Natural History Museum Field Trip guide.

So, you’re thinking of taking your class to a natural history museum for a field trip, but not quite sure what you need to do to prepare your students. Depending on which museum you visit, you may be able to get a guided tour or you may be doing a self-guided visit. The self-guided visits can be great to ensure that students get a chance to see all parts of the museum that interest them, but it can be very overwhelming when students are visiting without any tasks. In this post, I provide some easy curriculum ideas for before a field trip and ideas for engaging, self-guided activities during your museum visit.

Before you visit the natural history museum. 

A great way to introduce your upcoming field trip is to answer the question, “What goes on at a natural history museum?”. Students will probably only be exposed to the cool exhibits and displays on the face of the museum, but there are just as many interesting things going on behind the scenes. This TED-Ed video is an excellent start to answer many questions and create student curiosity about what they’ll see at the museum. You can also refer back to this video when students inevitably ask if an animal is real or why it is dead and now in the museum. (Bonus: TED-Ed has an entire lesson based around this video if you want to simply start there. You can also use these videos to create lessons of your own. Check it out here.)

Encourage new ways to explore.

In most natural history museums, you cannot touch the objects. This restriction can be frustrating especially for young, tactile learners. Instead, introduce new ways for students to explore in the museum. Allow them extra time to look, listen, and even smell in the various exhibits. Here are two additional techniques to allow exploration.

Compare & Contrast: For young students, encourage them to compare and contrast the displays to their own experience or even their own body. For example, when you see the leg bone of giant dinosaur, ask students to measure their own leg bone and then compare that to the size of the dinosaur. This method will allow observation and connections when the ability to get physically close to the objects is restricted.

Embodiment: Encourage students to become the animal they are observing at the museum. If you see an animal in a pose with its mouth open and teeth showing, the students can act the same and imagine why the animal is doing that kind of pose. Or you can explain how an animal moves by allowing students to mimic the movements. For example, “Dinosaurs are actually walking on their tiptoes, can you do that?” Or, “Snakes slither, show me how you think they move.”

Tip: Practice these techniques in the classroom before your visit so students can easily use them again at the museum when exploring.

Provide structure for self-guided tours

Self-guided programs can be just as rewarding as visits with a museum educator. However, I often see teachers zoom through halls in order to see everything without giving students a real chance to explore and learn. Instead, use one of these simple activities to let students explore with a purpose. All of these activities could be modified for different ages, but I have split them up based on what I think would work best.


  • Give small groups of students a colour and have them write or draw as many objects (animals, plants, gems, minerals, etc) of that colour that they can find. If you are already familiar with the museum, ask for students to find one object in each exhibit hall.
  • Find examples of teeth that are sharp for eating meat and flat for eating plants. Ask students to find other similarities between these animals (size, colour, shape etc.)
  • Pick several animals and find clues to understand what habitat they call home. This activity could be especially beneficial in a diorama hall where animals are seen in their habitat. Compare and contrast animal adaptations and their environments. For example: “The giraffe has a long neck and eats leaves from trees. Would a giraffe’s long neck be beneficial in the desert where the plants are short? “

Example of a diorama at the LA Natural History Museum


  • Similar to the habitats activity above, find examples of adaptations for the same behaviour in different animals. For example, how many different animals have adaptations for living in or around water? (Look for flippers, webbed feet, skinny feet for marsh lands). Add in comparisons between modern and extinct animals for an extension with older age groups.
  • Identify examples of family groups in different animals. Students can identify what part of the life cycle the animals are in or make comparisons between adult and young animals to exemplify how traits are passed between parents and offspring.


  • Draw a potential food web for animals across several exhibits. It could be a real food web or a potential one if animals from different habitats come together. (This would emphasize the similar function of animals across habitats i.e. predator, prey, decomposer, primary producer etc). Or, create extinct food webs using dinosaurs!
  • IMG_0589

    “How would this picture in the walrus environment change in 20 years as temperatures warm?” (Photo at LA Natural History Museum)

    Hypothesize what would happen if the environment depicted in an exhibit or diorama would change. This activity could be a simple question and discussion or a chance for students to write and explore ideas on their own.


I hope this list gives you a few more ideas of how to maximize your time at the natural history museum. I intentionally left many details out since each museum and class is unique. If you use any of these ideas and create an entire lesson, please let me know! I’d love to hear and share your ideas. 

Do you need more ideas? Contact me! I’d love to help you get started with your natural history museum visit.



“Sex on Six legs” by Marlene Zuk | Book Review

This weekend I completed Marlene Zuk’s “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on life, love, and language from the insect world”. The book is a short, entertaining, and sciencey non-fiction read in a world where many science books can be overwhelming.


I picked up the book this past summer and when I saw the cover I knew I had to get it. Sex, bugs, and Marlene Zuk’s insights? Sounds good! To be honest, I was also attracted by the length. At only 225 pages, this book is much less intimidating than other tomes of science non-fiction out there.

The first thing I gotta say is that this book is NOT all about sex. I was a bit disappointed when I figured that out because insect sex is quite fascinating and an entire book devoted to it would be great! However, for those non-scientists out there, it may be less intimidating to feature a variety of insect vignettes instead of hammering on sex for so long. Instead, the book focuses on a variety of behaviours making the connection that we can learn a lot about human (and other vertebrates) behaviour by insights from the bug world.

Each chapter provides a highlight of a new topic ranging from insect genomics, personalities, parental care, language, and even homosexuality. Within each section, there are highlights from various researchers and their findings in those fields of animal behaviour. For example, she talks in depth about the work of Tom Seeley and colleagues on group intelligence in bees including how the bees find suitable new homes and decide to move together to get there. The fact that Zuk took time to call out by name each researcher was one of my favourite parts of the book. If you are into entomology or behavioural ecology as more than a past time, you’ll find it enjoyable to recognize and look up some of the names later on. She also sets up the how and why of all the researcher’s experiments, sometimes even including a comparison of the results to the predictions. This task can be difficulty when writing for the general public and I think there are some hits and some misses among the book’s stories. Even as a scientist, I sometimes found the descriptions confusing or found that I was skimming over parts. However, there are so many vignettes in this book that missing a few may be okay.

Speaking of the book’s vignettes, this brings up my biggest complaint about the book. Despite being split into various topics, the stories of the insects and research discussed within each chapter are quite choppy. The chapter may start with water bugs, then switch to bees, then ants, then crickets without adequate transitions. I saw another book review on GoodReads (a website you should check out) that described the style as like a series of blog posts put together. I’d certainly agree with that. There is definitely a theme of the book and chapters, but sometimes it gets lost.

Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Honeypot ant: Photo by Greg Hume CC-BY-2.5.

Okay, back to another thing I really liked about this book: I learned a lot. There were some parts that I knew about already, but many of the insects and topics I hadn’t heard much about at all. It made me feel like I was a kid again: thinking everything in animal behaviour was just amazing. I found myself stopping frequently to look up pictures of the insects or read even more online. Oh, yeah, there are no pictures in the book, which is a bit of a hamper when you’re describing the bulging abdomens of honeypot ants or bumpy backs of male toe biter bugs carrying eggs. Definitely be prepared to dog-ear some pages and look up pictures or videos later on. However, even without the necessary visuals, the book certain hits the “cool factor” button dead on.

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

Toe biter bug. photo taken by flickr user noisecollusion

My last thought is on the general writing of the book. When I first started reading it, many of the author’s comments and jokes felt really forced. They just didn’t seem to flow well with the tone of the book. However, as I read on, it didn’t seem to bother me as much. I’m not sure if this is because it got better or if I started to ignore it. Anyways, be prepared for some discomfort with it.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the content and the connection to real research and scientists. However, there were some stylistic and organizational things that really brought it down. The content of the books is good for anyone with a little bit of science and/or bug background. For example, she doesn’t discuss the intricacies of natural selection or evolution, so if it has been awhile, you may want to brush up before delving into the book. It’s a definitely a short read so it is worth picking up if you’ve got a bit of time to learn!


Thanks for reading! Do you like book reviews? Are they useful? Let me know! I have a stack of non-fiction science books that I have been meaning to read. Now that I am not in graduate school, it seems more fun to pick them up over my fiction books. I am now reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey. I plan to review that book too if people seem interested. Maybe we can start a virtual book club?

How can the blind see? A look into blindsight.

Today I am super excited to host a guest blog post by my amazing friend Jahn Kidd. Jahn has a background in psychology and is currently working towards an engineering degree (Go Jahn!). He wanted to share some of his knowledge on the inner workings of the human brain. Get excited to learn!


First, watch this video:

Now, you may be thinking “So what? It’s a man navigating a pretty simple obstacle course. Anybody could do that.” And you would be correct. Except for one thing (if somehow you haven’t noticed the video title): the man in front is blind, but reacting to the obstacles in his path the way you or I would react. And the man behind him is a researcher, shadowing the participant in case he should stumble over one of the obstacles. This is a demonstration of a visual phenomenon known as blindsight.

To begin with, let’s get into a quick and dirty explanation of the human visual system. The visual system consists of the eyes (obviously), some nerve tracts, and the all-important visual cortex (otherwise known as the occipital lobes, located at the rear of the brain, seen in Figure 1).

Figure 1

 As you can see from Figure 2, the nerves from the eyes project subcortically (where the green arrow in Figure 3 is pointing, an area near the center of brain and below the cortex; Remember this- it’s important later), before continuing on to the visual cortex. It is in the occipital lobes that much of the information is processed and responsible for the conscious experience of sight.

Figure 2
Figure 3









If it helps, imagine the nerves as roadways and the visual information as cars that move along those roadways. These cars enter the roadway at an on-ramp (the eyes), and eventually arrive at a large intersection (the subcortical area of the brain). Most of the cars will continue further along the main road to their destination (the visual cortex), while some cars will take side roads to other areas (other parts of the brain that aren’t the visual cortex).

The next important thing to consider: Blindness. The definition is pretty simple, we all know it: blindness means you can’t see. But what may not necessarily be known is that there are a few ways that blindness can occur. Blindness can be caused by injury to the eyes, or by congenital defect (i.e. the nerve tracts develop abnormally in the brain), or by damaging the visual cortex (specifically an area known as the striate cortex, or V1). This last cause is important for blindsight: being cortically blind means that the other organs and nerves important to sight are still functional.

Blindsight is a phenomenon that has been actively studied for several decades, first being noticed in animals and then later in humans. Commonly, patients are only blind in part of their visual field (the striate cortex in the occipital lobes isn’t completely destroyed, only damaged). As you can see from the video, and from other studies, people who are cortically blind are able to respond to various stimuli that are presented in the blind areas of their visual field. Importantly, they do this at levels significantly above chance. This can include being able to navigate an obstacle, to detecting when lights are flashing, when objects are moving, and even the size of objects in some cases.

Remember that I said it was important that the optic nerves projected to subcortical areas? This is thought to be the mechanism through which blindsight may occur. Visual information is projected to several other areas in the brain, which can then possibly pass that information further along to other areas. This means that even when the V1 is damaged/destroyed, there is still visual information making it to other areas of the brain to be processed on some level. Continuing our earlier car and roadway analogy, this means that the main roads are completely or mostly blocked, which prevents those cars from reaching their destination (the visual cortex). But the cars that are taking the side roads are still able to reach their destinations (the other areas of the brain).

It’s important to note that this is an ongoing field of investigation: this phenomenon has implications about the way in which we are affected by things in our visual field (evidently, conscious awareness of a stimuli is not always necessary). There are also questions about the physical mechanisms that some blindsight capacities may depend upon in certain instances, about how to predict if blindsight will occur in a region of blindness, about rehabilitation of visual sensitivity and discrimination, and about brain activity during blindsight.

These are important questions about a fascinating (and as one researcher put it, rare) discovery in the field of psychology, and science in general. My goal here was to briefly expose you, the reader, to an interesting and perhaps little known phenomenon. It’s beyond my abilities to give a thorough enough explanation in a blog post, so I encourage you to read to further on the subject, even if it’s just the Wikipedia article. For those interested in further reading, I’ll provide the information on a relatively easy to read article about blindsight below.

Weiskrantz, L. (2010). Looking Back: Blindsight in Hindsight. Psychologist, 23, 356-359
Figure sources:
Figure 1:
Figure 2:
Figure 3:

Make it thematic: Best practices 4/5

My past best practices posts have focused on getting to know your audience and using questions to help create a conversation. But, what the heck should you talk about to people? I have yet to address creating a message. (Hey, I never said the posts would be in a logical order…)

Best practice number 3: Make it thematic.

One of the scariest questions to get asked is often “So what do you study?”. Ugh. Really? Where do I start?

The best way to get yourself going is find the big picture! You may be in the depths of analyzing DNA from bird blood, but is that the point of your research? Probably not. The big picture may often be the same as the first or last paragraphs of your journal article. Thinking about it that way can make it easier to address a new audience.

Theme vs Topic: A theme and a topic are very different. Your research topic might be: hybridization of plants along the Rocky Mountains. Your research theme is often more broad and sometimes includes the answer to your research. A theme could be: Pollination by hummingbirds facilitates hybridization of plants in the Rocky Mountains. Notice also how the theme includes a VERB and is a more complete thought than a topic. Your theme can be even more broad like: Plant-animal interactions influence the evolution of new species. This theme can apply to topics outside of your research project.

Why be thematic? When you walk away from an interaction with a member of the public, whether it is a chat on the street or a public talk, you should aim for at least one big take away. Of course they may come away with a variety of ideas and thoughts, but if you can at least get them to leave with your theme, that’s great! By using a theme (with a verb!) they can come away with a complete idea. So instead of coming away with, “Joe studies plants in the Rocky Mountains” they’ll hopefully come away with “The hummingbirds interact with the flowers to create new species”. That theme provides a new viewpoint for future scientific stories they hear.

Be flexibleAs a museum educator, I’ve learned that flexibility is crucial! I’ll often start an interaction with the hope of connecting the visitor to a certain theme, but instead they want to ask about something totally different. The same thing happens when researchers discuss their work. First step is to not panic! You’re going to create a more meaningful interaction if you connect with people based on their inherent interests. It may even help to use some questions to open up your conversation so that you can guide the conversation to their interests from the start. For example, my graduate school research was not necessarily focused on climate change, but people often asked me about the role it may play in the tropics. So I would then switch to talking about shifts in animal and plant ranges across elevation with climate change. Always good to have a back-up plan.

This best practice may seem very straightforward to you, but is often more complex in practice than it seems. I really think that finding a theme yet remaining flexible to other interests will make your science communication the best!

Try it out: Write down at least 3 themes that relate to your past or present research. Remember, include a verb to make it thematic!

Good luck!DSCN6815

Dippy’s passing shines light on a new era for natural history museums.

Last week, the Natural History Museum in London announced it would be replacing its beloved entry way dinosaur, Dippy, with a blue whale skeleton. People were in uproar over the loss of this iconic figure taking to Twitter with #saveDippy.

I believe that the bold move by the NHM speaks to what the role of natural history museums should be: to showcase and preserve ancient and modern life.



Dinosaurs are cool, there is no denying it. But so are blue whales! By changing the face of the NHM, the museum is showcasing the wonderfully large and bizarre creatures that exist on earth today. The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live. Yes, bigger than the dinosaurs. So why shouldn’t we showcase this feat of evolutionary wonderful size? Every time I look up at the big blue whale in Beaty Biodiversity Museum or at the Natural History Museum of LA County, I can’t help be realize how special of a time we live. Can you believe it? You get to walk the earth at the same time as the biggest creature EVER swims in the ocean. Now that’s cool! By moving the focus away from Dippy the dinosaur, the NHM paves the way for a focus on the beautiful biodiversity that we have today. When people realize how special of a time we live in, they may just want to try harder to preserve it.

Think to the future when there are no longer blue whales. Then imagine the wonder and excitement that a child would feel walking into a museum with this almost mythical, gigantic sea creature hanging from above. They’d tell stories and recite nomenclature from their whale book just like kids today tell us all about the dinosaurs.

Thanks to Dippy, Sue, and Thomas, we’ve learned to embrace the preciousness of the gigantic creatures we have today. Let’s focus on them as our mascots of biodiversity into the future before they become part of the past.

Make it a Conversation: Best practices in #scicomm 3/n

Question_mark_alternateIf there is one thing that most people learn from their 18 + years of schooling is that they do not like to be lectured. Whether it is from your parents, your teachers, your friends, your coach or whoever, a long, drawn-out lecture usually doesn’t work. Compared to many fields, I think we have a good grasp on this, maybe since most scientists went to school for over 20 years. (Yeah, don’t think about that too much. It will make your head hurt). 

The point of this blog isn’t to tell you how to spice up your precious PPTs, but instead how to make your science communication a conversation. I think the best way to encourage conversation is to ask questions! Let your audience give their opinions and contribute to promoting your message. The most important thing is that you must avoid yes or no questions. We’ve all had that awkward moment where you ask someone a question and they simply respond “Nope”. The best way to avoid that situation is to use open-ended questions.

Below, I outline some various types of questions and how you can use them to encourage conversation. These could be beneficial during a classroom visit, public talk, or a conversation on the street. Your audience can change!

Questions to get the conversation rolling

1. Surveying: As I mentioned in my first blog post, it is important to get to know your audience. You can use surveying questions to begin this process.

  • Where are you from?
  • When were you last here? (Particularly appropriate if speaking with people at a museum, zoo, aquarium etc.)
  • What are you most excited about seeing/learning/hearing today? (This question is a great way to survey the interest of your audience. Depending on what they say, you can change your conversation.

2. Comparison: Once you start getting into the heart of the matter, start to let your audience contribute ideas with questions that ask for their opinion or views.

  • How do bird differ from bats? In what ways are they similar?
  • How do trees in your backyard look different from those found in the tropics? Why do you think that is the case?

Comparison questions get people to think. For scientists who also teach, you’ll recognize these as excellent exam questions because they encourage creativity! There is rarely one right answer and it is always amazing to hear what people will come up with when given the chance.

3. Focusing: These questions can serve as good follow-ups to more open-ended comparision questions. With a focusing question, you ask the person to pay close attention to one part. I like to use focusing questions with kids because they often need more guidance before providing answers.

  • Look at the bat’s ears. Now think about how those compare to a bird.
  • Think about the leaves on your backyard trees. Are they bigger or smaller than leaves from the tropics?

4. Problem-solving: I think this is my favorite question type because I love getting people to think like a scientist. Once you set-up a conversation by asking for comparisons and focusing their attention, it is now time to let your audience explore ideas on their own. Similar to the comparision questions above, problem-solving questions rarely have one right answer and they encourage creativity. However, you need to give your audience the tools and information to come up with solutions.

  • If you found a fossilized flying animal, how could you tell if it was a bird or a bat?
  • What do you think would happen if you moved a plant from your backyard to the tropics?

5. Application: These questions will really help drive home your point. This is your opportunity to turn the question “why should I care?” back on to the audience. From your smartly facilitated conversation, you audience should now be able to answer that question. You’ll also be surprised with what people come up with when encouraged to provide their own connections.

  • Why should we be worried about bat specific diseases like white nose syndrome?
  • Why should we control the spread of invasive plant species?

The one thing I hope you take away from this post is that creating conversation and asking questions offers the opportunity for your audience to engage with you in a new and beneficial way. When people are forced to think about these ideas for themselves, the connections between themselves and nature grow stronger. No matter what your specific science communication goal is, I’d say that outcome is a pretty good one.


How else do you encourage conversation in science communication? What is your favorite question to ask? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@crhoffman99).


Update: Thanks for making this post one of the Top 25 Science Communication stories!

The naughty side of cosmetics: Microbead pollution & solutions

Everyone loves a good scrub down. Getting in the shower, lathering yourself up with body wash, scrubbing yourself down, stepping out and brushing your teeth, apply globs of facial products, and voila, you’re a clean person!


But if you are using products with microbeadsyou may be contributing to the pollution of our waterways. Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic that go into a large number of cosmetic products and are often invisible to the naked eye. These little bits of plastic may help exfoliate your dead skin, but they are then washed down the drain. The big problem with these tiny beads is that they are too small to be filtered out in water treatment facilities, so they pass right through and go into our lakes and oceans.

Well, I know what you’re thinking, “Tiny bits of plastic in our water??? That’s the least of our concerns with water pollution”. Okay, point taken. There can be a lot of trash in our bodies of water, but microbeads are unique.

Microbeads look like food for some marine organisms, so they eat it (yum!). The beads then accumulate in our wildlife and if we choose to eat some fish from these areas, the microbeads can enter the human system. Is that really worth a good shower scrub?

After ample research has shown that these microbeads can accumulate to levels as high as 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer, as in Lake Ontario, legislations are starting to put a ban on these products in the Great Lakes states (Check out this NPR article for more details).

Although legislation can lead the way to ban microbeads, you can do your part and stop using products with microbeads! It may be awhile before these products are fully banned, so you need to act now to avoid the products.

How to check your product for microbeads.

When I first learned about the problems with microbeads, I asked the cosmetologist at the drugstore if she could recommend a product without microbeads for me. She looked at me with an epically blank stare and I realized she had no idea what they were. (Cosmetology schools… you need to get on that!). So I realized that I needed to take it into my own hands to figure it out.

1. Look for products that contain polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredients. That indicates that there are most likely small plastic microbeads in the products. Products that advertise as exfoliants or scrubs should be looked at with extra caution.

2. Download the app. Beat the Microbead is an international campaign against microbeads in cosmetics who created an app where you can scan or look up items to check if they are microbead-free.

3. Buy from companies that have banned microbeads from their products already. Check out Lush for brand that has committed to phasing out microbeads in their products. However, always read the labels because they may still sell the older products that contain plastic!


Sugar scrub: Find out more here:

4. Make your own products! I definitely need to do more DIY and I think this is the push I need. When you make your own products, you obviously know what goes into them. You can make a sugar face scrub by easily combining 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Easy as that. You can also reuse your coffee grounds into a whole body scrub.


No one is perfect. It may be hard to phase out these products at all at once. Start by picking products that you think, “Meh, I never really loved that anyways…” Soon it will be easy to choose all micro-bead free products.

Let me know what products you choose to switch out. Find a favourite micro bead alternative…let me know!