The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Classing Up Scientific Outreach

I’ve loved teaching since I was a middle school science teacher all the way back in 2005 (oh dear!). But, as a Penn State graduate student, it can be tough to find ways to bring science to kids and even more difficult to get experience teaching a class at the university level. To reach kids with cool science education opportunities, many graduate students, including me, build outreach activities for different venues (which I’ve discussed on this blog before). But is there a way to meet both these goals, doing community outreach and gaining experience with more formal teaching, at the same time? In short, yes!

About a year ago, I, and two friends who are also Biology graduate students, Allison Lewis and Zach Fuller, were being stereotypical graduate students and lamenting our lots in life. We’re supposed to be educators but the University won’t let us teach classes to get experience! Are we spending all this time doing outreach for nothing? Will anyone use our materials again? Why are we so whiny? Fortunately, bewailing the status quo can lead to good things if you get an idea for positive change. Zach, Allison, and I decided that the solution was to incorporate our outreach experiences into a class that would facilitate other students in conducting their own outreach from their own experience.

We first went to work convincing the University to actually let us teach a class. It is harder than you might think to actually teach at a university: there are many hidden requirements I never knew about and lots and lots of paperwork. To cut through this red tape rehash, I’ll finish by saying that we A) went all the way to the Dean to get permission to teach an outreach class (with a major assist from some supportive Biology faculty) and B) got a workable budget, a room to host the class, and a spot with the University Registrar. At long last, BIOL 497F, Science Outreach and Communication, a 1 credit class was born!


The snazzy flyer for our class that we blitzed PSU with.

Of course, we also needed actual students for our class. We made up flyers and became very familiar with the distribution of bulletin boards in University Park. We spammed listservs and spammed them again. We asked our friends for recommendations, got the emails of incoming students before they were on campus, and plied professors for the emails of students they would recommend to take our class. By August, we had 13 enrolled students: 10 graduate and 3 undergrads. These students came into the class with a mix of backgrounds including neuroscience, biology, entomology, anthropology and ecology.

The first portion of our class focused on teaching a core set of skills: how to tailor activities to different age levels and audiences, how to design and plan effective outreach, and how to evaluate learning. We collaborated with professional educators from different University entities, including Mike Zeman from the Eberly College of Science Outreach Office and Larkin Hood from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to bring their expertise to our class (thanks guys!). Our students worked in small groups to build their own lesson plans for an initial outreach activity and then presented those to the rest of the class for feedback. We worked as a group to provide constructive criticism and refine these activities to increase their focus and effectiveness. In the midst of this, we included several classes focused on other important science communication topics including writing for a general audience, the importance of outreach in grant-writing, and a panel discussion with professional scientists who are successfully incorporating outreach into their research and careers.

At last, after much practice, cutting out of small paper shapes, tasting starbursts, and wrangling stick insects, the first outreach program (and major grade!) of the class arrived on November 10th as our students presented their own outreach activities at Exploration U at the Bellefonte Area High School. Exploration U is a biannual science fair run by the Science Outreach Office in which Penn State scientists and community groups present short, interesting activities about their research or other scientific topics for community children and their parents (hundreds of them at each event!). Some of the more dramatic activities include an inflatable planetarium, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, a snake handling exhibit (not venomous ones!) and battling robots. Five groups from our class spent the evening discussing various aspects of science with the crowds.


Kevin and Arash showing off their Bug-O-Vision activity.

Have you ever wondered how another organism experiences the world? Arash Maleki and Kevin Cloonan taught attendees how insects perceive the world differently from humans. Using colored glasses, they described how insects see different parts of the spectrum from humans and how insects may see “secret messages” such as targets or directional signals on flowers that are not visible to our naked eyes.

NC Botanical Gardens (1)

Check out lots of other awesome pics of how flowers look to different organisms at Dr. Klaus Schmitt’s blog.

Cam Venable, Emilia Sola-Gracia, and David Stupski addressed the question of how plants are found everywhere when they don’t get up and walk (or fly or swim) like animals do. The answer is, of course, that their seeds do move, including via wind, water, and dispersal by animals. The kids loved an activity where they were able to make their own seed (with the aid of a little Velcro) and attempt to disperse it by tossing onto a passing fuzzy felt dog.


Emilia shows a youngling the best way to “disperse” the seed he’s just constructed.

Styles Smith, Kokila Shankar, and Christian John created an activity that emphasized how animals’ limbs are adapted for the environments that they inhabit. Kids worked to match the skeletal structure of limbs to the animals that used them and then designed their own animals with different types of limbs. At the end of the activity, kids drew the habitat that their animal creations lived in and explained how their creatures were adapted to it.


Styles describes how to go about designing an organism while a participant and her brainy younger brother listen.

Have you ever wondered why some folks just can’t eat their Brussel sprouts? Rebecca Coleman, Chloe Philip, and Chris Schmidt designed an activity explaining the heritability of taste, specifically focusing on why some are sensitive to bitterness (such as in those cursed sprouts) and others seem relatively immune. Kids and their parents tasted both sweet, sweet candy (Dum-dums) and a paper imbued with PTC, a chemical which tastes nastily bitter to a portion of the population. Chloe, Chris, and Becki used this experience as an entree to discuss how traits are coded for in our DNA and how these are passed between generations.


As Becki and Chloe explain how traits are inherited, these kids are really developing a taste for science.

Carolyn Trietsch and Sarah Shugrue focused on how insects are adapted for different environments via camouflage, which prevents unwanted attention from predators (or allows predators to set up ambushes for unsuspecting prey)! They created an activity for kids to match bugs to their natural backgrounds and find hidden, camouflaged insects, including several live Vietnamese stick insects (which fascinated adults as well as the kids)!


A young Darth Vader stays on the Light Side by gently petting a stick insect.

All in all, our class’ outreach night was successful as an educational experience both for the families who attended and the students in our class, who gained valuable experience. Moving forward, these students are designing and conducting their own independent outreach activities. Some lessons include: the use and importance of photography, including via drones (!), in biological research at State College High, demos of insect life cycles at Mount Nittany Middle School, and a scientist-in-the-classroom visit via Skype to a Philly elementary school to discuss how awesome ants are! We’re proud of the creativity and dedicated work that our students have put in over the semester and are excited to see them continue to do outreach in the future. For me, this class has provided great experience: in designing a class from the ground up, learning to navigate bureaucratic pitfalls, and co-teaching a class with two other dedicated instructors. It’s also been inspirational to see the impact that a small but dedicated group of students can have in advancing scientific education. Looking forward we hope to make this class a yearly offering in the College of Science to encourage a growing culture of scientific outreach in the graduate student community.

If you’re interested in seeing a syllabus for this class, here you go!


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Adult Outreach

As Chris explained in his latest blog post, the goals of scientific outreach are numerous. One such goal is simply to interest others in scientific research. This is fairly straightforward to accomplish with kids, and there are many great opportunities in place to interface with young adults. Like Science-U, there are numerous annual science outreach events established for K-12 aged kids.

A few years ago, some of the Langkilde Lab participated in WPSU’s Eventapalooza, where we discussed the biology and ecology of cats. As Chris mentioned, getting people over to your table when you don’t have flashy demos or robots can be a challenge. Our solution: arts and crafts! Kids made “whiskers” to learn about sensory mechanisms and crawled through a maze while blindfolded to test them out! We also had plenty of coloring pages and a matching game to see how well different wild cat species blend into their habitat.

brad helping

Brad helping a young adult into their whiskers!

Jenny explains how cats hear.

Jenny explains how cats hear.


My matching game demonstrates how cats blend into their habitat.

These types of events are great for kids, but there are fewer established opportunities to interact with members of the adult public. Scientific literacy—or at least interest—of adults is incredibly important, as adults utilize scientific information to make informed decisions about health and lifestyle. Additionally, adults can influence the outcome of science-related political issues. Science outreach for adults is thus quite essential, and something in which I have become very interested.

With this in mind, myself and a number of others from the Ecology Graduate Student Organization organized a Science Café series at a local bookstore.  At these events, two graduate students or faculty members present a five to ten minute Ted-Talk like presentation on a pertinent topic in ecology, such as invasive species or climate change. After each general, accessible presentation, the floor is opened for discussion with the audience. These discussions have proven quite fruitful, and we have received positive feedback about each of our events. Last spring, we held 3 Science Café events at Webster’s Bookstore Café in Downtown State College. At one of these events, I had the opportunity to present about stress with fellow grad student Lauren Chaby in an event entitled “Why is stress stressful? How animals and humans respond to challenges.”

Graduate Student Lauren Chaby discusses the consequences of stress. March 2014

Graduate Student Lauren Chaby discusses the consequences of stress. March 2014

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Moderator Andie Chan introduces graduate student speaker Danelle Laflower and Dr. Tomás Carlo, who spoke about Invasive Species in April 2014.

Following the success of last year’s series, we had two additional Science Café events earlier this year, and two more are forthcoming. If you are located in the State College area, I encourage you to attend! At our next Science Café (Wed March 18th at 6pm), Ecology graduate students Megan Keplar Schall and Will Miller will be discussing disease in wildlife and fisheries. This event is free and, of course, open to the public—bring your questions! More details are located below. Hope to see you there!


“Wild animals get sick too! Case studies from Pennsylvania fish and game species:”

  • Wednesday, March 18 from 6-7pm
  • Webster’s Bookstore, 133 E Beaver Ave, State College, PA 16801
  • No cover charge. Drinks and snacks can be purchased from Webster’s.
  • Suggest Parking: Pugh Street Parking Garage


Our final Science Café event this season will be on Wednesday April 8th at 6pm, investigating the topic of soils, roots, and nutrients (and why we should care about these things!). Follow the EGSO website for more information.

These events are a great way to communicate the kind of research happening at the university that the community might not otherwise know about. They also provide an informal environment in which to ask questions. We hope the Science Café series continues for years to come!



Outreach for the Stars

So what is outreach? Well, in one way, you’re participating in our outreach right now by reading this lab blog. We created this blog to be able to communicate the science (and other cool things) that happen in our lab to a wider audience (we have readers from 93 different countries!) and in a laid-back way. Scientific communication between scientists most commonly takes the form of formal journal articles as well as professional presentations and other meetings. However, these modes of communication can be quite technical, and they often are not very accessible to the general public. Conferences are expensive to attend and journal articles, even if you do find them with internet searches, are often locked away behind paywalls or require visiting a university library to access. While these are great ways for scientists to communicate among themselves, part of science’s mission is also to spread knowledge to non-scientists. There are many good reasons for this:

  • Scientific information is important for making informed decisions about subjects such as health, technology, and the environment.
  • In many countries, lots of scientific work is funded with taxpayer money, so it’s scientists’ jobs to communicate that back to the sponsors of their work.
  • Scientists want to be famous just like everybody else (well, maybe not…)
  • Science is fun and cool, and we’d like to inspire more people to be interested in it.

Outreach is a way of accomplishing these goals. It’s just the process of communicating science to non-scientists in understandable and relatable ways. Outreach takes many forms: small classes, visits to schools, newspaper or magazine articles, and one-on-one interactions. For herpetologists, outreach often happens at the times you might least expect; for instance when you happen to be tromping around a National Forest looking for lizards and a big dude holding a shotgun and wearing camo walks out from behind a tree and asks what you are doing. When this happens to me, I first focus on keeping my cool (out of long experience at this point) and then happily explain what I’m working on. Almost everyone I meet is interested in hearing about science if I can approach things in the right way. Science, is often inherently interesting, or may be connected to things people care about (like health) or that they have a general interest in (what the heck are those lizards I see all the time?). Most of these interactions are positive for both the scientist and the public. I may edge the hunter with the shotgun towards the opinion that maybe all rattlesnakes aren’t impending threats, or he might clue me in to a site chock full of fence lizards that would make a great study site. In addition to these types of interactions, technology has provided many new ways to reach out to audiences including blogs, social media sites, videos on Youtube, online classes, etc. Whether old school or cutting edge, I believe that outreach is an integral part of science (If you publish a paper and no one reads it, did your research matter?). It’s also usually quite fun and gratifying to talk to different people and discuss things that you are enthusiastic about. In this post (and a subsequent one by Gail), we’ll be discussing some of the ways that members of the Langkilde Lab have been conducting outreach and are looking to continue in the future!

One of the easiest ways for a young scientist to get on the outreach bandwagon is to work with people who are already doing it. Here at Penn State, the Eberly College of Science has a whole office devoted to scientific outreach that sets up community activities, after school programs, and summer science camps. I’ve worked with various grad students in the Biology Department to give programs at many of these events and design and implement new programs for others. Every spring and fall, we participate in Exploration U, a sort of science fair for students at local high schools that involves many Penn State researchers, labs, and student groups giving presentations based around their research.


Penn State Biology grad students showing off some marine specimens at an Exploration U event.

During my first Exploration U, I noticed that, while we (the Biology grad students) had lots of awesome biology stuff (samples of real corals, videos of SCUBA expeditions, light up bird-boards, and hand tools), we lacked the flashy demonstrations, things like explosions, robots, or ice cream treats (c’mon, that’s really just cheating…), to bring people over to our booth. I looked in the sample corner and noticed that we had a real specimen of a Giant Marine Isopod (Bathynomus giganteus)

Obviously the cuter one is on the right.

Obviously the cuter one is on the right.

These things are big (ours, Vanilla Iceopod, is over a foot long), closely related to the roly-polys (or woodlice) in your backyard, and really weird lookin’. I picked up the Tupperware with our preserved specimen, sat on the floor in front of our table, and called out “Who wants to see what I’ve got in this box?” in my best carnival barker voice. Welp, it turns out that kids love a good freak show, and I was happy to oblige. In the 2.5 years since, Vanilla Iceopod has become a staple of our Exploration U setup (click though pics to see yours truly). I’ve received all kinds of questions about Giant Isopods, and, as a result, have actually had to read about them and looked up lots of weird facts in the process (Best question: Can you eat them? Answer: Yes, apparently in some Asian island/coastal communities they are considered a delicacy).


Explaining how isopods use folded rami for breathing in deep sea environments.

So some of outreach may just be getting people in the door with a little flash or sizzle. But, in addition, we want to move beyond the perception of science as just a collection of cool facts and occasional explosions; we need a focus on some core ideas that we want to convey. As such, we’ve also worked to design custom programs for local groups, including after school science classes and the Expanding Your Horizons STEM fairs for middle school girls. We’ve created activities showing how different adaptations are favored in different environments, and how changes in those environments then lead to natural selection on organisms. One of these activities involves students acting as organisms with different feeding structures (plastic utensils) and seeing how many of different prey items (ping pong balls or paper worms) they could catch. With a limited food supply, some feeding structures were more favored than others depending on the prey, and if students weren’t able to secure enough food, their organism perished. Students gaining lots of food were able to reproduce (have another student share the same utensil), and passed their feeding adaptation on, emphasizing how certain adaptations can spread over generations. These forms of outreach can combine fun activities with real scientific ideas and provide a solid scientific background while also conveying the familiar “science is cool” message.


EYH participants as Spoonasauruses, Knifeopotamuses, and Forkadons seeing who can “eat” the most pongberries and paperworms.



Discussing the suitability of different feeding mechanisms in different environments during our Expanding Your Horizons activity.

This past Spring, I also had a chance to take the outreach show on the road by working at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. This festival was HUGE, with over 325,000 people visiting over four days in an enormous convention center…>2,300,000 ft2! As part of a group of six Biology graduate students, I helped design and present an activity that used iPads to look into how small variations in organisms can lead to larger changes over time. This activity used a custom iPad app programmed by Bio grad student Zach Fuller, and was very popular: we reached over 1,500 people during the course of the festival and had lots of great conversations.


The crowd gathered to participate in our activity at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Notice our spiffy lab coats signalling what a high class outreach team we are.


Talking about adaptation with John Urschel, Penn State’s Football’s Academic All-American (who got his Masters in Math while playing his senior year!)

My next big outreach project will (hopefully) come to fruition this fall. Along with Zach and Allison Lewis, two Bio grad students, I’m designing a class for undergraduate and grad students in Scientific Outreach and Communication. We’re working to build this class from the ground up, and are currently filling out all the paperwork, jumping through various hoops, and lining up guest speakers and activities for this class. It’s a great experience so far in being a teacher and going through all of the preparations necessary to design a new class, but I’m really excited to finally have the opportunity to teach independently! It’s even more exciting because the topic is something that I am passionate about. The class is going to be centered on working with students to design their own outreach activities based around their research and then conducting those activities throughout the semester. In addition, the administration in the College of Science is quite excited about this, because expanding outreach is part of their strategic plan. If all goes well, we’ll set up a continuing class that can be offered each year to support Penn State students learning how to present their research to many different types of audiences in lots of engaging ways.

In our next post, Gail will describe some of her exciting outreach experiences as well!