Think these little critters are cute?
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(contest closed 2/14/2016)
How do you understand something you can’t see? That’s the inspiration behind GIANTmicrobes ™, those adorable stuffed microbes 1 million times the size of the actual microbes. Yes, microbe “stuffies”. Better than that, they are plush microbe stuffies based on the shape and features of real microbes, from flagella on E. coli to buds on the Saccharomyces yeast. Additionally, they have cute big eyes and some accessories such as a cape for MRSA and a knife and fork for flesh-eating bacteria to make them even more fun. Be still your beating heart? There are heart cells and all other sorts of microscopic cells too. Why would anyone want a gigantic stuffed microscopic cell? Good question. GIANTmicrobes make teaching, outreach, and every day fun and educational.
What are GIANTmicrobes?
Microscopic organisms often have an image problem with macro-organisms like us. People either don’t know about them or think they are shapeless blobs. However, microorganisms come in a variety of shapes and interesting structures. Ranging from rods, spheres, chains, or spirals typical of bacteria to bizarre shapes of protists. Cilia, pilli, and flagella may adorn the outside of these cells to aid in movement and interactions. Bacteria and archaea species may look identical. In this case, scientists use genes to classify microorganisms, both at broader levels like domain and kingdom as well as more fine-scales, such as genus and species. With GIANTmicrobes™, these different microbes may have the same shape, but have different colors, textures, or accessories as clues to their interactions with us. However, some microorganisms have specific and even unique characteristics. Part of GIANTmicrobes™ mission is to present microorganisms as “individual creatures worthy of study and understanding”. They instill a sense of curiosity about these odd little critters – and that’s the point!
GIANTmicrobes™ were initially designed in 2002 to teach kids about the importance of hand-washing for preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria that cause colds and illness. These cute, cuddly critters are still a great tool for teaching about common infections like colds, flu, stomach ache, and sore throat. I found one exercise “Bacteria, Microbes, and Germs…Oh my!” from the Colorado School of Mines where elementary teachers applied glitter and petroleum jelly to common “germ areas” such as door knobs, pencils, and certain areas of desks in their classroom then went through a normal day. I can just imagine the student’s reactions as they went to pick up their glitter or petroleum jelly laced pencils. Students then looked at GIANTmicrobes™ of different pathogens and talked about them. What a great way to start a discussion into the microscopic organisms that surround us and how some of them can negatively influence our health. “Don’t Get Caught Dirty Handed”, a great resource from the American Society for Microbiology, could be integrated into the “Bacteria, Microbes, and Germs…Oh My” exercise or a new activity made out of it. Another GIANTmicrobe™ based lesson-plan is “Meet the Menacing Microbe” developed by Julie Boker of the University of Florida Center for Precollegiate Education and Training. It’s a microbial meet and greet where students get either answers or questions about a microbe and have to find the appropriate GIANTmicrobe™.
Since the shapes and surfaces of the viruses are scientifically-based, Dr. Tovah Salcedo, Professorial Lecturer at American University, uses viral GIANTmicrobes™ to show how viral morphology matches with macromolecule interactions and the process of infection. She appreciates that the GIANTmicrobes™ are accessorized to their common names to help students to think about the context. “I love my shingles virus for that reason; it’s false colored to resemble the way they made the chicken pox virus, which is a stereotypical rooster pattern. Students love the flirty eyelashes on the mono/Epstein Barr virus.”
In addition to common infections, there are also more exotic GIANTmicrobe™ pathogens including anthrax, bird flu, the black death, and ebola. I’m a big fan of coupling science lessons with learning about history or geography. These pathogens widely fling open the door for cross-topic conversations and classroom exercises. Couple the Black Death bacterium with it’s flea insect vector and you have props for your history and sanitation lesson on the bubonic plague outbreaks in the Middle Ages in Europe that killed ~25 million people.
Let’s Talk About Sex, Class
Talking about taboo subjects like STD’s and sex in a classroom setting is a little easier when the STD’s and gametes are stuffies. Lily Fountain MS, CNM, RN, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Nursing, uses the egg and sperm GIANTmicrobes™ in conjunction with a plush model of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, to teach ovulation and birth control. High school teacher, Tara Fry, at Banbury Crossroads School in Calgary uses the STD GIANTmicrobes™ to teach about sexually transmitted diseases. She tosses different STDs into the classroom and whomever “catches” the STD describes and defines it. I love that there is a human fetus as well to remind us that even we Homo sapiens started out rather small.
Dr. Salcedo at American University finds GIANTmicrobes™ invaluable for teaching a variety of classes from general biology and genetics to oceanography. For her genetics classes, she adds stickers to represent random genotypes on the mini versions of the GIANTmicrobe™ egg and sperm cells to simulate genetic assortment. Dr. Salcedo will next add a gigantic size egg cell to her collection to have a more realistic scale of sperm and egg for fertilization lectures. In her oceanography course, she demonstrates broadcast spawning by throwing the mini sperm and eggs into the air. She also uses the DNA microbe to help students visualize 3D structures.
“One of the trends, I think, that is associated with the era of No Child Left Behind and the over-exam focused educational system, combined with readily available high-powered digital graphics, is a decline in the ability to produce and manipulate mental images. Having a GIANTmicrobe™ anchors that exercise by combining some emotional cue – the big eyes, the fun prints of fabric, etc. – to the larger idea of learning how to hold cellular and organismal biology in your mind.” – Dr. Tovah Salcedo
GIANTmicrobes™ are used by many to teach about microscopic diversity. The fabulous assortment of single-celled GIANTmicrobe™ eukaryotes including copepods, rotifers, euglena, and paramecium bring the microscopic wonder of a drop of pond water to a dry classroom. My first microscopic love were the dazzling jewel-like diatoms, so Scum was my first GIANTmicrobe™. Though the name “pond scum” for such a beautiful creature made me sad. Then again, a high school science mentor did say someone accused him of scooping up camel poop when he was collecting diatoms. So sure, I guess pond scum works. Dr. Salcedo at AU uses them to complement videos and photos she shows in her ecology and evolution classes for Biology majors, but also uses them in general education classes to “demystify the microbial world”. Dr. Susan Perkins of the American Museum of Natural History uses GIANTmicrobes™ as icebreakers in her outreach. She gives pairs of students a microbe and information and has them work together to learn more about the organism and share that with the class. In their free, on-line course, “Gut Check: Exploring Your Microbiome”, Drs. Rob Knight, Jessica Metcalf, and Katherine Amato produced an excellent video discussing the differences between alpha and beta microbiome diversity using GIANTmicrobes™. Dr. Jonathan Eisen often wears a garland of GIANTmicrobes™ when talking to the public about the human microbiome. During his TED talk a few years ago, he threw GIANTmicrobes™ out to audience members to catch. With over 20 species of bacteria and even more protists, there are lots of great critters to work with and throw.
We are the Sum of our “Little Parts”
Of course, multicellular organisms, like ourselves, are made up of single cells working together. There are both human cell type GIANTmicrobes™ such as muscle, heart, nerve, red and white blood cells, osteocyctes, and more. Again, the GIANTmicrobes™ company focuses on making disease more approachable, so cancer and diabetes are there too. I also love that some of the beneficial members of the human microbiome, such as Bifidobacterium, are beginning to make their appearance in the GIANTmicrobe™ collection. Nursing professor, Ms. Fountain plans on using Bifidobacterium, E. coli, and immunoglobulin to educate low-income, inner city peer counselors on the differences of bacterial species and immune system components in breast milk as compared to formula. Needless to say, I’m hoping the human beneficial GIANTmicrobes™ will multiply and diversify to teach about our “microbial selves”. I can think of several exciting topics that could be taught with human beneficial microbes.
Many of the scientists I know enjoy giving GIANTmicrobes™ as gifts to students, friends, relatives, and mentors. Some teachers use minis as prizes. I’ve been lucky enough to receive the Christmas ornament set and a petri dish of amoebas, which constantly “escape” in my office. Another friend gave her mom a white blood cell for her gallbladder surgery. Her mom read that it was a leucocyte, so “Luke” and the Force were with her through her surgery and recovery. Many lab benches and desks in science buildings are trimmed with GIANTmicrobes™. Even President Obama recently received Anabaena, green cyanobacteria, from Dr. Jo Handelsman, Yale professor and Associate Director for Science.
If you are still looking for something for your special microbe-lover for Valentine’s Day – there is a Heart Warming (egg and sperm cells, kissing disease, penicillin, and a pink amoeba) and a Heart Burning (Herpes, Pox, HPV, Chlamydia, and Penicillin) set. Perhaps, GIANTmicrobes™ can expand their human microbiome collection next year based on the recent paper on microbial exchange during kissing. After all, what is softer, easy to care for, expresses so much, and is cuter than a stuffed GIANT MICROBE! You never know what you might learn from your new stuffed friend about the microscopic world. And heck, as a teacher or speaker, GIANTmicrobes™ are one of the few things you can throw at the audience that will make them happy.
What do you think about GIANTmicrobes™?
What do you do with them?
What would you do with them?
Have a favorite?
Have a suggestion of a new one?
Let me know in the comments section below and you’ll be entered to win a GIANTmicrobe™. To celebrate the love of microbes, and especially GIANTmicrobes™, I’ll randomly draw a winner on 2/14/16. Also, many thanks to the twitterverse for responding to this question last week, which helped this blog post germinate.
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