Darwin Day Celebrations 2018

Maggie here –

The Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville have been running since 1997 and I was one of the leaders for the 2018 events. Darwin Day is all about celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin, and sharing that information with members of the UT campus as well as the surrounding community in Knoxville. For this year’s celebration we hosted a birthday party in collaboration with a McClung Museum Family Fun Day and had a special keynote lecture by Dr. Nizar Ibrahim.

Darwin and Wallace puppets that are used to advertise our Darwin Day events. These puppets are ~10 feet tall and our very wonderful friends wear them and walk around or even dance in them!

The birthday party had cake (of course!), games, crafts, a scavenger hunt, and a larger-than-life puppet of Charles Darwin. This year, we wanted to make sure that our activities were designed to be able to really teach about evolution. One of the activities was to test out different “finch beaks” to see how easy it was to pick up “food”. Our finch beaks consisted of paper clips, binder clips, and wooden skewers that were used to pick up different objects. For our younger guests this activity concluded with a quick talk about which beak they thought was easier to use and how that might translate to real beaks on birds. For our older guests we were able to bring in the ideas of adaptations, natural selection, and speciation during the wrap up conversation. We were also lucky enough to have one of the McClung Museum docents come in for the birthday party to lead a couple of tours through the Human Origins exhibit. This was the first time that these tours had been led during Darwin’s Birthday party and helped us engage in evolution discussions with our older guests. As with any large scale event, each year is a little different and we continually try to come up with new activities and try to reach new areas of the Knoxville community. While this birthday party was incredibly successful (we had ~260 people come!) we are already looking forward to next year and making the birthday party even more successful!

Leslie Chang Jantz, Curator of Education; Callie Bennet, Asst. Museum Educator; Emily Nield, Earth and Planetary Sciences graduate student all work to pass out cake and snacks to birthday party guests.

The evening lecture with Dr. Ibrahim was a rewarding excursion through the past. He has done significant work reconstructing the ecosystems of the Cretaceous of Morocco. He has primarily worked on uncovering an ancient river system community that was dominated by many types of predatory animals, namely Spinosaurus. There was a special underlying story on a German paleontologist, Ernst Stromer, who originally discovered Spinosaurus, but the specimens were lost during World War II in the bombing of Munich. Dr. Ibrahim was able to find another specimen of Spinosaurus in Morocco -his “needle in the Sahara”. He worked with local fossil hunters as well as a museum in Italy and was able to find more bones that belonged to Spinosaurus. There is not yet a complete skeleton of Spinosaurus.  However, with new technology researchers were able to 3D print the skeleton of Spinosaurus that tours museums today. Dr. Ibrahim’s talk impressed upon the audience that paleontology is hard work, but that collaboration with other scientists and foundations can ease that burden and make discoveries that much more rewarding. He also gave great insight on the challenges that come with doing field work in the Sahara desert and how terrifying it can be when two of your three vehicles break down in the middle of the desert! I think I’ll stick to local field work and museums…

Artists rendition of Spinosaurus in the Cretaceous river system of Morocco. Painting by Davide Bonadonna.

Putting on a large scale event like Darwin Day during the last year of my Master’s degree was very challenging-I often felt that if my days weren’t planned well or if I wasn’t working a month ahead of schedule that I wouldn’t be able to pull off writing my thesis and planning a birthday party and speaker visit! It was incredibly difficult, but doing outreach events like this are what makes science rewarding in my eyes. I have spent several years cultivating my scientific knowledge, but my passion (outside of research!) is doing outreach and talking to the communities that I work and live in about science and sharing my excitement about research with them. Darwin Day at UT changes and morphs every year based on who is leading it, but it continues to grow and continues to reach more people as the focus becomes more centered on reaching the communities surrounding the university. I also have to thank Jen Bauer, Joy Buongiorno, and Audrey Martin, as well as all of the other volunteers, for their help and support with executing this year’s Darwin Day events-these events could not have happened without the help of other amazing scientists who want to share science with the public!

Click here for an interview that discussses the Darwin Day program at UT.

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