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Biodiversity research using digitized, internet-based natural history collections

Author(s): Kaitlin Stack Whitney

Rochester Institute of Technology

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Collections based research is a critical tool for organismal biology and biodiversity research. Yet natural history collections have a complicated past. This multi-class module examines the origins, problems, and current uses of collections.


This module uses digitized bird specimen (data and metadata) to walk students through two major biodiversity databases with digitized, online collections available for research, teaching, and outreach. The pre-module / first set of materials introduces students to the origins of modern natural history collections, including collections that came from participation in the enslavement of Africans and how early US collections included nonwhite people forcibly taken from their homes. This module benefits from a heads up to students about the heavy, sensitive nature of the content.   

The option pre-lessons include links to captioned videos from The Field Museum's Brain Scoop channel. 

Learning Objectives:

  1. Understand the value of museum specimens for biodiversity research and knowledge
  2. Understand the colonial origins of some natural history collections and ongoing ethical questions 
  3. Analyze digitized museum specimens to answer a provided question
  4. Apply the understanding to create a new question that could be answered using museum specimens


This version was taught to a nonmajors 'Environment and Society' environmental studies course over a week and two class periods in fall 2019; students were any major and included mostly science and engineering students from 2nd through 4th years. It will be taught again in spring 2020 and will be updated based on fall 2019 feedback.

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