MAPS Microbes on the Move: Exploring microbiomes through mobile museum experiences draws attention to microbial communities

by | Nov 24, 2019 | News | 0 comments

   MAPS Microbes on the Move: Exploring microbiomes through mobile museum experiences draws attention to microbial communities

 Microbes on the Move: Exploring microbiomes through mobile museum experiences is one of the museum community outreach initiatives supported by Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS). The program is directed by Dr. Teresa MacDonald, Associate Director for Public Programs at the KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum in collaboration with Dr. Ben Sikes, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas (KU), Associate Scientist for the Kansas Biological Survey, and KU MAPS Plant Research Team Leader.  The Microbes on the Move project was developed as a pop-up museum designed to travel across the state of Kansas and inform communities about the diversity of microorganisms as well as their role in natural global cycles. The program focuses on illustrating the world of microbes through museum collections and living microbial communities. The objectives of the project are to encourage elementary-age children and their families to learn about the major microbe groups; to understand and appreciate the diverse nature of microorganisms; to discover connections between microbes and their local environment; and to experience microbes as living organisms through dynamic displays.     

     Dr. MacDonald described the program as a “’drop-in event,’ so visitors can experience the facilitated activities and specimen displays in any order and for as long as they are interested.” The mobile museum includes 15 portable exhibits displaying 90 different species such as fungi, lichen, and stromatolites from the KU Natural History Museum’s microbe collections. It also features interactive activities such as ‘Microbe Minute’ cards that provide fun action labels and engaging stories connecting the displays to the microorganisms living in the participants’ local community. Other activities involve visitors collecting samples from the local environment to culture fungi that create living art; making mini-microbial gardens using Winogradsky columns; and using USB microscopes and Foldscopes to observe individual microorganisms. When asked what the most popular activity was, Dr. MacDonald responded, “Many are drawn to the specimen displays and their microbial connections, others opt to begin exploring items with microscopes or mixing mud and water with other materials to build microbial columns. The opportunity to collect and grow fungi to find out what lives on their face, shoe, or other surface is also intriguing – particularly for young visitors.” The program’s presentation is also flexible depending on the audience as Dr. MacDonald explained, “We added some activities highlighting some connections to the Wizard of Oz stories as part of our participation in OZtoberfest in Wamego.”

     The mobile museum’s presentation team consists of three education and outreach staff from the KU Natural History Museum, three student assistants as well as some occasional volunteers. When selecting locations to reach out to, Dr. MacDonald said her team considers the area’s “population size, community demographics, potential community partners like a public library or other site, free community events that fit with the microbe theme and coincide with the team’s availability, the proximity the area has to informal science education opportunities, and the distance the event is from KU Natural History Museum.” So far, the Microbes on the Move project has participated in four events. The first and second outreach events occurred in the spring of 2019. One through a collaboration with the public library in Chanute, KS and the other in conjunction with the KU Spencer Museum of Art’s “Day of Creativity.” The third and fourth events occurred in the fall of 2019. One was in collaboration with the Emporia Public Library, and the other was involved with the Wamego, KS OZtoberfest. So far, the program has traveled over 800 miles reaching close to 1000 visitors, and the response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive.

     Currently, the team is planning to participate in six more events with two scheduled in the spring of 2020 (April 10 in Independence, KS and May 9 in Topeka, KS). The Microbes on the Move project is funded through the summer of 2021.