Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!

Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.

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Sci-Ed: Guest Post Policy

One of our favourite things to do here at PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed is to get guest posts from other science communicators. They provide us with perspectives and views we otherwise wouldn’t be able to cover, and they have been very well received by our audience. Given this we have decided to open the process.

As we recently did over on Public Health Perspectives, in the interests of transparency, we have developed a series of guidelines for anyone interested in posting with us, as well as an outline of how we approach guest posts. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at the email below.

We have three basic guidelines for those interested:

  1. No self-promotion. While we appreciate that people will post about issues they are passionate about, we will not accept posts promoting your business, fundraising, or publicizing an event you’re organizing. However, if you have done an event or published recently and want to discuss or reflect on it, that is okay.
  2. All posts must have scientific backing. Commentaries and opinion pieces can be considered, however, they have to be backed up with evidence. Sensationalist language and fear-mongering are unacceptable. The exception is for posts about novel teaching methods that you have used and have been successful.
  3. Posts must be written for a generalist audience. We have a diverse reader base, and so we will be looking specifically for pieces that explain ideas and concepts clearly to non-specialists in the field.

What we suggest is that anyone interested in posting with us send us an email with a 1-2 paragraph outline of your piece. We will provide feedback, and let you know if there are any red flags that come up. Assuming everything is fine, we’ll then send it back to you to write up into a 600-1000 word blog post. We’ll provide input on the final document, and if we still think it’s a good fit, we’ll schedule it for publication. If not, the piece is yours, so you’re welcome to submit it anywhere else that accepts guest posts.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let us know!

Cristina, John and Atif

plosscied[at]gmail.com

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Guest post: Interpreting Lemurs

Chris Smith was one of the first people I met in Raleigh. He showed up at the hotel in a big van, carrying a clipboard with a list of 20 names.  

Chris and I had been talking before. We had discussed Sci-Ed projects via email. We chatted over a Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I even made pushy requests (e.g., can I follow you around with a camera and microphone?), to which he consented with shy enthusiasm.

 That clipboard list of 20 names included mine. Chris took the group of 19 and I to a tour of the Duke Lemur Center. But it was on the tour that I witnessed a transformation in our host. Something about his tone of voice, posture, and eye contact had changed. Chris had morphed into a confident, lemur-authority science interpreter. 

Atop the tallest pine tree, Kizzy sat poised and tense. Then, like a skydiver jumping from a plane, she leapt from the branches. Arms and legs outstretched, she crashed through the tangle and landed with a big bear hug onto a small limb below. Black and white ruffed lemurs are not the most graceful of lemurs.

If you read Sci-Ed regularly, then we’ve met. I was the guide and narrator of Cristina’s Lemur Week videos (Part I and Part II). I work at the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The Center houses over 250 animals on 70 acres in Durham, NC. I serve as the education specialist, and it’s my job to introduce people to the world of lemurs. I take small groups of visitors on guided tours of the facilities. Our goal is to get them close to the lemurs so they can see why lemurs are so special.

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Kizzy, the black and white lemur, leaping through the forest. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

That morning, the tour group and I had been in the forested free-range enclosures for only a few minutes before the lemurs descended. As we watched Kizzy and her four sons come crashing down, I talked to the group about the lemurs who roam free in the forest. Lemurs are primates – the most ancient primates on Earth, in fact. Evolved more than 60 million years ago, lemurs found themselves in isolated Madagascar and over time adapted into more than 80 unique species, with characteristics and behaviors all their own. Today, lemurs are considered the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. More than 90% of all species are threatened with extinction. Some could disappear in as few a ten years.  Now surrounding us, the lemurs furiously clamored for their treats as the keeper tossed crunchy chow around. I took the opportunity to talk about the diet, foraging behavior and social interactions between lemurs. The visitors smiled, laughed and gasped while these ruffed lemurs ate, jumped, and squabbled over food.

A science interpreter facilitates learning

The role of an interpreter (that’s me) is to reveal the “awesome.” Interpretation in museums or zoos goes beyond reciting facts. It’s about building an emotional connection with the audience. Interpretation done well meets the audience intellectually and provokes their own curiosity. It’s a way of communicating that involves connecting the visitor to the resource through the experience. The goal is to promote action on the part of the participant: to learn more, share what they’ve learned with others or take action directly on the issue.

At the Lemur Center, I try to get visitors as close to the animals as possible while highlighting the different aspects of lemurs’ lives, research and conservation. When the blue-eyed black lemur stares at visitors, guests often comment on the beauty of the lemur’s blazing blue eyes. I can use that as a perfect opportunity. Only 4 primate species have individuals with blue eyes (one of them is humans), but only in blue-eyed black lemurs do each individual possess this trait. They’re also critically endangered, and their unique genetic distinction could disappear forever due to habitat loss. The Duke Lemur Center houses the only two breeding females in captivity.

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A black blue-eyed lemur. Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center/David Haring.

The combination of fluffy, bright-eyed animals and a knowledgeable guide is magic for guest experience and education. Ballantyne et al. (2007) studied the impacts of different animal exhibits and interpretation schemes at zoos and found that when guests can see an active animal and they have someone to easily explain what they’re seeing, guests learn more. Interpretive programs have been shown to positively influence environmental awareness and conservation action in visitors to natural heritage sites (Zeppell 2008). These effects were discussed in Sci-Ed previously, here, here and here.

I conducted my own little research project at the Lemur Center and asked a few people about their experiences on the forest tour. Why did they visit? What did they like? What do they remember most? In the course of my conversations, no one would really own up to having learned anything. Still, they were able to tell me many lemur stories, including ring-tailed lemur stink fights, aye-ayes with rodent-like incisors, or a ruffed lemur’s loud, barking call. Guests were receiving information, but the emotional response to seeing the animals up close made them receptive to the information.

Kizzy and her family withdrew to the treetops to sunbathe. As I lead the guests out of the forest, they continue to ask me questions and talk about the experience. We still have more lemurs to meet, and I have more information to share. I’ll see their pictures on Instagram later in the afternoon – a sure sign:  they’ll be lemur lovers for life.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.

Chris Smith talks about Madagascar to his tour group. Photo by Cristina Russo.

References

  1. Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. R. Ballantyne, J. Packer, K. Hughes, L. Dierking. Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2007

  2. Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences. Heather Zeppel, The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2008

Category: Guest Posts, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Thank You Charles – an evolutionary biologist’s journey.

In 2009 my wife Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park.  I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go to Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.

I love Blur, and seeing them in Hyde Park with 80,000 people was an epic experience. But Blur aside it was time to make my pilgrimage and pay my respects to one of the most influential men in my life.

My Darwin journey started at Westminster Abbey. This is Darwin’s final resting place. I expected to find an ornate monument, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says “CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study rather than in the spotlight.

I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth.  It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.

The next day we took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Down House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion. As we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in.  My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.

I finally started to feel the twinges of emotion I was looking for when I stepped onto Darwin’s walking path. This is the famous sand path around the property that Darwin would walk each day, losing himself in thought as he slowly walked the length of his expansive country home. He often stated it was during these walks that he was able to put together the pieces of his theory. It calmed his ailing stomach and let his mind go free.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

I began to walk the path. I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. Soon I had left the crowds behind and I was alone in the woods.  As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now. I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….

…I was in my Catholic school training classes (CCD), in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….

…8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…

…I saw myself stomping through local ponds in my hometown collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can. Marveling at the variety of nature, to young to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…”

The present world slipped away and I was watching the film of my life play before me. There I was entering college to pursue a career in science…

…sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior…

…teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school….

…and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin walking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as his mind penned the words of his life’s work.

I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life. I knew it could never be. Sadly I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap. Then it hit me. I remembered a snippet I read about Darwin.  He would put a small pile of stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Down House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be.  I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I would ever have and kept it.

So as I sit here at my desk as Cosmos plays in the background.  My wife occasionally asks me what I am so intensely focused on…

I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…

….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.

 

[This is an excerpt from a previous blog most modified for PLoS]

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?

 

 

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Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Open science, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why Don’t You Love What I Love?

There is an unexplainable phenomenon in the zoo world.  People will pass by an exhibit with an incredibly unique animal in it and  barely give it a glance. Put a human in there, even just cleaning the glass with a squeegee and the next thing you know there is a crowd watching intently to see what the human will do next.  Now imagine this, in front of the komodo dragon cage at the reptile house you have two scientists in chairs roped off so people cannot get too close. A  third is in the cage interacting with a dragon. This is the five alarm fire of the zoo world. People desperately trying to see what is going on, literally  rubbernecking a scientific experiment.  Invariably someone would always ask, “So what are you guys doing?”  I would go into the detailed explanation of the experiment, because they were there and they asked and I presumed they really wanted to know. Plus I loved Komodo dragons and wanted everyone to love them like I did.  It was here I discovered the different degrees of  “wanting to know”.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure at the NZP. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

Author (on left) with Trooper Walsh in a Komodo Dragon enclosure. Humans in enclosures always draw a crowd.

I found that the majority of the time I was diluting this impressive animal to an understandable set of basic behaviors because the complexity was lost on the general public and they didn’t care about the specific jargon I was using. They wanted the simple bread and butter version of the answer, not the entree.

None of my friends are really that into reptiles, and none of them really care about how many tongue flicks or claw rakes we recorded that day. Believe me, I wanted them to, I desperately wanted them to ask me and genuinely care about my answer. I mean this was a study to see if Komodo dragons exhibited play behavior. Something that is on the more interesting spectrum of the reptile research scale.

Believe me, this sucks. I often couldn’t figure out why everyone didn’t love Komodo dragons as much as I loved them. But 11 years ago I made a conscious decision to change that. I left research to become a high school science teacher because for me it was about getting the awareness out to young people and to champion for an underappreciated group of animals.

So after a decade in a classroom and many, many, many mistakes I feel I have found a decent balance as a science communicator.  I admit I have an unfair advantage, I have real time metrics in front of me on a daily basis. I get to utilize various forms of explanations and see how they are received by my audience. I get to see what works and what doesn’t and then refine them two or three more times that day until I have them perfected.  Not only that but my audience often replies back with brutal and blunt honesty.  High school students will let you know if you are coming across in a condescending manner. A lot of people, and myself included , are unaware that their methods of explanation often have a condescending tone to them. It is not purposeful, but sometimes unavoidable when the person is in the position of explainer. It takes a while to pick up on your own cues and attempt to avoid them.

If you really wanted to get offended, try discussing something you passionately love and put a lot of work into what you think is a great lesson only to be met with yawns, blank stares, glances at the clock, and snoring. It takes a lot of strength to not take it personal, even when it is.

So where does this all fit? Well the one thing a teacher has to know before they begin a lesson is “what is my end goal? What do I want to achieve with my communication? Do I want to explain? Do I want to inform? Do I want to infect? Do I want to extrapolate?” All these come with much different methods of communicating.

In science education I can’t avoid the jargon, but I need to know when to drop it into play. If I throw complex words right out from the get go and say “memorize the words” then I lost them. If I come up with a great analogy or metaphor that the students can relate to and then slide the word in there I have them hooked. I need to sell them on cell division before I introduce mitosis. I need to make them feel like they were asking me if there was a specific word for what I was describing instead of telling them the word and describing what it means.

A subtle trick I use to hook my students is to discuss the material is to pretend I am searching for the right word and let them fill in the blank for me.  This makes them feel like they are contributing to the explanation process and lets me know they are getting it.

My end goal with my students is to get them interested in science.  At this point as juniors in high school it is not important to me that they understand every detail of biology, but that they have an interest in understanding it.  I have seen this with freshman students taking a conceptual physics course. The students are  begging their teacher to learn trigonometry so they can better understand what is happening when they launch a projective off their desk.

Yes, begging to learn trigonometry. Why? Because they were hooked by the bread and butter and  are now hungry for the main course. This is why the first thing I do in Chemistry is drop a gummy bear into molten potassium chlorate. Hook the students with a dazzling example of candy becoming bright light and make them want to learn more.

I truly believe that the role of the scientist is changing. With the advent of blogging, twitter, and social media scientists are becoming accessible to the general public, and we want to be accessible because we love our science and want people to love it as much as we do.  But we need to realize if they did love it as much as us we would be talking to a fellow scientist, not a layperson.

Follow John Romano on Twitter at @paleoromano


[This is an excerpt from a longer blog I wrote on my personal site. It has been edited to reflect the audience of PLoS]

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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.

Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science Museums, Science teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Category: Informal Science Education, Science communication, Science Museums, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guest Post: The NBA family tree

Here in Sci-Ed we like to link science with popular topics, so we can draw in some more resistant learners. Atif posted about NHL Hockey for teaching statistics, and I wrote about NFL football (specifically on how football star Robert Griffin III caused everyone to learn about knee anatomy). Today is our guest Dr. Laura Guertin’s turn. Below, she shows us how she combined basketball when teaching geology. Dr. Guertin’s bio is at the bottom of the post. 

Springfield, Massachusetts, is the birthplace of many great things, from Breck Shampoo to Sheraton Hotels to Friendly Ice Cream. But in addition to being the city of my birthplace, Springfield is also the birthplace of the sport of basketball and home to the Basketball Hall of Fame. During one of my family visits, my brother and I took the opportunity to visit this shrine to basketball – a place neither of us had ever visited growing up, despite being raised die-hard Boston Celtics fans.

As we began going through the displays of uniforms and lockers, we came around a corner and I saw this:

nba family tree

My brother, who works for an insurance brokerage firm, looked at this lighted wall and continued to walk on by. But as someone teaching historical geology at the time, a course that covers the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s physical and biological changes, I immediately saw several historical geology concepts visually displayed in the NBA Family Tree!

Let’s review some of what caught my eye… and go with me on some of these…

Evolutionary radiation, or explosion – With the invention of basketball, new burst of diversification appeared in the number of teams. All at once, the environment and ecosystems were present to support the large number of teams that appeared on the far left of the image – think of the Cambrian Explosion from ~540 million years ago, when most of the major animal phyla appeared in a biologic burst of diversification in an incredibly short period of geologic time.

Evolutionary experimentation – As we see in the fossil record of the Early Cambrian Period (~540-520 million years ago), some new life forms appear and go extinct very short periods of geologic time. This is true for short-lived teams such as the Sheboygan Redskins and Providence Steamrollers.

Stasis – Two teams in the NBA are still in the original location where they were founded and have the same name, never relocating because of “environmental” (or financial) pressures. These teams are represented in the continuous bars for the Boston Celtics and New York Knickerbockers (now shortened to the Knicks).

Punctuated equilibrium (or just adaptive radiation?) – During expansion years, when many NBA teams are added in multiple cities at once, you can see a pulse of new life on the scene, or speciation. In contrast, if I were to show you a family tree of the WNBA, we would see an example of phyletic gradualism, with 2-4 teams being added each year when the league was established.

Extinction – Some teams just don’t make it in our world, just like some living species do not survive. This makes a great topic of discussion with students – why do some teams fold? Are there similar pressures that cause species to go extinct? I also bring up how some teams move from one city to another, like the New Orleans Jazz becoming the Utah Jazz, and the Seattle Supersonics moving to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why do teams pack up and move to a new city? Does this parallel why species or entire communities of organisms migrate and establish in a new environment? Again, financial reasons are a huge motivator for a basketball team’s migration or collapse, but there are other general reasons that apply to both sports teams and natural living communities as a cause for movement, such as the lack of a supporting physical environment.

Binomen nomenclature – At times, I have students struggle with genus and species names in the Linnaean biological classification system, such as the similarities and differences between Homo habilis and Homo sapiens. By using the city name as the genus and the team name as the species, this has helped students visualize that the Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, and Boston Red Sox are all athletes (or individuals of a particular “species”) in the same city, but basketball players do not mix or cross over to hockey, who do not cross over to baseball.

Certainly, what I share here is a loose connection between basketball and understanding patterns and changes in Earth’s biologic history. But it is a fun way to bring basketball in as a supplemental, visual tool for getting students to learn and to easily recall these concepts. I have used the NBA (and WNBA) Family Tree every time I’ve taught historical geology, since 2001.  The students react very positively to the basketball references, both male and female students (gender does not seem to be an issue).  At first, I was concerned about the students that are not big fans of basketball understanding the connections, but a student doesn’t need to know the rules of the game in order to understand what the visual is showing.

I think one of the reasons my students are comfortable with having basketball brought in to the classroom is that I teach at a university located right outside the city of Philadelphia. As my campus is a commuter campus without any dorms, the majority of my students were born and raised in the Philadelphia area with the Philadelphia 76ers (which makes it difficult to talk about the Boston Celtics – no brotherly love between the two cities, I assure you!). But teachers can use any team that is closest to their school, or even another sport besides basketball (baseball, football, hockey, etc.). I think soccer would fit very well with these historical geology concepts, and discussing with students how Major League Soccer (MLS) has been successful, yet the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) leagues have both folded in short timeframes (more examples of evolutionary experimentation, I suppose!).

My take-home message – there’s no need to shy away from bringing sports in to the classroom. Even those students that don’t know the rules can still “play the game” in understanding how the structure and evolution of teams can apply to historical geology and additional biological concepts.

 

lauraguertinmaineDr. Laura Guertin is a marine geologist and educator that cares deeply about increasing the scientific and geographic literacy of students pursuing non-science degrees. You will typically find her outdoors mentoring undergraduate student researchers and emphasizing the connections between disciplines via technological tools.  Connect with her on Twitter at @guertin

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