Walk on the Wild Side

Explore Texas biodiversity past, present and future at campus natural science center

Aug. 30, 2010

A Q&A with Dr. Ed Theriot, professor, diatom wrangler and director of the Texas Natural Science Center.

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Why should people visit the Texas Memorial Museum?

Whether they like dinosaurs and fossils or gems and minerals, or are curious about evolution or Texas wildlife, everybody finds a “wow,” a personal connection. One example: looking at the 30-foot Mosasaur with its four-inch teeth, which was found in South Austin, and realizing that 65 million years ago, it swam in the exact spot where they are standing. It’s astounding and humbling, and it makes you think.

What might they be most surprised to learn?

That what we have on display at the museum is only a small fraction of what we have in our larger Texas Natural Science Center collections.

What is the Texas Natural Science Center most known for?

This answer depends on who you are talking to. Families around Austin know us as the “dinosaur museum.” The Texas Pterosaur (actually not a dinosaur!) is probably our best-known fossil. Teachers know us as an educational resource for both their students and themselves. UT Austin students know us as the museum by the mustang statue. Fossils enthusiasts know us as the place where they can have fossils identified. Scientists at other universities probably know us best for our paleontology collections, for the herpetology collection and the related genetic resources collection, and for the research that has built these collections.

Ed Theriot
Dr. Ed Theriot, director of the Texas Natural Science Center and the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor of Molecular Evolution in the Section of Integrative Biology.

How does the museum itself fit into the larger research mission of the science center?

The Texas Natural Science Center is made up of four components: three research laboratories and the museum, where we share our research with the public through exhibits and educational outreach. The museum exhibits, weekend activities and professional development programs for teachers offer opportunities for our researchers to provide an avenue for public understanding of our research.

Tell me about all the work you do to educate K-12 teachers.

The science center offers multiple teacher training programs throughout the year covering concepts in the life and earth sciences. Workshops are taught by science center educators and scientists, and scientists from the greater University of Texas at Austin community. All sessions are based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and the National Science Education Standards and include inquiry-based field and lab activities developed from multiple sources and reproducible in the classroom.

Teachers gain firsthand experience in fostering inquiry-based learning and integrating the science center’s teaching resources, such as museum exhibits and collections, loaner learning kits and TEKS-based curriculum materials, into the classroom. All teacher-training programs are offered at no cost to participants.

How many teachers do you train?

This year we trained 355 teachers from around the state at training sessions held at the Texas Memorial Museum, the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching and the Texas Council of Elementary Science conference. Since we began teacher training four years ago, we’ve held 55 training sessions in which we’ve trained 1,224 teachers.

Whether they like dinosaurs and fossils or gems and minerals, or are curious about evolution or Texas wildlife, everybody finds a 'wow,' a personal connection. Dr. Ed Theriot

What kinds of programs do you have to teach kids about science?

We have free group and self-guided tours of the museum. Our Museum Express” is an outreach program for grades K-8 where a scientist visits a class and offers students the chance to see and touch scientific specimens. Each program is correlated with the Science TEKS. The center hosts many free family events throughout the year, too, such as fossil identification days and Darwin Day. These events are tons of fun with a lot of hands-on activities and kids running around everywhere.

How many people visit each year?

We average almost 73,000 visitors per year since I arrived in 1997. About one half are organized groups, mainly K-12 school groups. The number of visitors has been slowly increasing since we redeveloped exhibits in 2003. We project a total of 85,000 visitors for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

What is your favorite exhibit at the museum?

I like each, for different reasons, but I have two favorites depending on what hat I am wearing. As “Ed the director,” I think my favorite is the Paleo Lab, because I always see families there. It’s actually a working lab, where visitors can talk to a paleontologist, watch fossils being prepared and learn about evolution and biodiversity. All ages gather around and have fun. As “plain old Ed,” I like the Night Animals exhibit. The room is quiet, cool, contemplative. I like getting out in the woods and swamps at night. You see different things, and experience the world in a different way. That exhibit reminds me of that.

What’s the coolest thing about the science center?

As director, I have to say the people, the entire staff and all of our volunteers. We have an amazing group of dedicated people who work together to make our collections accessible to other scientists and to the public. Everyone works hard and does their share to move the whole institution forward. We have volunteers who work hard in the collections, and volunteers that help us with marketing, communication and fundraising. I particularly love that we have so many volunteers at all levels that are so invested in who and what we are.

Do you have any ideas for expanding the museum in the future?

Right now our collections are housed in separate warehouses at the Pickle Research Campus, far away from any other biological study on campus, and far from the public eye. We want to make our collections more accessible. We would love to develop something like an “Urban Biodiversity Center” at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory on Lake Austin. Moving the collections there would be a great opportunity to make them more relevant to research on campus and to use the collections to connect the public with Texas biodiversity, past, present and future.

A lot of Texas natural history is “locked up” in the collections. The vertebrate paleontology collection alone has more than 250,000 specimens of dinosaurs, mammals and reptiles. The best way to share this information and to make it useful is to digitize it, create images of the specimens and link it to other data, such as genetic data.

We can also make these a tool for educating the public and creating what I call “citizen scientists.” It’s critical that we have a citizenry that is well educated in the sciences. To that end, we would also love to create regional educators to extend our reach across Texas. Our “secret” goal is to be THE state resource for teacher development in the biological sciences.

All of this requires increased funding, of course.

If you are interested in helping the science center grow in the future, contact Ed Theriot (512-983-4205) or Susan Romberg (512-232-5654).

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675;
Banner photo and all interior photos: Marsha Miller

Texas Memorial Museum exhibits
by John A. Maisano, artist and exhibit designer