Natural history museums are a hot topic in popular and scientific online discussions right now due to a controversial opinion article published in the 18 April edition of Science that questioned the value, or necessity, of collecting voucher specimens. The value of these specimens to research has been explained in other places (here, here, here, and here) but there has been little discussion on the value of specimens to education.
This contribution of natural history collections is too often underappreciated. AIM-UP! (http://www.aim-up.org/; Advancing Integration of Museums into Undergraduate Programs) has been working to identify what educators and students know (or think they know) about natural history collections and how to increase awareness of their existence and value. Opinions such as the one discussed in the Science article are an example of the profound misunderstanding of the value and potential of natural history collections. Increasing the use of specimens and their associated data in undergraduate education will go a long way toward combatting these misconceptions.
Incorporating natural history collections into new initiatives in undergraduate education will help students understand real-world threats and impacts from human activity. For example, misunderstanding of the causes and consequences of global change, such as climate and landscape modification, is common in the United States. Natural history collections and associated data allow students to explore and test their own hypotheses about the impact of environmental change on biotic diversity. The Grinnell Resurvey project uses historic museum specimens and contemporary collections to look at species distributional shifts along elevational transects in the Sierra Mountains since the early 1900s. This project has documented changes in small mammal distributions that relate to climatic changes, such as temperature increases, over the last 100 years. There are many fantastic examples of such resurvey projects ranging from tracking plant flowering times at Thoreau’s Walden Pond, to grasshopper emergence in the Rockies, to large-scale marine censuses.
Although students and educators cannot all participate in these resurvey projects on the ground, there are many opportunities to utilize resurvey data to visualize changes through time. AIM-UP! participants are developing educational modules that serve as examples of how educators and students can use these on-line databases so they can formulate and pursue their own questions about biological responses in a human dominated age.