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Naming Nature

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Who: Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Plymouth, the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation of Ocean Science and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, working together to engage with school children

What: Interactive exhibits to enable exploration of the science behind naming nature

Why: Classification is really important, but is not currently taught in schools

Where: Plymouth Museum

When: Science Week

Project description

Taxonomy, systematics and classification are vital in understanding the wonders and beauty of the natural world, but these topics are not covered in great detail at school. There is currently a decline in knowledge and understanding of how organisms are organised, classified and even identified. Expert taxonomists, and the important amateur taxonomist, are all slowly retiring, but there are fewer and fewer students taking their place.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Plymouth, the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation of Ocean Science and Plymouth Marine Laboratory joined together for National Science and Engineering Week in 2007 to develop a hands-on, scientist-led event, under the un-imposing title of ‘Naming Nature’.

The event was carried out in the museum, with bookable school sessions from Tuesday to Friday, and open to the public on Saturday. A large gallery at Plymouth Museum was set up with several interactive tables to discover more about the science behind the naming of organisms, developed by each partner;

  • An introduction table, with specimens from the museum collections, and posters illustrating how animals and plants are named, the rules of naming, and why Latin is used
  • The School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences, at the University of Plymouth developed an interactive mini-beasts stand, using large plastic mini-beasts for the visitors to arrange taxonomically, and live specimens
  • The Faculty of Science and Technology, at the University of Plymouth stepped back several million years, and used fossils to demonstrate how real palaeontologists identified new species and looked at the evidence for the environment these ancient creatures lived in
  • The Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation of Ocean Science used marine plankton models and live plankton which pupils could examine under a microscope
  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory focused on DNA, showing how advances in genome sequencing can help identify different species by their DNA, and ultimately how all organisms are related
  • Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery created a taxonomic key based on taxidermy bird specimens from the natural history collections to highlight the importance of identifying different features 

The booked school sessions, lasting one and a half hours each, finished with a small competition for the pupils. From what they had learnt from the different activity tables, the pupils had to create their own animal or plant, label it, and give it a scientific name – in Latin!


Taxonomy and the science behind it is not well understood by school pupils, and sometimes the public, mainly because of the scientific jargon and the long Latin words. All the partners shared the idea of making the world of Latin names not as daunting as it may appear. By using the Latin names associated with each activity and breaking these names into English, the visitors could understand why they were being used and how they relating to the organism, or groups of organisms.

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Naming Nature was so successful, it was run for three years. The whole week sessions, from Tuesday to Friday, were fully booked, and the Saturday saw over 300 visitors in the museum for the event.

“It was wonderful to see scientists on the floor working with the children right to the end. Such enthusiasm is inspirational for young people.” School teacher

“Enjoyed looking at the different things you don’t get to see normally.” School pupil

There were several things that worked very well with the theme and the visitors;

  • Using Latin names at the activity tables and translating them (e.g. Hexapod – ‘six-footed’), and for the Latin words to be repeated by the group
  • The competition at the end of the session allowed the pupils to create their creature, and use some English to Latin words to scientifically name it. The scientific names were extremely well thought out and related to features of their imaginary creature (e.g. ome visitor created a flying millipede type creature with red wings, and named it ‘Rubraptera polypod’, which literally translated as ‘red-winged many legs’)
  • The partnership worked very well, because there were specialists from a variety of areas, allowing the visitors to see and learn about much more
  • Regular meetings with the partners, at each of the partners' own venues, allowed the opportunity to plan the week.
  • Enthusiastic staff and volunteers were present at each activity table. This allowed the visitors to ask questions to a real scientist, who were not old bearded men in lab coats
  • Having xamples at the activity tables of real specimens from the museums’ collections and live specimens for the visitors to see up close

What didn't work well

There were not many things that didn’t work well.

Time was the biggest issue. The schools were booked in for a certain amount of time. During the booking, the group was split into small groups, and each group rotated round the different activity tables. The session finished with spending time creating and labelling a plant or animal. The first year, the time spent at each table was cut down to allow all the activity tables to be visited. The partners got together after the event and discussed booking the schools in for an extra half an hour, to give more time for the pupils to see all the activity tables and spend time on the competition.

Resources required

Several resources from the event, all of which were re-used throughout the three years that Naming Nature ran:

  • Pencils, paper, pencil crayons
  • Specimens from the natural history collections
  • Key identifying bird features
  • Plastic bugs and labelled pots
  • Fossils and identification sheets
  • Marine plankton foam models with associated Latin names
  • DNA model with segments of DNA puzzle with answers.
  • Pull up banners and posters for each activity table with further information about that area.

Top tips

  1. Don’t be afraid to use scientific language; as long as the scientific jargon is broken down and explained, the visitors are able to understand it. (For younger visitors, under 7 years old, asking them to repeat the scientific term together helps.)
  2. Get the visitors to use their imagination and use what they have learnt
  3. Partners are incredibly important; we all had the same idea and knew where we all wanted the event. At the very beginning we understood the differences in the organisations but this didn’t stop us from agreeing on what we all wanted for Naming Nature. Some partners may want something different from partnership work, so early meetings and discussions will show if you are all thinking on the same lines.
  4. Having enthusiastic staff and volunteers present at each activity table worked extremely well. All the partners for Naming Nature are incredibly fortunate to have very keen, young and enthusiastic volunteers from the University of Plymouth. This worked even better for the booked school sessions, as the staff and volunteers were the scientists and the young volunteers showed the school pupils that scientists are not old bearded men in lab coats
  5. Having examples at the activity tables of real specimens from the museums’ collections and live specimens for the visitors to see up close.


Jan Freedman

Acting Keeper of Natural History,

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Drakes Circus, Plymouth, PL4 8AJ

Tel: 01752 30 4774