Bugs, Bats, and Birds: Biodiversity at the Smithsonian
Earlier this summer, 19 teachers from across the country gathered in Washington, DC, to learn about biodiversity at this year’s Biodiversity Smithsonian Science Education Academy for Teachers, or SSEAT. The participants received the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), spend time in the Q?rius lab space there, and travel up to Edgewater, MD, to visit the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Throughout the week, participants learned about the wide range of work the Smithsonian does and how that work can be used in the classroom.
Fitting for the theme of the week, participants learned about many groups of organisms during the academy. By sorting insects with entomologists Gary Hevel and Nate Erwin, visiting the mammal and bird collections at NMNH, touring the U.S. Botanic Gardens, and doing an engineering exercise related to blue crabs, participants investigated biodiversity through many types of plants and animals. The enormous collections within the Smithsonian allowed them to truly get a sense of the diversity of life on Earth.
The Smithsonian is known as the Nation’s Attic because it houses a lot of the country’s stuff. The sheer volume of collections in NMNH alone is astounding. However, the Smithsonian is so much more than an attic. Growing up in Rockville, MD, I’ve visited most of the museums that comprise the Smithsonian, but it wasn’t until the academy that I truly saw the value of the Smithsonian Institution. These collections are vital for research of all disciplines and are useful for educational purposes for students of all generations. It was very eye-opening to get a special look behind the scenes to see some of the research that is happening in the Smithsonian. NMNH houses amazing research and educational facilities, including the Q?rius space, which is a room full of interactive stations for kids and teens, as well as researchers associated with each collection. For example, samples from bat and bird collisions with airplanes around the world are sent to the museum for identification, and post-doctoral fellows like Teresa Feo of the bird collections complete research projects, such as the purpose behind “weird” feathers present on certain species of birds.
A sample drawer from the insect collection, including the largest beetle in the world, as well as two of the smallest.
A look down one of the long hallways in the insect collections, which houses about 35 million specimens.
Adding to the excitement of the week were the presenters who generously volunteered their time and expertise each day to share their knowledge with the teachers. Each presenter brought his or her own unique perspective on biodiversity and helped teachers gain knowledge for themselves and comfort teaching biodiversity-related concepts to their students. For example, Karen McDonald, the education specialist at SERC, taught teachers about biomimicry, or using nature to solve real-life problems. Integrating engineering and biology, teachers built a hydraulic arm that mimics the way a blue crab moves.
A group of participants show off the hydraulic arm they built.
In addition to bringing together different aspects of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), this week the teachers also investigated STEAM (STEM and Art) and how the arts can be incorporated into science. Sally Bensusen, a science illustrator, taught the teachers about the importance of drawing as a part of scientific observations. While drawing can be scary for non-artists, Sally shared tips to help the teachers relax and draw helpful sketches. Many of the teachers came away from the session saying that they planned to incorporate more sketching into their students’ journaling and observations.
A sample page from a participant’s sketchbook, incorporating sketches into their observations of tobacco hornworms.
After I finish college, I want to become a high school chemistry teacher. It was a privilege to meet such passionate teachers who truly care about their students. Their drive to learn was inspiring, and observing them has renewed my determination to become the most knowledgeable teacher I can be. I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a week in the nation’s attic with such committed teachers.
The participants from this year’s biodiversity academy pose for a group photo with Henry the Elephant.