Science in Action: The Field Museum Discovery Squad

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Sue, the largest, best preserved T.Rex specimen ever discovered, looks down over the main concourse of Chicago's Field Museum. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Standing in Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum, volunteer Sarah Tulga holds out a bone to two girls with their mother. Sarah is giving her usual spiel about T. rex and their tiny arms. The bone in her hands is a replica of the forearm of the in-house T. rex extraordinaire, Sue. The kids gingerly touch the arm bone and compare it to their own arms. They are surprised to find that Sue’s arm is no bigger than theirs. What did Sue use those teeny arms for?

Just as her kids are about to give up guessing, their mother comes to their rescue. She proclaims that Sue’s tiny arms are used for comic relief. This way, Sue can paralyze her prey (including her kids, she added) and have an easy dinner. Not to be outdone, her kids tuck in their arms and hold their hands up, mimicking the stance of a voracious T. rex. Their comical attempt paralyzes their mother instantly. The younger girl roars loudly and swipes at her mum, clearly getting her catch of the day. Laughter reverberates through the main museum hall until I am certain Sue wants to turn and stare.

Many people are aware that Tyrannosaurus Rex has small arms but have you seen up-close how small one really is? Just like this family, now you can, at Chicago’s Field Museum with the Discovery Squad.

Along with Sarah and a host of other museum enthusiasts, I volunteer with The Discovery Squad. We roam the museum, playing host to immersive, interactive, roaming carts.  The carts are designed to allow visitors to touch, feel and even smell specimens, models, and molds -- bringing the collection within arm’s reach.

Hands-on specimen explorations like the Discovery Squad carts are fairly unique experiences for a Natural History Museum. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to even stick my head close to the display case glass. This rarefied museum habit runs deep in many people: at the Field, I often saw kids rushing over to a cart while their parents warn them not to touch anything. But kids never fail to light up when we allow them to touch real objects. In fact, it’s the adults who can be hard to convince to get their hands dirty. Adult visitors often take a little coaxing and encouraging from us before touching the specimens. It’s like being in a candy store and being allowed to take a candy out of every jar - the stuff of dreams.

Classifying sharks by their teeth, petting chipmunk skins, looking at bones of a cleared and stained fish, comparing the molars of an African elephant to a beaver - these are just some of ways you can get hands-on with the museum collection and the Discovery Squad. You can even feast your eyes on the state fossil, the Tully monster.

This sheer enormity of the collection – over 30 million specimens-  meant that less than one percent is ever on display. Both kids and adults alike always have something new to learn every visit. Most of the happenings at a Natural History Museum like the Field happen behind the scenes. The Discovery Squad gives you “a peek behind the curtain and learn about the collections” of the Field Museum.

The act of interacting intimately with real objects is a form of inquiry-based learning. This active approach has been shown to make science is more memorable. Seeing that you have a longer forearm than Sue – or even claim to out arm-wrestle her – are moments when the collections, even long-dead fossils, truly come alive for families

When you observe, explore and make conjectures based on the evidence in front of you, (even hypotheses as wild as the lions), you are doing exactly what scientists of all stripes are doing every day. This is why Sarah is such a strong advocate for asking visitors questions over lecturing them. In this safe space, you build new understanding based both on the knowledge you bring in the door and through conversations with and stories from volunteers like Sarah and me.

Once, I was volunteering on a Discovery Squad cart full of skull specimens.  I spoke with a little girl, pointing out specific features on a lion skull that marks it as a carnivore – its sharp teeth for ripping out meat, the forward facing telescopic eyes, and the large sagittal crest for jaw muscles. I asked her to point out another carnivore on the cart and she pointed immediately to the white-spotted hyena skull.  She even managed to spot the littlest carnivore on display, the sea otter! Now that she was on a roll, she wanted to roam around the Field to study all the specimens together. For me, the most memorable moment was when she declared loudly to everyone around her: “I now love science.”

Moments like that are part of why I enjoy volunteering at the Field Museum. I get to engage with people of all ages and from all over the world (and even practicing my rusty Mandarin), and I get to share real science. I have learned tons about the museum and its collections in the process, too. I can now tell you all about how we clear and stain specimens in English (pretty well) and Mandarin (somewhat). And, if I do my job well, visitors I have met on my museum rounds can tell you the reasons why.

This post was written with the help of Aimee Davis, Marcy Krause and Allison Engel from the Field Museum.

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