The Draw and Appeal of Virtual Gel Electrophoresis

As someone who has spent much time walking past gel boxes of various shapes and sizes, a gel electrophoresis kit is not the first item that would draw my attention in a room with touchable casts of hominid skulls. But a single gel box, to my surprise, drew the attention of visitors to the Sackler Educational Laboratory this past Sunday, where four of our student interns were facilitating the new interactive experience, CSN: Crime Scene Neanderthal for the first time.

Gel electrophoresisRight off the bat, one of the first things were learned this weekend was that visitors are drawn to equipment on a table, wanting to know what the gel rig was used for and how.

But that was not the only thing we learned. In fact we noticed several other interesting things:

    • Activities involving genetics were the most popular. In the fall program, the youth spent time listening and observing, not approaching, hall visitors and found that many people upon entering the hall turned right and headed for the section about fossils. Very few people it seemed turned left to learn about genetics. This weekend however, the interns noticed that most of the visitors they interacted with were drawn to the activities that focused on genetics. Perhaps the digital interactive and hands on activities that are part of CSN upped visitor’s interest in the topic. We will have to wait and see if this holds true as user testing continues through the beginning of June.
    • More likely to find a new Neanderthal Detective in the lab. The interns had a higher success rate of recruiting visitors to take on the role of a Neanderthal Detective if they met the visitors in the Lab than if they met them out in the Hall.
    • Communicating science is hard. The interns ended their shifts this weekend asking: “How do you explain gel electrophoresis and protein synthesis to an 8 year old?” And “What are the most important pieces of information to share with visitors of different ages to help them get the most out of each activity?” They walked away realizing some topics covered in CSN are more difficult to teach to the public than others. It will be exciting to see how their science communication skills develop!
    • Families with kids were particularly interested in the experience. The interns found that the majority of people interested in participating in the CSN experience were younger children and their families.

We are looking forward to seeing if these observations become trends or if we notice completely different things over the next couple of months!

Dressed in blue vests, and armed with iPads the CSN interns will be in the Hall of Human Origins and the Sackler Educational Lab on the weekends in April and Sundays in May and early June if you’d like to become a Neanderthal Detective for an afternoon and try out gel electrophoresis for yourself.

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