March Mammal Madness: How schools are using this month's craze to teach science

Surprise upset in snow leopard vs. flying squirrel showdown

Students are hyped about animals. 

Students are hyped about March Madness.

Ergo, students are likely to be doubly hyped about March Mammal Madness, a craze hundreds of schools have channeled this month to teach students about evolution and science.

March Mammal Madness works in much the same way as the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament—only with simulated, imaginary mammal face-offs instead of actual basketball games.

The game is managed by Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, and a team of volunteer scientists and conservationists.

Students build brackets with 64 slots, four quadrants, and one central box in which they predict the mammal champion.

Then, during the "face-offs," the scientists use Twitter to live-tweet (imaginary) play-by-play action between two animals. The tweets include educational resources such as scientific articles and fossil records. Students can follow along with the tweets and compare their brackets to the final outcome of each battle. 

Social media for student engagement

Sometimes there are surprises: In a snow leopard vs. flying squirrel battle in the rain forest, the flying squirrel prevailed by better tolerating the heat.  

To determine the winner of a particular mammal fight, scientists consider each species':

  • Temperament;
  • Weaponry;
  • Armor;
  • Body mass;
  • Running speed;
  • Fight style;
  • Physiology; and
  • Motivation.

As students cheer for their favorite mammal, they learn about the interactions between species, as well as ecological context, natural selection, and endangered species management. They also learn that science can be fun.

"I think it's a chance to return to that time when science was all about the imagination and the wonder at the natural world," Hindie tells NPR (Hindie, "Mammals Suck," 2/17; Lonsdorf, NPR, 3/29).

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