Mix together one beautiful spring evening with hundreds of curious children and half a dozen enthusiastic scientists and you’ve got a darn good recipe for fun and learning.
EEB graduate students guided young scientists through short, hands-on activities based on their research under the KidZone tent at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival: Top of the Park from 5 – 8 p.m., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Their activity, which they dubbed “Endless Forms Most Beautiful - Hands-On Biology with U-M Scientists,” attracted swarms of children and their parents.
Jeff Shi, Jillian Myers and Alex Taylor organized the volunteer activity and they were joined by Anat Belasen, Leslie Decker and Paul Glaum in presenting the fun and fascinating world of biology at the annual and very popular Ann Arbor event. Children checked out the stunning diversity of fungi under a microscope, learned what a bat’s skull reveals about how they live, saw the weird partnerships that plants and microscopic creatures form in the soil, and more. Visitors had a chance to see living things from a biologist’s perspective and learned how to think like a scientist.
“We had a busy evening! Children and adults were swarming the entire night, and we all had a great time,” said Myers. “We wanted to show off the diversity of organisms that are studied in EEB, so we had displays covering bacteria, fungi, insects, amphibians, birds and mammals.
“At the fungus table, kids had fun examining and illustrating many different kinds of fungi with magnifiers and microscopes.” They observed how different mushrooms look and drew predictions about what spore print pattern each mushroom would leave. A spore print is the powdery deposit that falls on a surface below a mushroom. Myers challenged them to test their pattern predictions at home.
She asked a young visitor what she thought was the biggest living thing. “After many very good guesses, I told her about the ‘Humongous Fungus.’ She said ‘I thought it might be a fungus since you keep talking about them, but I just couldn't believe it!’"
“I personally found having to present to so many people at once, constantly dropping in and out, to be the most fun,” said Shi. “Almost all of them were incredibly interested by the wolverine skin we had, and also in seeing if the porcupine really still hurts to touch, even after I warned them against it (it does). I love doing these events because it allows us to put faces to scientists and biologists, and for kids to see how diverse research can really be in terms of interests and backgrounds.”
“The kids had a lot of fun shaking the seed pods of the bladdernut tree like maracas and dancing around,” said Taylor. Professor Chris Dick loaned sheets of dried a variety of dried plant specimens from the U-M Herbarium (shagbark hickory and honey locust) and seed pods (bladdernut and Kentucky coffeetree) from the Woody Plants teaching collection.
“As someone who studies bees, it was the most fun for me to answer people's questions about all the different bee species here in Michigan,” said Glaum. “People were very interested once they learned that we have hundreds more than just honey bees. We chose some of the more colorful and distinct native bees to draw people's attention to all the variety.”
Taylor thinks of activities like this as a way for EEB and scientists in general to give back to the community. “We can also show kids that science isn't an inaccessible and impossible thing being practiced by people in lab coats. It shows kids that scientists are real people who are curious and excited about nature, just like them, and that they can become scientists too!”
The grads took over the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Instagram for the weekend.