Wednesday, December 14, 2011

AIM-UP!: Advancing the use of museum collections

This guest post was written by Dr. Joseph Cook (Univ. or New Mexico) and Dr. Eileen Lacy (UC Berkeley) on behalf of the Advancing Integration of Museums into Undergraduate Programs (AIM-UP!) Research Coordination Network.
AIM-UP! Logo Image

Those familiar with VertNet are well aware of the importance of museums and museum data for research. Perhaps less immediately apparent is the vital role that museum collections can play in undergraduate education. Even a quick glance at a few specimens is typically enough to generate numerous student questions regarding the nature of museum collections and the reasons for the vast organismal diversity captured by museum specimens. Now, with specimen data increasingly available online, the power of natural history collections to excite and to inform students extends to institutions that lack physical specimens.

To further the use of natural history collections in undergraduate education, curators from the Museum of Southwestern Biology (University of New Mexico), the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (UC Berkeley), the Museum of the North (University of Alaska), and the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Harvard University) have teamed up to create AIM-UP!, an NSF-sponsored network of museum scientists, collection specialists, undergraduate instructors, and artists dedicated to using museum data to promote undergraduate understanding of science.

In particular, AIM-UP! encourages undergraduate educators and students to explore the treasure trove of information available through natural history collections and their associated databases and data linkages. To facilitate this goal, the AIM-UP! network is working to develop new ways of incorporating the extensive archives and cyberinfrastructure of natural history museums into undergraduate education. These efforts focus on the following five themes:

  1. Integrative Inventories and Coevolving Communities: Exploring Complex Biotic Associations Across Space and Time
  2. Decoding Diversity: Making Sense of Geographic Variation
  3. Generating Genotypes: Evolutionary Dynamics of Genomes
  4. Fast Forward: Biotic Response to Climate Change
  5. Coevolving Communities and the Human Dimension

AIM-UP! rationale: Many natural history museums associated with academic institutions engage students in learning through specimen-based field projects and training opportunities related to the curatorial process. These experiences are often transformative, as witnessed by the large number of influential environmental and evolutionary biologists who cite their early exposure to natural history collections as pivotal to their career path. Such experiences, however, are necessarily limited to students at institutions with collections and, even then, the percentage of students who take advantage of such opportunities is often small.  How do we extend these formative experiences to reach a broader swath of the next generation of scientists?

By digitizing specimens, it has now become possible for anyone with access to the Internet to explore the vast reservoirs of information held in collections. What can students and instructors do with all the newly available data, images, recordings and other associated information? Can we encourage educators to use these increasingly comprehensive natural history databases to engage students in inquiry-based projects and activities? Will educational use of these databases stimulate greater public interest in our natural surroundings and in the dwindling wild places on earth? In short, how do we begin to incorporate the vast online digital databases now available into critically needed educational initiatives?

AIM-UP! is addressing these questions through the development of educational modules that build upon natural history collections and associated databases to make such information accessible to instructors in multiple biological disciplines, including those (e.g., developmental biology, behavior, physiology, and cellular biology) that may not typically use museum collections. The modules provide inquiry-based learning experiences for undergraduates (including students in AP High School Biology Courses) that are built upon the informatics tools and natural history specimen databases now readily accessible online e.g., VertNet, GenBank, BerkeleyMapper, MorphBank).

A few examples of educational modules already developed (or currently in progress) include:

  • Getting Started With On-Line Specimen Databases
  • Climate Change—Sierras, Great Lakes
  • Geographic Variation in Bird Song Dialects
  • Virtual Herbaria
  • GenBank & Museum Specimens: phylogeny and phylogeography

AIM-UP! goals: By integrating our expertise and experiences with university-based museums, we seek to greatly advance traditional and emerging fields that could use museum collections. Inclusion of participants from federal agencies, large free-standing museums, and leading educators from Latin America are ensuring wider dissemination of our educational products.

Upcoming activities: In Spring 2012, AIM-UP! will present a semester-long seminar exploring Geographic Variation and will include a series of 2-day workshops and a cross-listed course with the Art and Ecology Program and Biology Department at the University of New Mexico.  This course will be broadcast to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California Berkeley, and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

To learn more about AIM-UP! or the upcoming seminar, visit