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Virus and the Whale: Exploring Evolution in a Museum Collaboration

Judy Diamond, Ph.D. Associate Director and Professor
Amy Spiegel Ph.D., Research Professor
Debra Meier, Administrative Coordinator
Sarah Disbrow Ph.D., Consultant
University of Nebraska State Museum
307 Morrill Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0332 USA

Corresponding author: Judy Diamond, Phone: 402-472-4433, FAX 402-472-8899,


The Informal Science Education Program of the National Science Foundation has funded a major new collaboration of museums to enhance their role in teaching the public about current evolution research. Seven major research projects, on organisms ranging in size from the smallest (HIV) to the largest (whales), are featured in interactive exhibits, Web activities, and outreach materials for youth. Launched in 2003, this project is one of the most comprehensive informal education projects in the U.S. to focus on teaching about evolution research.

"The concept of biological evolution is one of the most important ideas ever generated by the application of scientific methods to the natural world." Bruce Alperts (National Academy of Sciences 1999)

Concepts about evolution are far from being fully understood or accepted by much of the American public. For example, about half of adult Americans believe that God created Adam and Eve to start the human race (Numbers 1982), and about the same percentage believe that the earliest humans coexisted with dinosaurs (National Science Foundation 1999). A 1993 Gallup Poll showed that 47 percent of Americans continue to believe that God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years (Numbers 1998). Approximately 45 percent of college students surveyed agreed with the statement that some races of humans are more evolved than others (Ahlquist & Cronin 1988). There are regional differences as well: college students in the Midwest and South were significantly less likely to give scientific answers to questions about evolution than were students from other parts of the U.S. (Ahlquist & Cronin 1988). Anti-evolution movements in states like Kansas and Ohio have been well publicized, but there are many more subtle efforts that reduce the school time spent on learning about evolution. Many school districts throughout the Midwest are quietly decreasing the amount of time spent on teaching evolution. For example, the Lincoln Public Schools, a Nebraska school district of over 31,000 students, has recently shifted the 5th grade science requirement from rocks and fossils, where evolution was taught, to rocks and minerals, where it is not. In this district evolution is now not taught until high school.

Museums and other informal science education facilities can play an important role in making scientific ideas available where the schools fail to do so. The Explore Evolution project combines the strength of museum exhibits and informal outreach programs to reach a broad sector of the Midwestern public. Launched in June 2003, this project is one of the most comprehensive informal education projects in the U.S. to focus on teaching about evolution research. The objectives for our informal audience of youth and adults are 1) an understanding of evolution as a topic of current and ongoing scientific research, 2) an awareness that ideas about evolution are accessible and relevant to their lives, 3) an awareness of the diversity of scientists, including women and minority scientists, who conduct research on evolution, and 4) an appreciation for the role that research on evolution plays in understanding the natural world.

Museum Collaboration

Explore Evolution is a comprehensive museum-based program that will give the public and educators opportunities for understanding the science underlying current concepts in evolution. It is an outgrowth of a decade of discussions among the staff of museums in the Midwest on how to be more proactive in teaching evolution (Diamond 2000). The exhibits and outreach components of the project will be disseminated through three methods. First, a consortium of six major Midwestern science museums will display the permanent exhibits to their public audiences and disseminate outreach materials through their educational programs. Second, a consortium of 4-H programs in six Midwestern states will disseminate the Explore Evolution units through their extensive informal youth programs. Third, a science kit publisher, Great Plains National, will disseminate the Explore Evolution activity units widely to formal and informal audiences.

Each of the participating museums will take part in development decisions, including final topic choice and feedback on prototypes; each will receive and display copies of the final exhibits; and each will disseminate the activity units through their educational programs and Web sites. The combined annual attendance of these museums in six states is over 1.8 million. The following museums form the Explore Evolution consortium: Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan, Kansas Museum and Biodiversity Center at the University of Kansas, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma, Texas Memorial Museum at the University of Texas at Austin, University of Nebraska State Museum, and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

A Formative Approach to Teaching About Evolution

An important component of the Explore Evolution project is an ongoing evaluation of the most effective means to communicate concepts about evolution. We will present research on evolution in a way that is consistent with students' abilities to understand the concepts (Diamond 1999). As suggested in AAAS (2001, p. 80), "poor reasoners tend to retain nonscientific beliefs such as 'evolutionary change occurs as a result of need' because they fail to examine alternative hypotheses and their predicted consequences, and they fail to comprehend conflicting evidence. Thus, they are left with no alternative but to believe their initial intuitions or the misstatements they hear."

This project integrates front-end and formative evaluation into the development process for the exhibits and outreach materials (Diamond 1999). The evaluation builds on previous and current work being conducted on what the general public and museum visitors understand about evolution, and about science in general (Diamond et al. 1987, Evans 2001, MacFadden & Camp personal communication). Formative evaluation and subsequent visitor research will allow visitor feedback from various regions in the U.S. to guide the presentation of information. Several concepts about evolution will require intensive formative development to insure that they are presented clearly. For example, middle school and high school students have difficulty with the word "adaptation," because they often assume that adaptations result from some overall purpose, design, or intent. They also confuse non-inherited traits acquired during an individual's lifetime with adaptive features that are inherited in a population. Students also have difficulty understanding that change in a population results from the survival of a few individuals that preferentially reproduce, not from the gradual changes of all individuals in the population (AAAS 2001). However, research by Bishop and Anderson (1990) indicates that specially designed instruction can improve students' understanding of natural selection. We will combine the drawing power of entertaining, attractive, and well-designed interactive exhibits with careful formative research to create a positive and understandable learning experience about evolution.

National Science Education Standards

Explore Evolution creates a learner-centered communication, education, and assessment environment built around exploration, identification with strong role models, and the development of critical thinking. The Explore Evolution exhibits and activities incorporate many of the skills required by the National Science Education Standards. By including skills from the standards, the Explore Evolution Project builds a bridge between learning at school and extra-curricular learning-the most effective way for children to retain newly acquired knowledge and maintain new interests sparked by their science explorations.

The project's content falls within the content standards for grades 5-8 in life science, science as inquiry, unifying concepts and processes, earth and space science, science and technology, and science in personal and social perspectives (National Research Council 1996). Life science content standard C for 5-8 grades under Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms specifies, "Biological Evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptations, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations" (National Academy of Sciences 1996, p. 158).

Explore Evolution Exhibits

Similar evolutionary principles operate on different kinds of organisms. To emphasize this point, the Explore Evolution exhibits will be organized along a transition from the smallest organism to the largest. Each exhibit unit will include a section about the scientist, an explanation of how this particular research project demonstrates an important idea in evolution, an explanation of how our ideas of this evolutionary topic have changed since Darwin's time, and a participatory opportunity to investigate this research project and its relevance to visitors' lives.

Seven research projects will be featured in the Explore Evolution exhibits, and each of the lead research scientists has agreed to participate in the project. Our criteria for choosing topics included recent significant research on a diversity of organisms; research that fundamentally changes or reinforces ideas about evolution that have been around for a long time; ideas that can be explained to youth and the general public within the limitations of interactive exhibit and inquiry-based activity formats; and a balance of ethnically and gender diverse investigators.

At the outset, an executive group comprised of representatives from the six museum partners met to review a detailed proposal for how each exhibit is to be built. The feedback from the partners on the detailed plans has shaped the development of the exhibit prototypes. These prototypes will be tested with visitors and then modified accordingly (Diamond 1999). The executive group will then consider the results of the formative evaluation in making decisions about the design and production of the finished exhibits. Explore Evolution includes the following exhibits:

HIV: Master of Disguise. One of the deadliest viruses in the world, HIV - the virus that causes AIDS - continues to elude medical efforts to eradicate it. At first susceptible to a variety of drugs, the virus has evolved rapidly, enabling it to dodge every drug in our biotech arsenal. This exhibit features the work of Charles Wood, Director of the University of Nebraska Center for Virology. Wood studies the mechanism of viral evolution in search of a vaccine against HIV. In this exhibit, visitors explore what a virus is, interact as a virus inside a host cell, and look at "snapshots" of HIV as it evolves from a mother to her infant.

Diatom: One-Celled Wonder. In core samples taken from Yellowstone Lake, Sherilyn Fritz and Edward Theriot discovered the origin of a new species, a single-celled diatom named Stephanodiscus yellowstonensis. Their work documents the most rapid evolution of any species in the fossil record. Visitors to this exhibit examine lake core samples to experience first hand the excitement of viewing how a new species emerges in response to climate change.

Fungus: Partners for Life. In dark gardens underground, leaf-cutter ants grow a fungus for food. The ants groom their crop and protect it from pests as carefully as any farmer. The partnership has lasted more than 50 million years. Biologist Cameron Currie from the University of Kansas discovered that this system actually involves four coevolved partners: the ant, the fungus, a parasitic mold, and a bacterium. In this exhibit, visitors manipulate an interactive video to view an ant nest at work and then zoom up close to see the microscopic partners in this remarkable example of co-evolution.

Fly: Flying Diversity. From one ancestral species of fruit fly that blew ashore on the remote islands of Hawaii, more than a thousand species have evolved. Kenneth Kaneshiro from the University of Hawaii explores the ways that sexual selection has shaped the evolution of Drosophila diversity in Hawaii. Visitors to this exhibit investigate fruit fly courtship and other features of their biology to understand what drives the remarkable diversity of this group.

Finch: Rapid Response. Research by Rosemary and Peter Grant sheds new light on Darwin's finches. Their study of finch populations on the Galapagos Islands demonstrates that evolutionary changes in bill size and shape occur very rapidly in response to severe environmental changes. In this exhibit, visitors take bill measurements of two species of Galapagos finches and learn how selective effects of environmental change, acting through abundance of different food types, influence variation in finch bills.

Human: Family Ties. Genetically speaking, chimpanzees are close relatives of ours, sharing more than 98 percent of our DNA. Humans and apes may have shared a common ancestor as recently as 5 million years ago. Henrik Kaessmann and Svante Pääbo from the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology use the techniques of molecular biology to investigate the origin and evolution of the human family. This exhibit invites visitors to explore how modern genetics give us insight into the relationship between humans and our closest relatives, the apes.

Whale: Walking Giants. Digging for fossils in the desert of Pakistan, Philip Gingerich from the University of Michigan made a series of startling finds. They demonstrate that whales evolved from 4-legged mammals much like the ancestor of the modern-day hippo. Visitors to this exhibit travel back with Gingerich to an ancient shore-the cradle of walking whales-and investigate some of the earliest known fossil whales and his most recent discovery, Rodhocetus.

Explore Evolution Outreach

The outreach component of the Evolution Project consists of a series of activity units called Explore Evolution. These will be based on the UNL State Museum's award-winning Wonderwise, Women in Science kits, which were funded by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the NSF. Wonderwise kits are distributed throughout the U.S. by Great Plains National (GPN), the publisher of Reading Rainbow, Wonderwise, and Newton's Apple kits. Wonderwise has received many national awards for excellence, including in 1998 the top award for children's programming given by the National Education Association, and it has been used by over 11 million youth throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Each of the seven Explore Evolution activity units will be designed for middle school-aged youth as a series of inquiry-based investigations into one topic in evolution. Each unit will be supported by the Explore Evolution exhibits and a Web site that includes background information on the scientist, interactive extensions of the activity, links to local and national science education standards, and links to other evolution sites.

The Explore Evolution activities will be developed by the nationally known curriculum writer and author, Linda Allison. Linda Allison is the author of over a dozen science activity books including the Wonderwise activity books and Blood and Guts, one of the only science curriculum projects to be on the New York Times best selling list (Allison 1976). The activities will be designed to be easy to use, assume no science background on the part of either the leader or youth, and use easily available materials or tools. All activities will undergo formative evaluation with 4-H youth and middle school-aged museum visitors to insure that the materials are specifically designed to enhance youths' understanding of evolutionary concepts. Like Wonderwise, the Explore Evolution activities will be based on a constructivist pedagogy that focuses on inquiry-based learning (Tobin 1993). Through this project, museum visitors and 4-H youth have the opportunity to make connections between collecting data and applying their analysis and deductive reasoning to real-life situations, and to gain an understanding of the central relationship of evolutionary ideas to all fields of science. The activities encourage autonomy and independence in the learning situation by embedding the reasons for learning in the activity, thereby helping learning to occur in a real-life context that mirrors a technologically oriented society (Bybee 1997, Tobin 1993).


A strong network is already in place for the dissemination of Explore Evolution outreach materials. A consortium of 4-H programs throughout the Midwest currently disseminates the Wonderwise project (Diamond et al. 1996 or see Each partner state formed a Wonderwise 4-H training team that disseminates the Wonderwise kits widely through the 4-H system. This network also disseminates the Explore Evolution outreach materials, and wherever possible we will establish connections between the museums and 4-H programs to integrate the exhibits and outreach parts of the project. The 4-H organizations are logical partners for a number of reasons. First, they generally serve a different audience than museums, and the involvement of 4-H enhances the overall dissemination of the project. Second, 4-H shares many common educational goals with museums. Learning by doing is a fundamental principle of 4-H club work. In the earliest days, 4-H educators and volunteers emphasized the educational value that young people derived from applying science to farming and home economics. While the breadth of science has increased, the 4-H commitment to using experiential methods to teach science has remained solidly intact. Third, developing a relationship between 4-H and museums enables the two groups to provide mutual support. The teaching of evolutionary ideas can be controversial and at times, adversarial (Evans 2001). It helps for each partner to know that other major groups serving youth in their state have made the same commitment to the teaching of these ideas. This project will reach a wide diversity of youth, including over half a million who will investigate the Explore Evolution activities through 4-H clubs, camps, schools, and after-school programs.

The Explore Evolution project will be completed within three years. By the third year of the project, each of the participating museums will receive a set of the completed exhibits to have in their permanent collection for display on an ongoing basis. Some of the museum partners plan to incorporate these exhibits into existing galleries on related topics, while other museum partners plan to display the set of Explore Evolution exhibits as a special gallery. This project is designed so the individual needs of each museum can be accommodated. By the project's third year, the participating 4-H and other youth groups will have participated in trial testing the activity units and begun youth leader professional development. The exhibits, Web, and outreach materials will be available to the public early in 2006. The results of the project's research and evaluation studies will be published for dissemination to educators and other researchers interested in how to make effective learning tools to teach about evolution.

The Explore Evolution collaboration serves as a model for how museums can work together to create significant educational experiences for the general public. Explore Evolution has created partnerships between museums, youth groups, and scientists, and is incorporating careful learning research to develop educational materials on this difficult and important topic.


Many thanks to Peter Tirrell for his splendid work organizing the UMAC meetings, to Amy Harris and Edward Theriot for participating in the Explore Evolution panel, and to Linda Allison, Paul Martin, Katrina Hase and Kathy French for their help in organizing this project. This project was funded by a grant from the Informal Science Education Program of the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.

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