Diving into a Coral Reef with Cambridge Communities

Written by Sara Steele, Museum Education Assistant, Museum of Zoology and Roz Wade, Learning Officer, Museum of Zoology.

This article was first published as a blog for University of Cambridge Museums, 1st June 2020.

Our audiences are full of creativity, something we see in bucketfuls at our events and workshops. We wanted to go further, and showcase audience creations and collaborations in our programming and displays.

As a Museum celebrating the wonders of the natural world, we have an innate desire to protect it. We have committed to embedding sustainability into our public programme : tackling the materials we use and considering the impacts of activity outputs. Not all craft day creations end up on the fridge, let alone as an item cherished for life. Could we bear the thought of our logo sitting atop a landfill?

With this focus on collaboration and sustainability in mind, and with the help of the artistic mind of volunteer Fanny Bara Moreau, we designed a summer activity with longevity at its core.

Every summer, the University of Cambridge Museums box up their wares and head out into the weather with themed activities to communities across the city with Cambridge City Council’s Big Weekend and Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPs). Summer 2019 had a tropical oceans theme at the Museum of Zoology, with the goal of inspiring conversations around the conservation of our coral reefs. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring audiences together through shared making and showcase their creations in our programmes and displays.

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Natural Science and the National Curriculum

Last week the UK Government released the new National Curriculum for England, which includes the following section about evolution for Year Six (10-11 year-olds):

Evolution and inheritance

Pupils should be taught to:

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  • recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Notes and guidance (non-statutory)

Building on what they learned about fossils in the topic on rocks in year 3, pupils should find out more about how living things on earth have changed over time. They should be introduced to the idea that characteristics are passed from parents to their offspring, for instance by considering different breeds of dogs, and what happens when, for example, labradors are crossed with poodles. They should also appreciate that variation in offspring over time can make animals more or less able to survive in particular environments, for example, by exploring how giraffes’ necks got longer, or the development of insulating fur on the arctic fox. Pupils might find out about the work of palaeontologists such as Mary Anning and about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed their ideas on evolution.

Note: at this stage, pupils are not expected to understand how genes and chromosomes work.

Pupils might work scientifically by: observing and raising questions about local animals and how they are adapted to their environment; comparing how some living things are adapted to survive in extreme conditions, for example, cactuses, penguins and camels. They might analyse the advantages and disadvantages of specific adaptations, such as being on 2 feet rather than 4, having a long or a short beak, having gills or lungs, tendrils on climbing plants, brightly coloured and scented flowers.

This provides a fantastic opportunity for natural science collections to support the new curriculum. If you are based in a museum, now would be a great time to start making contact with your Learning / Education departments to discuss how your collections might feed into their support of school groups; if you are in a smaller organisation, or have greater autonomy regarding your collection, you may want to start thinking about what you could do to support schools with your collections. For many of you this advice  will be as useful as an egg-sucking seminar for Grandmothers, but hopefully it will be useful for some.