Darwin Day Event Evolves for 2020

Sarah Schwartz | EAPS News
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fournier Lab members joined local students and Zoo New England for a scientific celebration.

On a cold Saturday in Roxbury, MA, the Tropical Forest enclosure at the Franklin Park Zoo was warm, humid, and buzzing with activity. Under the watchful eye of an eighth-grade science student (and several chattering tamarins), a man with a long white beard and a waistcoat collected dried beans with an improvised “finch beak” made of chopsticks.

“Charles Darwin” was at the Zoo to celebrate Darwin Day, a collaboration between Zoo New England, MIT, and the Haley Pilot School in Roslindale, MA. For months, eighth-graders in Paul Connor’s science classes prepared for the scientific occasion. Working with members of MIT EAPS Associate Professor Greg Fournier’s laboratory and other EAPS researchers, the students designed posters and activities to teach the public about evolution and natural selection. 

Connor said that the event presented his students with a challenge. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase their knowledge and teach both young and old members of the public about something they’ve recently begun to understand.” 

Finch beak variation was only one evolutionary curiosity on display for the day. Other projects featured giraffe neck selection, dog breed diversification, and camouflage in moths and walking stick insects. The students shared their evolutionary biology knowledge with Zoo visitors, guiding activities including sketching newly imagined dog breeds and searching for images of camouflaged insects. 

“It was awesome to have our younger visitors participating in these activities and learning about Darwin’s theories in a fun way,” said Caitlin Reardon, the Education Program Manager at Zoo New England.

This was the second Darwin Day celebration hosted at the Zoo (the inaugural event was held in 2018). But this was the first time that the event, which is sponsored by a National Science Foundation award, hosted its own namesake for the day. Mr. Darwin (channeled through University of Connecticut Professor Kenneth Noll) discussed his research with students and visitors, tried his hand at each evolutionary activity, and met a couple of the Zoo’s gorillas before concluding the event with a lecture on natural selection. He says he was delighted by the students. “They’re so engaged, they’re so enthusiastic...they’ve put in so much hard work, and they really understand what they’re talking about.” 

The MIT researchers who helped organize the event were similarly impressed with the outcome. “Seeing such incredible local talent that we have in our own city, and to give back to future students, is a unique gift that I don’t take for granted,” said Jack Payette, a senior research associate in the Fournier Lab. “Inspiring, motivating, and training the next generation of STEM professionals is definitely worth our collective time and efforts.”

Connor said Darwin Day gave his students a chance to expand their outlook on the world, and he hoped that the event “might just be the experience that sparks a lifetime of learning in science.” 

As for Mr. Darwin? 

“[The students’] enthusiasm is so infectious, it makes one feel young again,” he said. “It’s difficult, when you’re 211—I feel 175!”

Story Image: Members of the Fournier group and Connor's class with "Charles Darwin" at the Franklin Park Zoo. (Credit: courtesy of Sarah Schwartz)