Sink your teeth into evolution

9th December 2011 at 00:00
A new workshop for secondary pupils at the National Museum of Scotland is a roaring success, writes Douglas Blane

There is a mystery about the fierce predators from Earth's past, once known as sabre-toothed tigers, Andrew Kitchener tells the Whitburn Academy fifth-years in the Survival Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. "We don't know how they killed their prey.

"Teeth from sabre-toothed cats have been found in animal skulls, so we know they were quite fragile. If they'd tried to use them like tigers they would have snapped off."

Several species evolved the distinctively curved and elongated canines, explains the museum's principal curator of vertebrates, indicating the skulls of some on the first floor of the newly refurbished museum. But none belonged to the tiger family. "So `sabre-toothed cats' is a better name," he says.

"What if one of their teeth did snap off," asks Sarah Meek, "would it grow back?"

"I'm afraid not," Mr Kitchener says. "But we think they might have looked after each other. We can reconstruct some social behaviour by looking at the bones. So maybe some managed to stay alive if they lost their teeth."

Spotlight on Evolution is a new workshop for secondary pupils, which combines the museum's enhanced classroom spaces and redesigned displays with modern technology and teaching methods. The three-hour session begins on computers in the classroom, where two of the newly-enhanced education team - Gillian MacNee and Nicki Bray - take pupils through first steps in podcasting.

There is a fair bit to learn, both technically, using the Audacity software, and creatively, in producing a well-structured podcast that conveys new knowledge while also sounding pleasant and professional.

The added value of learning at the museum is even more apparent after the first hour, when a guided tour by Mr Kitchener opens windows onto Earth's past. The pupils' job is to learn as much as possible from the curator, carry out independent research in groups, then prepare interview questions, record the answers and create a podcast.

"This remarkable adaptation has arisen lots of times," Mr Kitchener tells them, indicating four skulls with long curved canines but little else in common. "You might like to think and do some research on why - and on why sabre-tooths are all extinct."

While textbooks give an impression of certainty, this guided tour is showing the pupils that exploring the past is a creative activity. "You often see reconstructions of what sabre-toothed cats and other extinct animals looked like," Mr Kitchener says. "How do you think we know that?"

"You can look at where they lived," suggests Teri Bigham. "You can think about its habitat so it would blend in."

It's a good answer, says Mr Kitchener. "We can't know for sure. So we use judgment. Cats that live in open habitats, like lions, often have uniform coats. Cats that live in forests have spots and stripes, so they can disappear in the dappled light that comes through the trees."

Back in the museum's classroom, it's group research time for the pupils in preparation for recording their interviews. They have studied evolution as part of Higher biology, says teacher Beverley Jessiman. But not like this. "Creating podcasts is a really nice way to explore the topic and broaden their educational experience.

"It's getting them out of the classroom and looking beyond traditional teaching methods. A lot of them will download podcasts at home, so it's making science relevant."

It also seems to be making it memorable. "I found it interesting that there were different sabre-toothed cats and evolutionary paths," says Teri.

The toughest part was thinking up good questions to put to the curator for the podcast, says pupil Nicole Jenkins. "We got a vast amount of information. It was hard to make sure they were open questions."

A few of the questions were unexpected, says Mr Kitchener. "But I would be happy to do it again. It is satisfying to find they were listening and understood what you were saying. That's the first time we've done this workshop. I think we got it right."

For more details, visit bit.lyu3tBpq

A new species of workshop

Since the National Museum of Scotland's refurbishment there are now two studios and one seminar room dedicated to schools.

"They are used all day, every day," says learning officer Pamela Robertson.

"Traditionally we've been seen by schools as a place to learn about history, but we've now got these wonderful science collections on display, and we're offering a range of secondary workshops, right across the curriculum."

Species reintroduction is a hot topic with a new workshop, she says. "We look at reintroducing white-tailed eagles, as well as the beaver and the wolf. Children study the issues and present their thinking."

Schools are beginning to learn how relevant the museum's collections now are to the secondary curriculum, she says.

"We have a new workshop on DNA. That's an exciting one not in the printed programme. We are talking to teachers all the time, and adding workshops in response to what they're looking for."

Programmes for secondary and primary school workshops can be downloaded. But to get the most up-to-date information, teachers can ask to receive an emailed newsletter, which tells them all about new exhibitions, CPD for teachers and workshops for pupils.

Other new secondary school workshops include: Digital Fashion Photography, Exploring Evidence, Supermassive Space, Dramatic Design and Pacific Dance Adventure. aspxschools@

0131 247 4041.

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