Teaching & Learning


'Mystery specimen' project

Dr Helen Chatterjee, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Deputy Director of Museums, explains why there are so many puzzled-looking students in the Grant Museum of Zoology.


9 August 2014

Students are each given a different part of an animal and tasked with identifying it. They then write a journal article about their experiences.

A term-long project 

‘Mystery Specimen’ is a term-long project that forms 40% of the final mark of Vertebrate Life and Evolution, a course available to third and fourth-year undergraduates.

I begin by giving them each a different part of an unknown vertebrate [an animal with a back bone] from the Grant Museum of Zoology – it could be anything from a bone to a piece of skin.

Their first task is to identify which part of the animal it came from, which involves quite detailed anatomical observation and maybe some drawings or photographs, making use of the wider collections at the Grant Museum.

Thinking about where it fits in with the rest of the animal is the beginning of the process that helps to lead them to an identification of what type of animal it might be.

A varied group of students

We have quite a wide range of students on the course – most are biological scientists but students also come from Geography, Anthropology or Human Sciences – so the amount of experience they’ll have in the field varies.

For that reason, I begin with a session on how to look at specimens and think about detailed anatomy to try and get them all up to speed.

Part of the course focuses on the difference in anatomical shape between different animal groups, so Mystery Specimen is really an exercise in trying to get the students to apply the knowledge they’ve got to a real problem.

Learning to write for a scientific journal

The students get several sessions in the Grant Museum, so that they can spend time doing detailed work with their specimen, using the wider collections (and myself and the curators) to help contextualise it.

The idea is that they have to identify it down to species level and then write up their diagnosis in the style of a scientific journal article.

They’re given fairly in-depth instructions on how you go about writing a journal article in terms of the expectations, reference style and standard of writing. They are told to follow the ‘instructions for authors’ for a given journal – Trends in Ecology and Evolution – and must write the article in the context of doing a natural piece of research.

Providing a realistic research environment

If any of the students are going totally off-track during the identification stages, I’ll ask them questions that will encourage them to rethink their initial conclusions and perhaps suggest some literature they might look at.

Most students can narrow it down to a basic group of vertebrae – whether it’s a bird, fish, reptile or mammal – but it’s narrowing it down even further that they can find tricky.

At this stage they need to consult the literature as widely as possible, focusing on detailed searches of relevant journal articles using the Web of Science, but also including older as well as contemporary texts.

I do what I can to guide them but for some students it’s impossible to identify the species they’re working with, because certain groups of vertebrates look very similar to others and even the staff in the museum don’t know what they are: they are genuine mystery specimens.

We include them so that students can feel that they’re actually contributing to real research; they tend to quite like the fact that their articles end up as part of the documentation that finally helps identify them. It’s really a case of being a zoological detective.

When I or anyone else conducts research, we often don’t start with a beautiful, complete skeleton, so I’m just getting the students used to the real-life process of this kind of research.

The process is important, not the result

Whether they reach a definitive answer doesn’t actually matter when it comes to the marking process, their write-ups are assessed according to how they went about the process of identification: what anatomical features did they focus on, whose work did they draw references from?

They need to think about how the species (or possible species) fits into the bigger picture, its closest relatives, previous research and current topics of interest around the group.

The benefits of object-based learning

Object-based learning is hugely beneficial for subject-specific knowledge: if you’ve got a particular set of ideas to convey, you can do it very effectively through objects, and there’s a lot of evidence that shows that doing something in an interactive way helps students understand concepts and reach answers much more quickly than if someone was just regurgitating information to them.

The learning becomes more student-centred, which is really important.

Even if the objects being used aren’t directly relevant to a subject, the process of working with them is still very useful, because object-based learning allows students to develop several broader life skills:

  • observation
  • drawing
  • communication
  • writing
  • researching
  • referencing
  • using libraries – you really can make it very flexible.

Staff who do object-based learning always say that students are engaged, enjoy the experience more than traditional teaching and retain the information for longer. It helps them make connections and consider objects’ wider context – history, philosophy, geography, policy, ethics – all of which lead to really great discussions.

Incorporating object-based learning into your teaching

There’s a lot of support available to staff who want to learn more about how to incorporate object-based learning into their teaching.

Leonie Hannan, Teaching Fellow in Museums and Public Engagement, will have a conversation with you, find out what you’re teaching, the kind of students you’re working with and so on and then present you with some ideas about what you might be able to do and which collections might be suitable.

She can provide a very tailored, bespoke solution, depending on how much input the academic wants. It takes a lot of the pressure away and means the preparation is less time-consuming. UCL Museums will also provide training on how to actually handle objects, so staff can walk into the museum feeling prepared and ready to deliver an excellent session.

Student perspective

Alice Wilton-Steer, a student on the Vertebrate Life and Evolution course, says:

“The best thing about the Mystery Specimen project was being allowed access to so many ‘behind the scenes’ specimens at the Grant Museum. It also presented an opportunity to think differently from usual – for example, I had to use different resources (such as other specimens) to help me out rather than just relying on papers and the internet.”