Guest Post: “Morpholution”: An Authentic Youth Science Program

During January’s Digital Learning Week, the Museum explored a variety of new ways we could explore different participatory digital tools, different museum halls, and bring them together with museum educators and scientists, curators, and/or department heads. This is the first in a series of posts which share reflections through guest posts penned by different Museum staff involved with the programs.

“Morpholution”: A Youth Science Program
by Samara Rubinstein, Ph.D.

What is “Morpholution”? It’s more than just a cute word we coined to name our exciting new day-long program we first ran at the Museum last January. It’s important because it perfectly captures what they learned.

Let’s break it down: Morph refers to the variant physical forms of a plant or animal. These variants can be observed in the fossil record or in living species and, when understood as shared or unique traits, can provide evidence for the process of evolution. Thus: “Morpholution”, the word, and the program, was born.

Curator Nancy Simmons and Morphobank Research Assistant Suzann Goldberg show students variation in bat skulls and as well as the morphology of much larger species on display in the Sackler Educational Lab.

As a Biological Anthropologist at AMNH, I’ve been lucky enough to observe evidence of evolution every time I walk through the halls containing fossils and mammals. And as a Museum educator, it’s my privilege to teach students how to make their own observations and provide them with the tools necessary to carry out their own scientific investigations.

These tools come in many forms, with a morphology of their own (so to speak). Some of the tools scientists use are rulers and magnifying glasses. Some are statistical programs used to analyse large amounts of information. And some are databases that can be accessed from anywhere and used for a variety of investigations. Regardless of the tools used, scientists have been sharing their data and collaborating for the greater good since Darwin and Wallace exchanged letters sharing their novel observations about the origins of species.

Students observe the skulls of large mammalian specimens on display in the Sackler Educational Lab.

The Morpholution program was part of a larger digital learning week in which high school students engaged with digital tools to learn about and share AMNH content in new and innovative ways. Specifically, in Morpholution, Museum scientists and educators provided students with the digital tools scientists currently uses to research evolutionary relationships between species. For the first time students were given access to a cloud-based database called Morphobank, which AMNH scientists and others from around the world use to store, share, and work collaboratively on morphological data of living and extinct species.

Groups of students representing different research teams from around the world each visited a different mammal hall in the Museum. Their task was to record the presence or absence of specific traits or characters, either shared or unique, in different species or taxa. This data formed a matrix that the students would use as a record of their observations while in the halls. The research teams also carried iPads to take photographic evidence of their data. For instance, if a group recorded the presence of a grasping hand among gorillas in the African Mammals diorama, they would take a photo of this character in this species and record on their matrix as a “1” for present. Conversely, the same team visiting the lion diorama in the same hall would record the grasping hand character as “0” for absent and take a photo as evidence.

The matrix students used to record the presence or absence of specific traits among species found in the Hall of Biodiversity, AMNH. This shows the data they gathered that was then inputted into Morphobank.

Each group worked on different species but recorded data for the same characters. That way, once they were all back together they worked on computers in Morphobank to compile their data and accompanying photos into one large matrix representing the diversity of traits across the many species they investigated in the halls.

The diversity of traits across mammalian species is something AMNH curators, such as Dr. Nancy Simmons (who was generous enough to contribute to this program), and other scientists from all over the world study vigorously. Personally, as a Biological Anthropologist, I’ve focused on the diversity of traits, both morphological and genetic, in species closely related to humans, such as our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, and our closest extinct relative, the neanderthal. The study of shared and unique traits, whether morphological or genetic, forms the backbone of evolutionary biology and the study of the origins of species.  Darwin was the first to publish that evolution takes place through common descent with modification. In other words, all living things share a common ancestor and common traits, and then through adaptation to new environments, species slowly modify from their ancestral form to something unique or derived.

AMNH Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Dr. Nancy Simmons works with students as they input their own data into Morphobank.

Students in the Morpholution program were able to grasp this complex process by being put into the role of scientists and given the license to make their own observations, record their data, analyze it, and then share it collaboratively. Ultimately, the students’ combined data was used to build an evolutionary tree in a program called Mesquite in order to visualize the accuracy of their work. The tree showed all the species investigated by the students and proved to be mostly accurate, depicting groups of closely related species descended from a common ancestor. We discussed that based on the tree not being completely accurate, students might have to add more characters or how they should better communicate with the other teams (there were 4 teams), or even just how there can be difference of opinion between scientists.

The evolutionary tree that the students generated.

It was a proud moment for me to see the students’ work come together like this. At the beginning of the day, students predicted that the species found in each hall would inevitably cluster together in an evolutionary tree. In other words, they predicted species in the African Mammals hall would form a closely related cluster that was separate from the species in the Extinct Mammals hall or Asian Mammals halls. This is an understandable misconception that deserved testing. Of course, after compiling all of their data in Morphobank and then building their evolutionary tree, it became very clear that in fact all primates (whether Asian, African or extinct) formed a cluster, that all living elephants (African and Asian) formed a cluster with their closest extinct relative the woolly mammoth, and that all other closely related species clustered together. Evolutionary trees are trait driven, so seeing the tree the students generated proved that they had recorded the presence or absence of traits correctly between species and were able to visualize accurate evolutionary relationships.

This is a complex subject to grasp for anyone. But by doing it, the students were able to test their own misconceptions, form new hypotheses, and execute an experiment with verifiable results. And all in one day!

The evolutionary tree that the students generated from all of their data being projected at the end of the day. This tree showed that the students were able to visualize correct groupings of closely related species based on the morphological data they collected in the halls.

MorphoBank is an initiative funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in association with grants 0743309, 0827993, 0629959, 0629836, 0629811, EAR-0622359, DEB-9903964, and by the NOAA #NA04OAR4700191. The Morpholution project was also partially supported by NSF grant #DEB 0949859. Please click here for a press release about a recent study that used MorphoBank and resulted from a multi-year collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life program.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to Guest Post: “Morpholution”: An Authentic Youth Science Program

  1. Suzann says:

    This was a great workshop! The students were really engaged and it was exciting to see that this was possible, to teach such a grandiose concept on a smaller scale. I hope we can do this again soon!

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