What is the smallest thing you can think of?

Visitors are asked this question as part of a new exhibit at the SEEDS Blacksburg Nature Center in downtown Blacksburg thanks to a team of Virginia Tech biologists.

Among living and preserved animals – bears, snakes, and turtles, to name three – the exhibit reveals the vast smaller side of what plants and animals are made of: cells.

The new exhibit, called “It’s a small world,” first engages visitors by asking them to pick their favorite animal, such as a beaver, fox, or owl. Then, a video slideshow takes them from the animal’s body down to its tissue, and then down to its cells. Real footage then shows cells dividing, or the process of cell division known as mitosis.

“The hardest task was to figure out a way to teach kids this concept,” explained Ellen Garcia, a doctoral student in biological sciences in the College of Science. Garcia initially developed the exhibit for the Virginia (now the Virginia Tech) Science Festival. She then expanded it for the center to show the scale from animal to cell in order to better contextualize the process and importance of cell division for others.

“Although teaching young children about cells is quite challenging, we think the center is a great setting for doing so and we hope that young visitors can take something away with them they will remember for years to come,” said Daniela Cimini, an associate professor of biology and Garcia’s advisor.

Ellen Garcia works on exhibit
Ellen Garcia, a doctoral student in biological sciences in the College of Science, initially developed the exhibit for the Virginia (now the Virginia Tech) Science Festival.

The display itself is set up on a long recycled lab bench from Derring Hall, home of the university’s biology department. On top are two microscopes set up with slides and directions on how to use them.

“We want kids to get an idea of what it’s like to use microscopes and see what’s on slides and within the samples,” said Garcia.

The idea for the exhibit came as part of a National Science Foundation research proposal outreach component. Cimini, an affiliate of the Fralin Life Science and Biocomplexity Institutes at Virginia Tech, developed the proposal to study the mechanical and dynamic aspects of cell division.

For the outreach component, Cimini contacted Mike Rosenzweig, a well-known undergraduate educator in biology at Virginia Tech. Rosenzweig also serves as the department’s outreach coordinator, a position born from his love of nature and co-creation of SEEDS, a not-for-profit organization that has become the infrastructural and financial backbone of the Blacksburg Nature Center in cooperation with the Town of Blacksburg Parks and Recreation and the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences Outreach Program. Founded in 1995, SEEDS’ mission is to “inspire a natural curiosity and love for the environment in children and the young at heart through discovery learning, nature education, teacher support, and civic awareness.”

Rosenzweig’s passion for sharing nature and biological knowledge hit him just after his Ph.D. He noticed his work in research was getting “further and further removed from translating science to the public,” he said. And when this happens, he continued, people tend to “get this disbelief” since “science is a process of how you come to learn things.”

Rosenzweig said he was thrilled when Cimini reached out to him with the possibility of the project.

“We had been looking for something like this, an exhibit that showed big to small to big,” he said.

Black bear and other animals on display
Black bear and other animals on display at the SEEDS Blacksburg Nature Center in downtown Blacksburg.

“Knowing the nature center was mainly focused on organisms and ecosystems, I was a little hesitant to approach Mike with the idea to add a cell component. Instead, he showed great enthusiasm and it became immediately clear that this gap was just waiting to be filled. We just needed some creative ideas and the motivation to do it,” said Cimini. “Ellen and I bounced ideas back and forth and worked on putting together the exhibit for months before we were finally ready to set it up. Ellen was a driving force in all this, but it was a team effort that also benefitted from help and feedback from other students in my lab.”

“We are in a very unique and wonderful environment for kids to learn about the local flora and fauna,” said Dean Crane, director of the Town of Blacksburg Parks and Recreation. “At the center you can touch things, and you can pick up things, and that’s the way to learn.”

Crane met Rosenzweig in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and, with similar goals, ultimately teamed up to maintain the town’s “hidden treasure,” as Crane calls it.

“The benefit of the collaboration is that the Virginia Tech students have the knowledge that they can use at the center, and Mike is able to offer these great connections for the town,” Crane said.

Since connecting SEEDS with the Blacksburg Nature Center in 1995, Rosenzweig has collaborated with faculty on grants totaling more than $3.2 million, but the center itself doesn’t see any funds. Instead, it is the beneficiary of outreach projects, which span from exhibits in the center to field work during summer camps to providing educational materials and opportunities for local teachers. Currently, Rosenzweig collaborates with 10 others in biological and related sciences in the College of Science; College of Engineering; Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; the Stroubles Creek Restoration Initiative; and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity at Virginia Tech.

The center is open regularly throughout the year, and located in the historic Price House on 107 Wharton Street SE, where, according to Rosenzweig, news first arrived that the town would eventually be home to an agricultural land-grant college. 

Written by Cassandra Hockman.

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