EEB graduate student instructor Lisa Walsh, who designed the new lab with Lecturer Cindee Giffen, discusses an experiment with Jenna Lee.

Groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and shrews from the extensive collections of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology joined the students for the Intro Bio 173 lab for the first time. But, don’t call animal control!

Lisa Walsh, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology and Cindee Giffen, EEB lecturer, designed the new lab module for spring 2017 students to help them learn about biodiversity and the functional morphology of animals. For Walsh, this mentorship project helped her earn her graduate teaching certificate for the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. 

“What is interesting and novel is that intro bio students have never before been given the opportunity to tour the collections and use specimens in exploring their own research questions,” explained Giffen. “We are hoping to open students’ minds to the possibilities of organismal research as young undergraduates. We also want to expose them to the vastness of our collection, which most people have no idea even exists!” The UMMZ mammal collection contains more than 150,000 specimens.

“Cindee and I were given invaluable guidance from Cody Thompson, the mammal collection manager. Before designing their projects, students learned about morphological differences biologists have observed across latitudinal gradients and between different landscapes.”

Prior to working with specimens, they toured the Research Museums Center (RMC) and collection managers Janet Hinshaw, birds, Greg Schneider, amphibians and reptiles, and Mark O’Brien, insects, generously volunteered their time to share their wealth of knowledge. “Most students were not aware of our research museum, and I think it gave them a great opportunity to see the diversity of our collection,” said Walsh.

A student carefully measures a chipmunk.

“By working with mammal museum specimens, students were able to test out their own hypotheses on specimens normally only on display for a 400-level course. Multiple groups ended up finding that some species do not obey ecogeographical rules. I think this was incredibly important for them to stumble upon on their own.”

The biodiversity lab module lasted for three lab periods. After the tour, students worked in small groups to select their species, plan their study and hypothesis, learn how to handle the specimens and how to use measuring devices such as calipers to gather data. 

“Many students enjoyed looking at the specimen tags and finding the oldest specimen of the bunch,” said Walsh. “Many were amazed that specimens from the 1920s were in such good shape. I think most students came away from the experience with knowledge that century-old specimens can be used for contemporary research.”

Walsh described a group that evaluated chipmunks’ tail length in urban vs. rural areas, hypothesizing that because of the increased "predation" of cars, their tails would be shorter. “This group used census data to assign each location a chipmunk was found as urban or rural. They found that their hypothesis was not supported, and speculated that perhaps longer tails made chipmunks in urban areas more maneuverable. I found this group creative in their project design and analysis of their results.” The group included Breann Edwards, Lara Kimmel, Rebecca O’Brien and Matthew Wick.

One group tested the difference in ratio of the hind foot to body length between tree squirrels and ground squirrels. They hypothesized that the tree squirrels ratio would be larger because they have to grab the tree. The students in this group (and their current year in school) were: Jordan Elliott, sophomore, athletic training; Jenna Lerg, senior, biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience; Wendi Tang, junior, biochemistry. Lerg said during the biodiversity module, she learned that there are amphibians without limbs, called caecilians, which are represented in the UMMZ wet collection.

Lecturer Cindee Giffen confers with students on their lab project.

Another group explored Allen’s rule in the masked shrew. According to Allen’s rule, in warm-blooded animals, body shape is more round and compact in cold climates, whereas organisms living in warmer climates are taller, thinner and longer. Long and thin bodies release heat readily, whereas round bodies retain heat better. To test the principle, this group compared limb and ear length in masked shrews across a latitudinal gradient. Sarah Bendit, premed, post baccalaureate, SNRE; Jenna Lee, sophomore, movement science; Hector Zoleta, sophomore, pharmaceutical sciences, made up this group. “There are so many species -- it seemed never ending – it was cool to see everything,” said Lee.

Yet another group decided to explore whether the length of a chipmunk is related to latitude. Their hypothesis was that their length will decrease the further north they live, so that there’s less contact with the cold ground. The group comprised: Emily Coniglio, junior, biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience; Divya Gumudavelly, sophomore, biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience; Dan Marciniak, post baccalaureate, premed; Nick Watson, sophomore, biochemistry. Marciniak was interested in the amount of work that goes into changing a species designation, something Schneider presented on the tour. Watson noted “how well preserved specimens are even after 100 years.”

“In designing the lab module, I wanted students to receive a general overview of the biodiversity they would see at the RMC, and be reminded of taxonomical terms and phylogenies,” explained Walsh. “When it came to designing projects, I wanted to provide students with as much flexibility as possible to allow for an inquiry-based lab.”

Conducting inquiry-based labs is a teaching method supported by educational research. “Allowing students to explore their own questions and design and conduct their own research projects leads to better outcomes and retention in science,” said Giffen.

Walsh hopes to continue to introduce more undergraduates to the RMC and museum research in the future. For the time-being, Giffen and Walsh modified the lab module for use with the teaching collections rather than the research collections. The RMC isn't fully operational yet because of the recent move, so there were space concerns with having over 100 students (during fall and winter semesters) on site using the collections. Walsh notes that mammal specimens will be instrumental in teaching Biology of Mammals winter semester when she will be the graduate student instructor for Professor Priscilla Tucker. 

The instructors and the students greatly appreciated the collection managers who volunteered their time for the tours and beyond. For example, Janet Hinshaw, collection manager of birds, invited students to join her on Fridays to learn how to prepare bird specimens. “Students were amazed and fascinated by the depth of taxonomic knowledge the collection managers have,” Giffen said.