeing one in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-life sight – whether in a zoo or in the wild – is emotional.” Gerald Iles points to an extra benefit of zoo animals to education. According to Iles, animals are individuals with personalities, and allowing the public to see that will have an impact in their emotion: “the public, visiting a zoo, sees many kinds of animal. Each species conform to a set pattern, often based on facts gleaned at school. Elephants are just elephants; lions are just lions; bears are just bears. What the visitor often does not realize is that each animal is also an individual…all my zoo elephants were different from each other, and each one leaves me with a different memory.” Another study reported on the “the positive effects of zoos on students cognitive and affective characteristics.”  As we’ve been saying here on Sci-Ed, education can be maximized if there is an affective connection between learner and object: it’s a moa at the mall, a marching penguin, and stumbling on learning opportunities.

Zoo critics will always exist. Many advocate for phasing out zoos, while offering no suggestion for what to do with the newly-homeless animals. They even disapprove of the role of zoos in education. Peter Batten, the incredulous zoo critic, believes that “the zoo’s contribution to education is minimal, … and most people show no more than casual curiosity about its animals.” As evidence for visitor’s disregard for animals or for learning, he cites “years of hearing visitors call cassowaries ‘peacocks’, toucans ‘fruitloops’, tigers ‘lions’, and otters ‘beavers.’”

At the zoo I’ve heard visitors call an ape “monkey,” and a rhea “ostrich.” It still does not change my belief that correct terminology is not necessarily an indicator of people’s attachment to the animals. Visitors are not expected to arrive at the zoo knowing the names and species of all animals in its collection. And I’m sure they are leaving the zoo with more information than before they walked in. In fact, my sister saw the “black bird with a horn” (or what Batten’s visitors called a “peacock”) but left the zoo with the knowledge of a new animal. I’m sure she won’t forget the rare sighting of the endangered cassowary. That’s an animal only found deep in New Guinea jungles, or in zoo conservation programs, where it helps researchers and visitors alike marvel at nature.

Mystery bird, the cassowary at the zoo. Photo by Rory Harper.

1. Anderson U, Kelling A, Pressley-Keough R, Bloomsmith M, Mapple T (2003) Enhancing the zoo visitor’s experience by public animal training and oral interpretation at an otter exhibit.  Environment and behavior, Vol. 35 No. 6, 826-841
2. Bowler MT, Buchanan-Smith HM, Whiten A (2012) Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34505.
3. Frynta D, Lisˇkova´ S, Bu¨ ltmann S, Burda H (2010) Being Attractive Brings Advantages: The Case of Parrot Species in Captivity. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12568.
4. Kalof L, Zammit-Lucia J, Kelly J (2011) The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation. Organization Environment
5. Yavuz et al. Science and technology teachers’ opinions regarding the usage of zoos in science teaching. The online journal of new horizons in education, volume 2, issue 4, 2011
6. Whitworth AW (2012) An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendances in UK Zoos. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29839.