Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.

A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.

Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.

Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.

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.

Selling memories: the line between museum education and consumerism

Update: Thank you all for sharing your museum experiences via comments and tweeter!

Reader Brian Gratwicke shared another clever ad campaign (this time from Vancouver’s Aquarium) “If frogs go extinct, you’ll notice“. Readers: please continue to submit your museum experiences (good OR bad) via comments or twitter!

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

A few months ago, the science blogosphere was ablaze with an ad campaign from the a science museum in Vancouver. This campaign combines unusual ads with a quirky scientific message. A sign saying “a blue whale’s heart is the size of this car” is fixed, well, atop of a car. Another car drove around with a “woofasaurus” on the back seat; a fluid-filled tank encouraged kids to walk on water; a tiger’s litterbox littered the street; and a moving squid eye followed museum visitors. All ads promise Vancouver inhabitants that they will find answers at the museum.

As we mentioned in earlier blog posts, many adults visit museums after they are persuaded by their children. This phenomenon, called “the nag effect”, is widely recognized and taken advantage of in the world of advertising. One example of the nag effect in action is described in the article “how do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy food.”  The Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications used the nag effect in their advertising strategy. Their ad campaign, in place since 2004, combined print ads, billboards, bus stop ads, TV and radio spots, and a collection of “unconventional” ad media. Convincing a parent to visit a museum sounds like a better idea than pushing them to buy unhealthy food, but still: we are talking about using the power of advertising and consumerism in favor of a museum.

This ad counts on the voluntary participation of Vancouver seagulls. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

When is it honorable to use advertising as subterfuge for the cause of science and education?
The question of museum funding is delicate. Museums may receive public funds but must also balance a complicated mix of donations and private funding. Stephen T. Asma, in his instigating book “Stuffed animals and pickled heads: the culture and evolution of natural history museums” emphasizes how the origin of funds can end up dictating the content of the museum: “generally speaking, tracking the flow of money (public of private) provides many explanations of why curators curate the way they do, and even why one particular curator gets the job in the first place.” Unfortunately, this can be illustrated by the recent budget cuts to the Field Museum, which will also seriously affect the museum’s research program.

Besides trying to attract donors and sponsors, museums also try to raise funds by selling tickets. We now delve in the mystical (and very uncomfortable) territory where education must, to some degree, meet consumerism. How can a museum increase its consumer base and gain more repeat customers? In other words, how can a museum sell more tickets? Reconciling the educational with the commercial vision is a challenge. In order to thrive, museums might have to adopt commercial or consumerism concepts. Using the nag effect is just one way to accomplish that.

Quirky way to put sauroposeidon into scale. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

Is “edutainment” the solution to thriving museums?

The museum’s commercial role as a provider of entertainment (or edutainment) was already recognised in 1928 by a Field Museum curator, N. W. Harris. As told to Stephen T. Asma, N. W. Harris realized that “impressions obtained in childhood are the most vivid and lasting… [and] knowledge is most welcome when its acquisition is sweetened with a flavor of entertainment”.

Fast forward to 2012, when self-proclaimed Bad Astronomer Phil Plait agreed, specifically when discussing the Vancouver ads. As Plait points out, “[the Vancouver Science World have] set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which
keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase ‘We can explain’, which brings the message home. Awesomeness.” Awesomeness is an adequate technical term to describe it.

Interactive exhibits are one form of offering edutainment. Interacting with a museum exhibit falls under the “participatory museum” concept, advocated by Nina Simon. The recently-opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas has “interactive” written all over it. The New York Times reported on its opening, describing many of those edutainment exhibits, which includes “1.5 ton geode whose halves you can manipulate with a wheel…; sensors that allow you to launch table-tennis balls with brain signals; simple robots that can be programmed to maneuver through a maze.” But the one exhibit that makes me want to hop on the next plane to Dallas is “a 55-foot-long ‘running wall’ [where] you can race alongside moving images of a full-size cheetah, a Tyrannosaurus rex or contemporary athletes.”

Unfortunately, edutainment gone bad is also easy to find. Roaring animatronic dinosaurs might sell some extra tickets, but they lack the scientific groundwork expected from a museum. The animal’s voices, stance, behaviors, and colors are speculations, and might even perpetuate scientific misconceptions, thus being a disservice to visitors. Most of those exhibits still depict the T. rex and other dinos as scaly lizards, when it is now known that many were at least partially covered by down-like proto-feathers. Those kind of experiences make renowned scientists fear museums will become theme parks. As reported to Asma, naturalist Stephen Jay Gould believes that “theme parks represent the realm of commerce, museums the educational world — and the first, by its the power and immensity, must trump the second in any direct encounter. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.”

Paint by numbers T. Rex is another ad by the Vancouver Science World. Like this ad, I had to explain to Smithsonian visitors that the colors on the dinosaur dioramas were an artistic liberty — there is no way of knowing the color of pre-historic creatures. Color pigments are not preserved in million-year old fossils.

In another recent New York Times article, Edward Rothstein reported on some commercially-swallowed museums. Rothstein, after interacting with some museum exhibits, did not enjoy the experience: “I eagerly submit to their probes… The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.” A similar effect also happened at the Perot museum — praised above — that, according to the same author, might walk the line between the commercial and the educational: “It is difficult to absorb fully the history of cosmological exploration in a series of panels. Brief videos about particular scientists are meant to inspire aspirants, but few personalities are that intriguing, and most of them will probably remain unwatched.”

However, if done right, a combination of enticing ads, entertainment, and interactive exhibits can help. Museums will profit and the public will learn through enjoyable (informal) educational experiences.

Can we sell an educational museum experience?

I mentioned before some of the reasons that drive visitors to museums. According to one study, “It’s the artifacts, artworks, and objects… that [are] most likely to hit [visitor’s] emotional core and create meaning.” An entertaining object, exhibit, or even ad, can create an emotional experience for a visitor, making him come back.

Whale’s heart model. Photo credit: rickardberg flikr.

In a quasi “life imitates art” case, a blue whale’s heart has truly become an entertaining museum object. Special effects company Human Dynamo built a whale’s heart model commissioned by New Zealand museum Te Papa. The model is large enough so that visitors – especially little ones – can climb and crawl through arteries and ventricles. This museum object was a huge hit. Just by browsing flickr for “whale heart model” I could find dozens of photos of children entranced in crawling, and adults posing for scale. The model was so successful in bringing in visitors, that it was borrowed to tour the world and extra models have been requested to stay at Te Papa.

Museum objects — or even everyday objects like a car or racing track — can transcend into an entertaining experience. It can be a moa on the mall, a passing whale’s heart car, or a cheetah-T. rex racing track that will bring more visitors in. However, not only museums profit; simply walking in the street might cause someone to learn that a whale’s heart is a Volkswagen Bug-sized (instead of having to memorize a “two tons” fact). This is “learning by accident” on its core. Similarly, you might leave the museum and not remember the that the cheetah can reach speeds up to 75 mph. But you might remember that it beat you on that race, and crossed the finish line three times faster than you.

Update: do you know a museum exhibit that has crossed the line? Please share in the comments section below!

Informal Science Education in Museums – Learning by Accident

I thought I would kick off my contribution to this blog with a brief introduction to my area of interest in learning science and natural history in museums settings.  I’ll share a bit about myself and ask and answer a few questions.

My path into informal science education was far from direct, informal in itself.  I had imagined myself in academia, researching and teaching geology at the university level. But approaching the close of my undergraduate degree, I had trouble deciding between Peace Corps and grad school, but happened upon a new program that allowed me to conduct my research while serving in the Peace Corps. My area of interest was volcanic hazards, and I found myself working at a volcano observatory in Guatemala. My other main responsibility was integrating an environmental education curriculum in a few local schools. I was hooked, and since then I’ve continued in education with a number of non-profits, as a substitute teacher, at the Boston Museum of Science, and now at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

So, what is informal education? Why informal science education (ISE)? And why natural history and science museums? What roles do they play in public understanding of science?

What is Informal Education?

Cristina touched on this in her recent post, but basically any learning outside of a classroom environment might qualify as informal learning. There’s less pressure to learn in these informal environments, so they can actually be fun. Human beings are naturally curious creatures; we want answers. We want to know why. Think of the child who asks her father “Why is the sky blue?” — and really, we want to know answers to our own questions, not necessarily the questions a teacher asks in school.

Why informal science education?

New discoveries in science and technology are constantly happening, as well as policies surrounding science and technology. Some of them completely revolutionize what was “common knowledge” a decade ago. Pluto was still a planet. Water on Mars. Anyone can have their DNA coded for the cost of a decent high-def, flat screen TV. And when did those come about, by the way?

The 95 Percent Solution, a 2010 article by J.F. Falk & L.D. Dierking is among my favorite articles about science and education. According to Falk and Dierking, contrary to what was a common assumption until recently, most of a person’s science education is done outside a formal environment; less than 5 percent of a person’s life is spent inside a classroom (and that’s including science, history, gym, art and more). The authors conclude that the best way to increase to the public‘s understanding of science is in the remaining 95 percent of their lives. This can be on TV (Bill Nye, Mythbusters, NOVA, etc.), magazines (National Geographic, Popular Science), nature centers, or science and natural history museums. It’s not that people would be learning for all of that 95 percent, but within that time are great opportunities to teach and learn. Even while walking through a park on the way to work, contends a report by the National Research Council (Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits), will “contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment.”

Figure: From Falk & Dierking, 2010


Why Science and Natural History Museums?

More and more, these institutions are being seen as valuable educational supplements for schools, as well as for those who have already completed their formal education. Other media (TV, radio, books) don’t provide the opportunity to interact or participate with actual objects or other people; they are very passive learning experiences. Museums provide the opportunity to handle real objects, solve problems, and interact with others – and potentially all at the same time, too. Remember how we ask our own questions? Natural history and science museums are perfect places to ask our own questions, and try to discover the answer.

So, what really is the role of these museums? Obviously, they have more than any one single role, especially when you consider the range of audiences that attend them. So let’s start working up the ladder, beginning with the youngest visitors.

Children and families:

Children are a funny story. They want to come to museums because it’s fun and new. Almost everything a child experiences is new to them, and when they are able to see, touch, hold, or create, they are able to satisfy their natural curiosity.  They begin to ask questions, such as the infamous “why?” In some instances, a parent may need to give their child a little push, but most children seem to be entertained and enjoy their experience. Little do children know, however, that their parents are secretly trying to get them to learn something. And parents typically seem to enjoy themselves as well, and learn a few things along the way.

Students and teachers:

A school field trip to the museum, science or otherwise, is all but standard practice in most school systems. For students it’s a break from the ordinary – a chance to break free from their teachers (if deemed responsible enough) and explore on their own. Though some museums will provide field trip guides that help facilitate and focus a school’s experience. Long days in the classroom can cause some students to lose interest, but when they come to a museum and see real animals, beautiful rocks and minerals, and fossilized skeletons, or are able to create robots or use giant hands-on models, their level of interest returns.

Ror teachers, it’s also a break from the ordinary.  No matter how long those bus rides to and from the museum might be, they know their students have experienced something that they otherwise would not have experienced in their classroom. Which is in fact how we plan a museum experience: as something that only a museum could allow you to experience.

Young Adults:

A number of centers across the world are keeping their doors open later into the night to host special evening events for teens and young adults to mingle around science. Even though the main reason young adults come to these events is to hang out with friends, or make new ones, in a fun environment, learning is bound to happen; it is an unintended consequence, though important nonetheless to a greater public understanding of science.

Concerned Citizens and Enthusiasts:

Science and natural history museums around the country maintain and partner with a number of citizen science and enthusiast programs. Project Bud Burst, FireFly Watch, Frog Watch, are just a few, and you would be hard pressed to find a science or natural history museum that doesn’t have a relationship to a project.  And in addition to citizen science, a number of museums will host forums about emerging issues in science in technology.  Provocative issues about the food system, nanotechnology, hydrofracking and climate change are just a few issues that museums will hosts discussions around.

Entertaining, yes. But also educational.  Author teaches about lightning and electromagnetism at the Museum of Science in Boston. Photo is a gift from museum visitor.

There is a lot of learning that goes on in the world, and a lot of it is not even intentional — it just happens. Informal learning experiences, such as those in science and natural history museums, are ideal places for people to learn without the pressure of a classroom setting, where visitors ask their own questions and can explore on their own. They cannot replace the structure that schools provide, but they can provide a break from the ordinary and give that “wow” moment. These environments have a lot to offer, and can be a lot of fun.

But be careful, or you might learn something…

 Adam Blankenbicker is an Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Before entering informal science education, he earned his B.S. in Geology and Geological Oceanography with a Minor in Mathematics at the University of Rhode Island in 2004. In 2009 he completed his M.S. in Geology at Michigan Technological University in a program that allowed him to do research while serving in the United States Peace Corps in Guatemala, near the Santa Maria-Santiaguito volcano complex. After returning to the United States he continued his work in formal and informal education with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. He is interested in active, participatory learning for all types of learners and what informal science education centers are doing to educate and engage the public in science.