This Week’s Reads: Communicating about Science

Happy Holidays, all! I apologize for my few months of silence, and my excuses include learning a new role at the New England Museum Association, where I am the new Director of Engagement, running an annual conference, and being out of the country on my honeymoon (reflections on traveling in Japan and lessons I gained there for American museums to come!).

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However, I’m back with a set of interesting reads regarding how better to communicate about science topics with self-identified “non-scientists.”  The Discovery Museums in Acton, which was one of the places that gave me my start in the museum field, has a fabulous fellowship program for scientists and engineers, so when I see examples of great science communication I get warm fuzzy feelings all over.

Here are some cool reads about communication, science, and scientists speaking up:

“Talking Evolution: The challenge of influenza” – What does “flu season” mean to you? How much do you know about why you’re supposed to get a new flu shot every winter, and why does it sometimes seem not to work? This is the first post of two talking about the flu, how and why we get sick, the historical context of the 1918 flu epidemic, and how viruses mutate, from the always awesome National Geographic Education blog.

“A massive global study finds girls are comprehensively better than boys at solving problems together” – A fascinating summary of a test that looks at lots and lots of factors to student success and skill building, and which shows the importance of social skills (communication!) in effective problem solving (a key part of science & engineering).

“Helping students communicate science beyond the classroom “- Sounds like an awesome class that other colleges should be using as a model.  And then collaborating with their local museums to provide their students with public speaking experience!

“Why are paleontologists suing the Trump administration?” – Politics + dinosaurs (and a bunch of other really interesting info on national monuments!).  Also an amazing breakdown from the folks at National Geographic Education.

“The Illustrated History of How Sugar Conquered the World” – History and science and social history and medicine and world domination and I’m baking Christmas cookies this weekend anyway.

I am not a zombie, but I do love brains.

Every now and then, a blog named Brain Popcorn needs a post about fun, entertaining, and awesome brains.

Actual Science Stuff


This 3D interactive lets you explore the ‘neighborhoods’ where certain word associations live.

National Geographic Education blog does it again! Check out their post exploring new brain science, including a ‘brain atlas’ that maps out where the meanings of words are stored in your brain and some of the questions it raises for further study.

Then, make your own 3D paper brain map with a free downloadable paper craft from soilshop.

The Artsy Stuff

The artist J Sayuri makes watercolor paintings of brain cross-sections from many species (mostly mammalian).


Stuff and Nonsense

Anyone need a thinking cap?

crochet brain

Downloadable crochet pattern from CandyPopCreations on Etsy, link above.

Fill your brains with books

brain bookends

Brain bookends on Uncommon Goods, link above.

Needs more memory.


Somewhere, the Enterprise NCC-1701 computer is saying “Working…” Link above.

This Week’s Museum Reads: Multi-Sensory Activation

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This is your brain on art (and food!):

The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. “That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said. “It resonates in the shape of your mind.”

Storytelling and STEM:


“When you can call a line of code a spell, then you are getting somewhere,” Fruchter said. After all, isn’t computer code basically modern magic?

Fingertips to fossils or the Mona Lisa’s face:

Beyond their beauty, fossils are also physical objects, with heft and depth, contours and textures. These qualities are not easily conveyed across the Internet, which tends to resolve on screens, brightly colored and flat.

A Smattering of Science Poetry

Collage by Serena Epstein, click for source

“Prufrock” Collage by Serena Epstein, click for source

In high school I had a chemistry teacher who had once taught literature, and he had a tendency to quote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at inexplicable times (usually when despairing over the state of our latest test grades).  I still hear “I grow old, I grow old,  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled and walk along the beach” in his voice, in fact, and while I learned to love poetry long before sophomore chemistry, I think he’d be pleased that science and poetry have such an unbreakable covalent bond in my brain.

If you have a hankering for the poetry of the universe, the folks over at Brain Pickings have a great assortment for you, including the first poem to be published in a scientific journal, 30 Days of Quantum Poetry, Diane Ackerman’s poems of the planets, and more.

From Quantum Poetry by Joanna Tilsley

From Quantum Poetry by Joanna Tilsley

And if you’re looking for science poetry that works in a classroom, I highly recommend the humorous stylings of Doug Florian, the thoughtful works of Joyce Sidman (who has some great teacher resources on her author page!), and the beautiful compilation The Tree That Time Built, with works from a wide variety of poets on an assortment of natural themes and CD included so you can appreciate the poems read aloud.

Do you have a favorite science poet?

From Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman

From Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, an exploration of the colors of seasons

Mindboggling Museum Resources Online

Beware, curious one, for the internet hath no bottom!

Beware, curious one, for the internet hath no bottom!

It is always exciting to see what museums are up to when it comes to making their collections and expertise available regardless of geography or gate fee.  Here are a few cool resources I’ve come across recently that are great for the teacher, writer, or perpetually curious mind:

British Library – The Romantics and Victorians – Primary and secondary sources (letters, articles, films, teachers’ notes and more), and thematic explorations of 22 authors of the Romantic and Victorian periods (roughly Jane Austen through Thomas Hardy) represented in the British Library collections.  (Rather makes me want to reread AS Byatt’s Possession…)

Metropolitan Museum of Art Back Catalogue – Catalogues, bulletins, online publications, and educator resources both current and archived from previous exhibitions and collection highlights, lots with full text, etc, readable online or downloadable in PDF.  And, for that matter, the Met’s Online Collection is downright jaw-dropping too.

NPR’s new Education blog – went straight to my RSS feed the day it launched, and I’m watching where it goes with great interest!

Source sadly defunct.  If you know how to credit this image creator, please let me know!

Source sadly defunct. If you know how to credit this image creator, please let me know!

And a few perennial favorites always worth a second (or sixtieth) look:

Exploratorium Learning Tools – Their set of podcasts, teacher resources, and activities to try at home or in the classroom is always good for a delve, and the folks in the Tinkering Studio have a great maker-centric set of engineering and design projects too.

Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge – Always a new bunch of lesson plans, and a very easy to navigate guide to the (relatively new) national arts curriculum standards, very helpful!  I for one was thrilled to see a lesson plan on Trees in Nature and Art that I can add to my resources for Branching Out.

Paws Up for a Good Book!

"It's Common Knowledge" by Rune Guneriussen, 2009

“It’s Common Knowledge” by Rune Guneriussen, 2009

One of the perks of my job is that each new exhibition that comes through the museum gives me an excuse to read and/or research something new.  I’ve come across a number of fascinating and occasionally hilarious books during the planning of Beyond Human (opening in October), and I’ve blogged about some of my favorites over on PEM’s Connected. Find reviews of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for kids and adults, from haiku cats to people who fly with whooping cranes.

Check it out and let me know if you have any suggestions for other artist/animal-related good reads!

Museuming in the Maritimes

The author on the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, NS

The author on the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, NS

“Look at that sea, girls–all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Mine is a traveling family.  As often as I say I grew up in museums, so too did I grow up in national parks, historic houses, cathedrals, theaters, and the luggage-piled backseat-turned-X-wing of whatever the family car was at the time.

These days, travel for me is often a busman’s holiday–I still go to museums for fun, but end up thinking about more than merely the exhibits’ contents.  (Ask me about an exhibit while I’m still in it and I’m as likely to talk about label copy, lighting design and interpretive choices as ‘gee, what a cool patent model’ or ‘I never knew that about tapestry cartoons.’)

This summer’s trip was two weeks in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.  Compared to a trip to Florence or Washington DC, this trip was a lot more about natural beauty (scads of it!) and appreciating quieter, more localized traditions of artisans, architecture, and histories than Smithsonians and Uffizis.  That said, there were still a number of great (and small!) museum moments to share.

 Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, NS

I am one of the happiest versions of myself when on boats, so an afternoon in the Halifax Maritime Museum put plenty of wind in my proverbial sails.  The museum is ambitious, covering many aspects of humanity’s connections and fascinations with the water, spanning many periods and significant points in history, including remarkably heartbreaking and well-done coverage of the Halifax explosion and the Titanic rescue and recovery attempts.  They made a lot of consistent and interesting interpretive choices in those two exhibits in particular, placing the focus less on finding out  who was to blame, and more on the human reaction to the tragedy: rescue, recovery, rebuilding.

Other galleries have clearly not been updated in a while.  For instance, the Age of Sail gallery (a favorite era of mine) still featured a lot of mismatched typewritten labels, which admittedly had a charm of their own when paired with some of the hilarious products of an early tourist society (see below).

Sailors' valentines, guano bottle art, and a coconut shell decorative dish at the Maritime Museum, Halifax. Photo by the author.

Sailors’ valentines, guano bottle art, and a coconut shell decorative dish at the Maritime Museum, Halifax. Photo by the author.

Much as I enjoyed picking out my dream sailboat in the small sailcraft hall, or running my fingers over steel bolts like the ones used to connect Titanic’s hull-plates, and especially checking out the extensive and alarming exhibit of the many hundred shipwrecks that have taken place around Nova Scotia in recorded history, there were a few other museum moments on this trip that also deserve some attention.

Joggins Fossil Center and Cliffs, NS

In front of the Fossil Center, in the fog

In front of the Fossil Center, in the fog

This small (but very green-engineering) center packs a lot into its one exhibit hall.  It’s fairly text-heavy in some places, but the timeline, dioramas of the area at different times in its geologic past, and magnifier to examine the ‘fossil of the day’ are all well worth it, if you can even be bothered to spare some wonder after climbing down the cliff to check out the fossils themselves lying on the beach and embedded in the cliffside.  We were there just after the super-moon, when a new section of prehistoric tree trunk had just been uncovered by the unusually high tide, making us ‘practically the first people to see it in 300 million years!’ (Okay, so the tour guide was actually really instrumental in making this an awesome experience, and I’m a very jaded former tour guide myself!)


300 million year old fossils on the beach at Joggins. Photo by the author.

Citadel, Parks Canada, Halifax NS

We saw a *lot* of Parks Canada sites on this trip, and though there was an awful lot of the Halifax Citadel that seemed familiar (Castle Island in Boston, anyone?) the living history approach here was great.  Even after seeing a stadium full of bagpipers earlier in the week at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, watching these reenactors drill and hearing them play really made a difference in experiencing the fort.  At AAM this year there was a discussion at the “Real or Fake? Who Cares?” session about reenactors–but I am firmly in the camp of the pro-theatrics.  Seeing those bayonet drills made my quads hurt in sympathy in a way just hearing about it never would have.


Bayonet drills at the Halifax citadel. Photo by the author.

Louisbourg Fort, Louisbourg, NS

Speaking of living history, there’s nothing like chowing down on French toast in a jam-packed tavern in 98 degree heat with only a gigantic pewter spoon as an implement, wearing half a table cloth for a napkin tied around your neck.

Rubbing elbows with the lower class tavern patrons for lunch in Louisbourg.

Rubbing elbows with the lower class tavern patrons for lunch in Louisbourg.

Heat exhaustion made me wish for a little less of the historical accuracy, but this summer was the 300th anniversary of the founding of the fort at Louisbourg, and there was a lot of awesome stuff going on while we were there, including an archaeology fair.  Parks Canada staff were on hand to talk about the marine archaeology in the harbor and were also actually doing a dig out on one of the further reaches of the point.  I also got to participate in a historic dance demonstration, which was also fun and would have been even better in air conditioning.

Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Parks Canada, Baddeck, NS

Even as someone who has worked in two different science museums, I hadn’t expected to have as much fun at the Alexander Graham Bell museum as I did.  I clued in a little when I discovered they had kites available in the lobby to go fly on the front lawn overlooking the lake (so beautiful!), and they had a (sadly deserted at the time) fairly well designed kids’ games and experimentation area right up front as well.

Kites in the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, NS.  Photo by author.

Kites in the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, NS. Photo by author.

I expected to hear the same info about the invention of the telephone that one gets in elementary school, but it turns out there was a lot more to the man, and also to his rather impressive wife and their circle of brainy, crazy, flight-mad friends.  Of particularly impressive impact in the lower exhibit hall were pieces of the original HD-4 record-setting hydrofoil boat, and also the full-size reconstruction.  This was also a site that, much like the Maritime Museum in Halifax, used film very well.

Reconstruction of the HD-4 hydrofoil craft.

Reconstruction of the HD-4 hydrofoil craft.

Green Gables, Parks Canada, Cavendish, PEI (and neighboring MacNeill Homestead and Silver Bush Museum)

Green Gables Heritage Place, the family farm that inspired Montgomery.

Green Gables Heritage Place, the family farm that inspired Montgomery.

Younger me felt a certain connection with Miss Anne Shirley of Green Gables, and current me enjoyed a day in ‘Anne Country’ thoroughly–though this time it was Lucy Maud Montgomery who felt like the kindred spirit.  Parks Canada has an interesting line to walk between presenting the truth of the history of the area and of LMM’s life with the expectations of legions of fans who are hoping to see as much Anne as Maud in the places described.  They do this quite cleverly by presenting within the house historically accurate furnishings, etc, and then layering in details recognizable to readers: in one room, for instance, there hangs a brown puffed-sleeve dress and a thoroughly cracked slate is casually tucked in a corner.  Out on the grounds, Anne’s names for places reign supreme (“The Haunted Wood” and “Lover’s Lane,”) but along the paths there are plaques of Montgomery’s personal reactions to these places, a trend which spills over to the nearby MacNeill homestead (where LMM grew up with her grandparents), and at Silver Bush, another family home and inspiration to Montgomery further down the road.

"Anne's Room" at Green Gables, complete with physical details from the first book's plot. Photo by the author.

“Anne’s Room” at Green Gables, complete with physical details from the first book’s plot. Photo by the author.

Quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery at the MacNeill Homestead in Cavendish. Photo by the author.

Quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery at the MacNeill Homestead in Cavendish. Photo by the author.

I could keep going, but I’d be likely to drop into rhapsodizing about being within feet of a pod of 20 pilot whales off the coast of Cape Breton, or being head-to-toe silty after a rapids ride thanks to the tidal bore on the Shubenacadie River, or even being driven to tears on back-to-back nights at the productions of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical and Evangeline: The Musical in Charlottetown.   Suffice to say that indoors, outdoors, in museums, and in the wild places, I found a lot of inspiration in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and I’ll definitely be going back.

Did you come across any interesting interpretive choices in a museum trip this summer?  I’m always looking for new additions to the travel list, so let me know!