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Collaboration results in San Jose museum's mammoth exhibit

Sketch of a mammoth skeleton

Sketch of a mammoth skeleton for a Children's Discovery Museum exhibit.
In 2005, Roger Castillo was walking his dog along the Guadalupe River in San Jose, when he noticed something odd sticking out of the soil along the riverbank. His curiosity and recognition of the possible importance of his find led to a discovery that will soon have an extraordinary impact on the youth of San Jose. Roger's find turned out to be the skull and tusks of a Columbian mammoth, and from that serendipitous discovery and resulting excavation (see UCMP News October 2005) arose a collaboration among the UCMP, the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose (CDM), and the Psychology Department at UC Santa Cruz. What might seem an unlikely partnership has resulted in "the Lupé project," which will provide young children a rare opportunity to engage with evidence of life in the Pleistocene.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, a project team from these three institutions has been meeting on a weekly basis for the past two+ years to develop an exhibition that will now open on Saturday, June 11, 2011. The name Lupé connects the mammoth to the Guadalupe River near where she was found. The exhibition focuses on how Lupé lived in the past, and how scientists have pieced together evidence to understand her life. It is "designed to spark the scientist within each child to make discoveries, find out more, and tell the stories of their explorations." At the same time, the exhibition is also providing the opportunity for Maureen Callanan (CoPI) and her graduate students from UCSC to study how children learn and interact with their parents and caregivers and to examine how young children respond to evidence-based science learning experiences. Their research has been critical in guiding exhibit development from a cognitive psychology perspective.

A mother and daughter admire the skull of Lupe, the San Jose mammoth

A mother and daughter admire the skull of Lupé, the San Jose mammoth, in a prototyping room at the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose. Prototyping refers to the museum's early testing of exhibits as a way to gauge visitor response and exhibit effectiveness.
And the project team members from UCMP? Judy Scotchmoor (CoPI) and graduate student Kaitlin Maguire participated in the weekly team meetings from the start, helping to keep the science authentic, avoid possible misconceptions, participate in brainstorming sessions, offer suggestions on activities, provide access to resources, and answer questions as needed. However, for both of them this has been an extraordinary learning experience. Moving from conceptual goals to vague exhibit ideas, to detailed sketches, to prototypes, to final decisions on exhibit components and their design and construction may seem ordinary to Jenni Martin (PI and Director of Education) and Sara DeAngelis (Senior Exhibit Developer) and the rest of the exhibit team at the CDM, but to us, it was simply amazing! Explaining to the CDM team that scientists can estimate the height of a mammoth from the length of its femur resulted in a chair where visitors can sit and compare their femur length to that of Lupé, an examination of the end of the femur to notice the growth plates indicating that Lupé was not fully grown, and a shadow exhibit that compares the lengths of femurs from different animals! This might not seem too unusual except for the fact that the primary audience is three to eight year-olds!

Beyond the exhibit components themselves, there is also great detail to color, narrative style to include and engage and yet be true to the science, and how to explain what needs to be explained in three languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese which reflects the demographics of the visiting audience. We are also learning how to incorporate these same details with the focus on evidence in the website that the UCMP is developing that will launch along with the opening, thanks to the skills and creativity of our webmaster, Josh Frankel.

For the past few weeks, the energy level has increased and we can sense the anxiety and excitement of the opening. At the close of each meeting, we are able to sneak into the exhibit space and watch what was only a conceptual dream become a reality — step by step. It has been a privilege to work with both the CDM and the team from UCSC and we hope you will visit The Mammoth Discovery!

Mammoth sketch © Beth Zaiken; photo by Jenni Martin, © Children's Discovery Museum