Evolutionary education: An approach set in stone?

By Justine Alford

Museum Front

  • Earth Science teachers need help in finding digital resources for palaeontology lessons
  • As a solution, a new educational website will bring together the digital research catalogues of museums worldwide
  • The innovative project will create a virtual museum to display digital fossils
  • This online museum will appear and function like a computer game

In a bid to help teach pupils about the evolution of life on Earth, a pioneering new project is collating digital versions of fossils from all around the world, displaying them in an interactive and informative online “computer game museum.”

The Virtual Natural History Museum, a project which is being led by a team of palaeontology experts at the University of Bristol, will provide a unique resource to teachers – offering digital access to specimens rarely seen outside of academia.

Its creation follows a request from the UK’s Earth Sciences Teachers’ Association, which asked professional palaeontologists for help in collecting multimedia resources to help illustrate their lessons.

The request was picked up by Palaeocast, a palaeontology podcast operating out of the University of Bristol. They’ve attracted funding from The Palaeontological Association and the Geologists’ Association and are crowdfunding to cover the remaining costs.

PhD student and show founder Dave Marshall said: “We deal with palaeontological multimedia, so when we first saw the letter from the teachers, we knew there was something Palaeocast could do to help. We conceived a website that collates the fossil multimedia already available online and presents it under relevant points of the national curriculum.”

This website will primarily rely on the online research catalogues that museums produce for academics, bringing them together in an easily-accessible way.

Dave explained: “Many museums have digitised large parts of their collections and made them available to the scientific community. Unfortunately, they don’t publicise these catalogues to the public, nor are they presented with any sort of engaging interface; they’re just a gallery of specimen numbers and pictures.

“We wanted our website to be more than points from the national curriculum with pictures underneath, so we asked ourselves, what’s the best way to display fossils? The answer is of course a museum. We’re therefore building a digital museum for these digital fossils, putting the world’s fossil collections into the hands of teachers, students and anyone with access to a computer.”

The user-interface of this virtual museum is set to appear and function exactly like a computer game; allowing users to explore the collections using an avatar, just as you would do in real life.

While produced for a specific educational purpose, the Virtual Natural History Museum will allow for whole collections to be publically displayed for the first time.

The fossil collections of the National Geological Repository are the second-largest in the UK, but they have no public exhibition. Even large museums, such as the Natural History Museum in London, only display a fraction of their specimens.

The Virtual Natural History Museum will be able to provide a public front for those museums without displays and offers the option to exhibit fragile specimens without them needing to leave the collection stores.

The project has already been supported by numerous museums as well as educational and academic associations, including the Earth Science Teachers’ Association and the National Geological Repository.

Please support generously on the Walacea crowdfunding page.

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