Teaching in the collections

Unlike the super heroes in popular movies, scientists don’t just wake up and suddenly have the power and knowledge of everything in their field. It takes tremendous work and studying for researchers or curators to get to where they are today. In the field of natural history, museums play a huge role in the establishment of a baseline of identification knowledge for students. The Ohio State University (OSU) students have the privilege of gaining hands-on-experience with the very species they may study in the future. The MBD provides a hands-on aspect to many of OSU’s “-ology” courses, with our teaching collections.

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What distinguishes a teaching collection from a scientific collection?

Scientific specimens hold valuable data. Typically, they will have a specific date or location when and where they were collected associated with them. Sometimes they may be the first described of their species, a state record, or from an expedition. These specimens are all unique and valuable to the scientific community. Therefore we tend to only use them for teaching when they are the only example available in our collection. Our goal is to make these scientific specimens last for centuries. If they are used for teaching and are handled regularly, they degrade quicker and may not be available for future research.

Specimens in a teaching collection typically do not have data associated with them. Instead, these specimens are chosen and prepared to be best representations of their species. Instead of having drawers with many individuals of the same species, specimens for a teaching collection are carefully chosen so that they represent a male and a female, a juvenile and an adult, winter and breeding plumage of a species. So if every specimen in a collection is individualistic and different looking why do our teaching collections only have a few representatives? The goal for a teaching collection is to show a general representation of a species. Students should be able to look at one or two specimens of a species, use what they have learned from those specimens, to identify living representations out in nature.

Who uses the teaching collections?

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The main value of a teaching collection is to further science education. The primary purpose of the OSU teaching is to educate OSU students. Courses such as Ohio Birds, Avian Wildlife Biology and Management, Mammalogy, and Herpetology use teaching specimens as hands-on tools to help students to become engaged in the classroom. Students also gain skills in understanding how natural history collections work. They have opportunities to contribute specimens to the collections, learn how skins are made, and learn the overall value of a collection. When not being used to educate OSU students, the teaching collection is also used for identification workshops at the museum, during tours, for outreach events, such as our annual Open House – coming up soon on April 22, 2017.



Stephanie Malinich, collection manager TetrapodsAbout the Author: Stephanie Malinich is Tetrapod Collection Manager at the Museum of Biological Diversity and research assistant in Dr. Andreas Chavez’ lab.


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Variety in a museum collection

While working in the collection or giving tours, I often find myself quoting Disney’s The Little Mermaid:

“Look at this stuff!
Isn’t it neat!
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?”

We have thousands of specimens, many of them multiples of the same species.  You may wonder what the value of having hundreds of examples of the same species is. What can we learn from multiple American Robins (Turdus migratorius) or Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that can’t be learned from just one?

To help answer this question let’s think of the collection as a library. And each species is a single book on a shelf. Each specimen represents an individual page within that book telling it’s own story of the what, when, who, where and why it lived it’s life. As a species begins to change over time we can show that process through the multiple individuals of a species in our collections. Our collections may never be complete but as you examine trays of species you learn the story of what makes that species unique.

Now when you look at the examples of our multiple specimen species trays, try to see if you can see how we get generic descriptions or illustrations of species. Also look at how different each individual looks when compared to others on the tray.

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Stephanie Malinich, collection manager Tetrapods

About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is Tetrapod Collection Manager at the Museum of Biological Diversity and research assistant in Dr. Andreas Chavez’ lab.


*** We would like to hear from you – please leave a comment ***