03. Informal Ed and Why
My research focuses on using informal education to improve people's conceptualization of concepts in deep time. There are three types of education that get talked about: formal, informal, and nonformal. Formal education is curriculum driven, pretty much anything you run into in school in any shape or form. There are fixed expected outcomes, and the material is designed to convey and test that knowledge. Nonformal is similar, in that there may be desired outcomes and purpose built material, but the medium in which it is conveyed is not so formal. The best examples of this sort of thing would be the scouting movement, or swim classes. You walk out knowing more, but there is not a formal degree or certification involved. Nonformal education, in terms of research, can often be rolled into formal or informal education.
Informal education is, for all intents and purposes, everything else where you might learn something. Going to a museum? Informal education. Walking in the woods and your friend tells you about what the types of trees look like? Informal education. Going on wikipedia to read about giraffes, informal education. So it sounds like I'm saying that my research is about everything and nothing. And it could be, if I let it. But instead I'm honing on on specific types of activities within the realm of informal ed (and a few in formal ed as well).
For my work with biodiversity and education, one of the best informal education environments is a natural history museum. In broad strokes, natural history museums typically cover anthropology, biodiversity, and geology as their major topics. When it comes to biodiversity, there are two major types of exhibits you'll encounter, those that have a bunch of taxidermed animals (almost assuredly vertebrates), and those that have dinosaurs.
Everyone loves dinosaurs. I loved dinosaurs when I was a kid, and pretty much anyone under the age of ten can rattle off the names of most dinosaurs. Something about ancient giant monster creatures is just fascinating to young minds. So it is no surprise that museums contribute huge amounts of space and resources to have exhibits with dinosaur skeletons, and pictures and cgi and all sorts of things. Kids gobble that stuff up, and most adults do too.
But let me ask you something: What can you tell me about dinosaurs, besides what they're called, and if I'm lucky, what era they lived in? We love to look at dinosaurs, to see how big they are; the numerical problems that get in our way (as detailed in The Deep) of conceiving how big things are (I constantly forget how large horses are until I see one up close again) are even more viscerally problematic when the thing only exists in museums, and so the marvel of their size, or shape, or perceived ferociousness is enough to leave us feeling like we learned something, or experienced something, when all that's happened is we've gone "Oh, dinosaurs!".
Now, I'm not saying that natural history museums don't want you to learn something, or aren't trying. But the lure of the spectacle often distracts from the educational component. If a sign tells you the dinosaur is from the triassic, that doesn't mean anything unless you know when that time was, what came before and after, and what existed in those eras. Dinosaurs were around for a long time, and they weren't all extant simultaneously, nor did they go extinct all together at the K-Pg extinction event ~66 Ma ago; There have been many mass extinctions, and the dinosaurs took several hits before their end, or should I say, the dominance of avian dinosaurs and their descendants, and the ancestors of modern mammals. These big processes, the multiple mass extinctions, the diversification of new groups, the foothold certain taxa have managed to hold onto, the spread and fall and emergence of species of all shapes and sizes, are the processes that natural history museums want you to see, to learn about, to understand.
We, as people, perceive history as a series of unique narratives, with simple connections between them. Archduke Ferdinand is killed, and the Great War begins. Germany invades Poland, and World War II suddenly breaks out. Hasselhoff sings in Berlin, the wall falls. But any student of history, anyone who thinks about the moving pieces the complexity, recognizes that history is not a cluster of loosely connected events, but an elaborate, highly complex process. No one narrative occurs in isolation. Decades of alliances and treaties compounded with a the death of a public figure entangles a continent in war. The escalation of the military actions of a power-hungry madman finally brings the wary world into action. Economic struggles and populist outcry, along with countless other gears and cogs, ends the Soviet era, and in the uninformed eyes, the cold war (it continues to this day, if you have any appreciation for the sort of political and military jibing still going on between the relevant entities). Each event contributes to pieces of the causative agents of the next, the narratives have no true beginnings or ends, they are the conglomerate of human civilization in realtime. If you can start to observe how the pieces interact, how the so-called events come to be out of the ether, you begin to appreciate, if not the nuances and fine elements of the process, the mere existence of the process.
In The Deep I focus on individual narratives in evolution, as highlights of the underlying process. We as humans love narratives, but as scientists we are obsessed with processes. The narratives are man-made, to extract digestible pieces for our scale of time, but the processes do not care about our limitations. These are not processes that we believe or disbelieve, they are merely models that we hope to best understand along with the progression of time. We try to understand the nature of the medium in which the story is told, to better understand the making of the story.