Understanding the Public’s Understanding of Science

By Meagan Vakiener

September 09, 2017


The author, Meagan Vakiener, sharing her research at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

One of the reasons I chose to get my PhD at The George Washington University was the Human Paleobiology program’s emphasis on educational outreach. The Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology requires a Public Understanding of Science Internship for all doctoral students, an obligation that some view as an opportunity to work closely with an organization dedicated to presenting science to the public. This past spring, I completed this requirement by interning in the Education and Outreach Department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Inspiring people to better understand science and the natural world, this branch of the museum develops content for exhibits, school programs, and online resources. The main goal of my internship here was to develop activities and materials to communicate how gorilla skeletons are useful for research and conservation.

This was my third summer travelling to Rwanda to work on the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project, a collaborative research effort between the Rwandan Development Board’s Office of Tourism and Conservation, The George Washington University, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and NYU College of Dentistry. I’m often asked when I describe my research why I focus on hard tissues such as bones and teeth instead of studying the living gorillas. What most people do not realize though is that bones and teeth can tell a story all their own, one that often cannot be as well understood by simply watching the animal in its day-to-day life, especially in regards to disease and injuries that may not show clinical symptoms. The key purpose of my internship was therefore to convey what can be learned from these hard tissues about both individual gorillas and mountain gorillas as a species within a conservation context.

The process of developing these materials and activities ended up taking about six months, with six two-hour public testing sessions in various areas of the museum to understand where the activities would best conform with the exhibits around them. Through this progression, we found that a facilitated cart (hand-on activities set up at a cart with a volunteer leading the visitors through the activities) tested best in the Q?rius education space as it allowed visitors to spend the time necessary to understand all the learning goals we set out to accomplish. Within a ten-minute interaction time, the public routinely was able to walk away from our cart having learned the following:

1.     If a gorilla skull or mandible was male or female based on the size of the canines.

2.     That the morphology of the entire dental arcade is needed to determine diet, as large canines in gorillas have a more social purpose.

3.     The approximate age of an individual based on dental eruption and tooth wear.

4.     How teeth preserve an incremental record of their growth and development, and how this information can be used to estimate the age at death.

5.     How to combine the above learning goals to solve a forensic mystery (i.e., is it possible that a mystery mandible belongs to a specific gorilla individual based on sex and age of that material?)

Our next steps now involve seeking approval to use some of the gorilla material in Rwanda to fine tune these activities with interesting stories from specific gorillas. I spent part of my summer engaging in discussions to have part of this facilitated cart integrated into the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s Karisoke Research Center museum located in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Overall, it has been intellectually stimulating to experience the challenges and advantages of working in a high profile, internationally recognized institution with public education as a main priority. Through many meetings and testing sessions, I have developed science communication techniques beyond speaking with fellow academics. Being able to better communicate the importance of science to the public is an immeasurably valuable skill to develop, one that will become ever more important with the current changing political climate of our country.