Creature cast

Most university professors have ideas for how to get their students excited about the science they're studying -- rarely do those plans involve claymation. Unless, of course, you happen to be Brown University evolutionary biologist linkurl:Casey Dunn's;http://www.brown.edu/Faculty/Dunn_Lab/ student. "Nature documentaries like 'Blue Planet' and 'Planet Earth' were a big part of what got me interested in science, and it was fun to kind of ape the best parts of existing nature documentaries while

Lauren Urban
Mar 25, 2010
Most university professors have ideas for how to get their students excited about the science they're studying -- rarely do those plans involve claymation. Unless, of course, you happen to be Brown University evolutionary biologist linkurl:Casey Dunn's;http://www.brown.edu/Faculty/Dunn_Lab/ student. "Nature documentaries like 'Blue Planet' and 'Planet Earth' were a big part of what got me interested in science, and it was fun to kind of ape the best parts of existing nature documentaries while giving it a more manageable sort of modular internet spin," says Noah Rose, an undergraduate biology major at Brown who took Dunn's invertebrate zoology class. Along with Rose and other students who take the semester-long course, about five other undergrads and graduate students mentored by Dunn regularly contribute to linkurl:"Creaturecast",;http://creaturecast.org/ a blog born out of a collaborative National Science Foundation grant on mollusk evolutionary relationships awarded to Dunn in 2008. As part of that grant, Dunn needed...
tion. Unless, of course, you happen to be Brown University evolutionary biologist linkurl:Casey Dunn's;http://www.brown.edu/Faculty/Dunn_Lab/ student. "Nature documentaries like 'Blue Planet' and 'Planet Earth' were a big part of what got me interested in science, and it was fun to kind of ape the best parts of existing nature documentaries while giving it a more manageable sort of modular internet spin," says Noah Rose, an undergraduate biology major at Brown who took Dunn's invertebrate zoology class. Along with Rose and other students who take the semester-long course, about five other undergrads and graduate students mentored by Dunn regularly contribute to linkurl:"Creaturecast",;http://creaturecast.org/ a blog born out of a collaborative National Science Foundation grant on mollusk evolutionary relationships awarded to Dunn in 2008. As part of that grant, Dunn needed to demonstrate the broader impact of his research, and he decided to add a blog to his lab website to help communicate his work to the general public. Rose says that the blog is "a way to get excited about animals" and that it "provides a sort of wide ranging, integrative, and aesthetic approach to nature that you can't get from a lot of sources." Dunn uses the blog as a teaching tool in his classroom and requires students to create an episode of "Creaturecast" as a final project. Rose created a video post on marine worms as his final project last fall. He interviewed a number of people for the video, including graduate students, a microbiologist, and a local bait shop employee. The post wriggles with footage of worm movement and animations created by Rose. He says that finding the right balance of entertainment and information in the video was challenging, as it was "easy to say nothing," and equally easy to say "too much."

CreatureCast - Marine Worms from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Dunn says he's been, "definitely surprised" by how quickly the blog has grown in less than two years and how his students dove into making episodes. The blog originally focused on mollusk evolution, but has grown to include a variety of topics from the biology of linkurl:tobacco hornworms;http://creaturecast.org/archives/category/arthropods to the scientific proclivities of infamous Japanese linkurl:Emperor Hirohito.;http://creaturecast.org/archives/1049-after-the-fall More than just a collection of laboratory-borne ramblings and ruminations, the blog features "a podcast about animals brought to you by some people who study them," as undergraduate, Sophia Tintori intones at the start of her "Creaturecast" video podcast. Tintori's podcasts often feature scientific explanations for natural wonders -- for example the linkurl:iridescence of squids.;http://creaturecast.org/archives/127-creaturecast-episode-1 In many of her entries -- as entertaining as they are informative -- Tintori employs the art of claymation to bring scientific concepts, such as the differentiation of germ cells, to life. Dunn says that one of his favorite parts of melding science with blogging is to see, "Sophia making claymation while she does her bench work."

CreatureCast - Multicellularity from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

"Creaturecast" also features videos produced by a variety of labs with which the Dunn lab collaborates. For example, a recent post displayed hauntingly beautiful footage provided by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute scientist Steve Haddock, of colonial marine organisms called siphonophores. The hydrozoans were originally discovered in the 1880s, but pictures of them were not available for almost a century--until the development of submersibles. This video, and others on "Creaturecast", provide a glimpse into a world unseen to most people.

CreatureCast - Footage From The Deep from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

While the blog was intended to be for a general audience, "Creaturecast" has become a hit among other scientists. "At scientific meetings it's great to have scientists give feedback," Dunn says. He noted that other scientists have been offering to contribute to the blog, and a group of high school science teachers in Rhode Island use it regularly in their classrooms. The initial NSF grant used to start the "Creaturecast" was "quite small," says Dunn, and the funding for the blog was intended to last for only three years. The group has already burnt through the money, but the blog is currently being supported by bridge funding from Brown University. "A lot of scientific communication is spent on other scientists," Dunn says. But it just might be more important for students to learn to explain their scientific work "to their grandma."

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