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.



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:

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.

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!

What did you miss? Geological features that go unnoticed.

I recently completed a partial cross-country drive from Columbus, OH to Los Angeles, CA with a quick stay-over in Tucson, AZ. This drive took me through the middle part of the US that is often known as “fly-over country” since people choose to skip it as they fly from coast to coast. During this monotonous, often mind-numbing drive, I realized that there are some geological wonders along the way that go unnoticed. Here are 4 that I found the most interesting.


1. New Madrid Seismic Zone- Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas border.

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

The rumble and tumble of earthquakes is typically associated with the West Coast, but hidden right in the middle of the US is the New Madrid Seismic Zone. This zone represents a weak point in Earth’s crust from a messy, incomplete continental break-up about 750 million years ago. This weak point means that small compressions and contractions east to west in the US can be especially dangerous here.

Despite the long distance to the nearest tectonic plate boundary, this old fault can still cause extensive damage. From 1811 to 1812, four massive earthquakes rattled the surrounding areas. Although there were no seismographs (devices to measure earthquake strength) at that time, researchers used journal entries, newspaper articles, and reports to estimate the power of these shakes to be 10 times as strong as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The area surrounding the New Madrid Seismic Zone is still a concern especially for damage in large cities like St. Louis, MO and Memphis, TN.

2. Texas Panhandle.

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

I’m sorry Texans, but your panhandle is so flat and boring. The old joke really applies: “It is so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days”. Luckily, alternative wind power has utilized this level area to put up hundred of giant windmills: Don Quixote’s worst nightmare.

Literary references aside, I wanted to know why this area was so dang flat and what it could tell me about the geologic past of the area. I hoped the answer would be easy to find, but it took some digging and I’m still not sure I have the whole picture. A 1907 USGS report by Charles Gould told me this: “the surface of the High Plains in generally flat, with nothing to break the severe monotony.” See? Even geologists think it is flat and boring. Anyways, my interpretation of his report is that rivers originating in the Rocky Mountains occupied the High Plains in the panhandle of Texas. Over time, the streams became overloaded with sediment (rocks, dirt, etc.), deposited this sediment in the riverbed, and eventually filled the rivers pushing them into new directions. This process of deposition and river re-working continued until a deposit “several hundred feet thick” covered the area to the east of the Rocky Mountains including Texas.

I had a feeling that the flatness had something to do with water, most outstanding geological features do. However, I was surprised that instead of rivers cutting into the landscape, they actually created a flat surface. Next time I drive through Texas, I might give it a bit more respect.

(Update January 21: I reached out to the USGS for more information about this area. They pointed me to another, more complete resource on the geology of the High Plains. The information was essentially the same, but in more detail. It appears that this part of the Texas was covered and uncovered by water at many times in the geologic past. Each time it was underwater, more sediment was deposited creating such a flat surface. This short investigation has taught me an important lesson: it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause to a certain geologic feature.)

3. Texas Canyon Rest Area / Balancing Rocks, near Dragoon, AZ.

Roadside Rocks

Precariously balanced rocks. Arizona

Entering into New Mexico and Arizona the terrain became much more interesting. There were mountains, mesas, and sometimes bizarre rocks. Our last stop before entering Tucson was the Texas Canyon Rest Area, a surprisingly beautiful and well-known pit stop. We stopped here specifically to look at the perched boulders along the road. My parents have made this drive before and knew that it was a great spot to stop. Once again, being the inquisitive geology girl, I wanted to understand why it looked the way it did. The rounded boulders made me feel like I was within the circle of a giant’s game of marbles. Rounded and perched rock formations are not uncommon and even have an official name: precariously balanced rocks (or PBR for short). PBRs can be found in hipster hiking hotspots around the world from Africa to Arizona.

To become so round, these rocks were subject to physical and chemical weathering. Physical weathering is when rocks are broken-down by forces like wind and water, but remain the same type of rock. Chemical weathering changes the rock composition through chemical reactions. I won’t go into the exact make up of the rocks (but see this post), however, eventually the weathering causes the rocks to breakdown in such a way that they become rounded and appear to balance atop other rocks.

Although they are called precarious, the rocks are typically very steady on the shoulders of the other rocks. However, earthquakes can jar these rocks down and can thus be used to monitor earth’s movements. Pretty cool, but I hope no one is at the rest stop when the rocks start to wiggle!

 4. San Andreas Fault, California.


Photo at rest stop near fault line. California

You don’t need to be a geology nerd to know about the San Andreas Fault. It is infamous for the fact that one day it will be the center of a break between Southwestern California and the rest of North America (see this classic flash-animated video warning: some NSFW language). This fault is one of the main reasons that Los Angeles and San Francisco are earthquake prone. What I found so surprising on our drive in Los Angeles is that even though I knew the fault line was there, we just drove right over it. I don’t know what I expected. A big sign pointing it out? Some large chasm in the earth? Not sure. Nevertheless, we drove right over this divide without even knowing it.

The San Andreas fault is actually a tectonic plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The plates rub against each other in opposite directions. Think about it this way: place your hands together palms touching. Move your right hand down and your left hand up. That friction and tension between your hands is the same as between the plates. If you press your hands really hard you can understand how an earthquake may occur. The uneven surface of your hands cause them to stick together better in some parts and suddenly slip in others.

Once in Los Angeles, poking my toes into the Pacific Ocean and soaking in the rays, I realized that I hadn’t driven through swaths of nothingness to get here. Instead, I’d peeked into Earth’s history along the way. Next road trip, I’ll still be staring out the window watching the landscape pass, but I will be looking with a closer eye at what I can learn along the way.



New Madrid Seismic Zone:
Texas Panhandle:
Gutentag et al. (1984). Geohydrology of the High Plains aquifer in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Regional Aquifer System Analysis Paper 1400-B. Available here:
Gould, C (1907). The geology and water resources of the western portion of the panhandle of Texas. Water Supply and Irrigation Paper. No. 191. Available here:
Texas Canyon:
San Andreas Fault


Take a deep breath: A look at trees and lungs

IMG_0047On a short drive the other day, I was struck by the beauty of these leafless trees. The barren trees reminded me that things we see everyday connect us intimately with nature. In this case, the trees reminded me of the way our lungs work.


Do you see how the tree branches into smaller and smaller shoots? By branching out as the tree grows, it can increase its surface area to produce leaves. In turn, the leaves allow for the tree to exchange gases with the environment. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever thought of what your lungs look like inside? In fact, they look very similar to this tree. Consider your throat (and trachea) as the trunk of the tree. As air moves into your lungs, the windpipes branches out further and further appearing similar to the leafless tree above. This similarity is by no means a coincidence. Your lungs are also exchanging gases with the atmosphere. In comes oxygen out goes carbon dioxide. Nature repeats itself.

Take in a deep breath. (I’m waiting). Okay. Now exhale. Do it again, but this time think of the air entering into your body through those small alleyways of your lungs. Now exhale. Now think of that tree. It looks a bit like an upside-down version of your lungs and it is doing the opposite job of your lungs. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen.

Take some time to wander outside, look at the trees, and see the intimate connection between you and nature. See another cool connection? Let me know!

6 science people to follow on Twitter.

I will be honest: I totally love Twitter. I started my Twitter (@crhoffman99) over 5 years ago for personal use and over the past two years transitioned to using it professionally and for communication. I follow a lot of science folks, but also some celebs & lifestyle bloggers (diversity is good!). Here are some great science related people and places that I think YOU should follow to get started.


1. Specimen FMNH PR2081 (@SUEtheTrex): Okay, so this is not a person, but a SPECIMEN from the Field Museum in Chicago that tweets pretty hilarious scientific jokes. Always good for a laugh.

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2. California Academy of Science (@calacademy): An outstanding museum in San Francisco tweeting about its exhibits and education efforts. Lots of stunning visuals come through their feed.

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3. Ed Yong (@edyong209): Science journalist who shares a multitude of interesting stories. Ed always seems to be ahead of curve on popular science trends. Follow him to get the latest and greatest of science journalism.

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4. Emily Graslie (@ehmee): With a job title like “Chief Curiosity Correspondent”, you can guess you’ll get some great tweets from Emily. She hosts “The Brain Scoop” on YouTube and is generally making great strides for science communication and women in science.

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5. Alex Wild (@Myrmecos): A prominent wildlife and insect photographer, his feed will bombard you with out of this world, up-close shots of insects. Be prepared for lots of ants and spiders!

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6. Real Scientists (@realscientists): As the name implies, this Twitter account contains real scientists who alternate weekly to bring you various content. Check the info box and picture to identify the weekly scientist. Great account for getting answers to questions!

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What other account do you suggest for getting started? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me!