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An interview with March Mammal Madness founder Dr. Katie Hinde

March Mammal Madness was created by Dr. Katie Hinde of Arizona State University and is a program which presents a bracket of 64 species of animals. Participants use scientific research to predict which species would win in a face-off. Virtual “battles” between contenders are then narrated on Twitter using scientific research and an element of chance. The species are narrowed down and eventually one winner is declared.

Teachers are using this program to engage tens of thousands of students in the United States and internationally. We sat down with Dr. Hinde to find out more about this tournament that’s sweeping the country’s classrooms:

Nicole Taylor: What inspired you to start March Mammal Madness (MMM)?

Dr. Katie Hinde: Back in 2013, I came across an “Animal Madness” bracket online. I was disappointed to find it only contained 16 animals and that the outcomes were based solely on their cuteness, rather than science. In response, I created Mammal March Madness, a 64 animal bracket with the goal of mixing fun narrated battles with scientific research of the many species involved. I originally created the bracket for my Comparative Lactation Lab and tossed it up on my blog as a lark, thinking “Maybe my mom will play.”

NT: What was the first March Mammal Madness like compared to the current tournament, in terms of size, reach, participation, etc.?

KH: That first year, I did all of the tweeting and wrote all of the battles. Most of the battles were just a few tweets and a lot of jokes. Most of the research came from secondary or tertiary sources, like my mammal encyclopedia. It wasn’t until the final battle of warthog versus elephant that we really did a deep dive into primary literature. A few teachers came across MMM online that year (thanks in part to a piece Joanne Manaster did in the Scientific American that talked about the competition). At the end of the tournament, everyone was excited and tweeting things like “see you in 2014!” and I realized “I can’t do this by myself!” It was then that I recruited Dr. Chris Anderson, a friend from grad school who had helped send me facts while I was in the Kalahari; and, Dr. Josh Drew and Dr. Kristi Lewton, who had been some of the most involved players that first year. We started 2014 much more organized and running the tournament much more systematically.

Each year, MMM grows in the number of followers on Twitter and the number of views the blog has gotten. It also grows in team size. We have gained additional partners including Science Illustrator Charon Henning, The Aldo Leopold Foundation, eMammal, The American Society of Mammalogists, and Oxford University Press. The Arizona State University Library has also created an incredible resource and research guide. This has truly become a keystone science outreach event. March Mammal Madness affords many other organizations the opportunity to participate and amplify the outreach.

NT: Why is March Mammal Madness such an important learning program?

KH: If you walk into a classroom with a list of 64 species and say “do research”, they look at it as onerous busy work. Arrange it into a bracket and tournament and it’s a total game-changer. Students do their own research and they use their imaginations. They think in these dynamic ways and try to figure out what’s going to happen. That’s the foundation of science: bringing together what is known and creatively making predictions about what is going to happen in this world. And kids are hooked! On Twitter we see them report that they are begging their parents to stay up late and watch the battles. It taps into something in the human mind that loves competition and narrative and humor and laughter and trash talk. This is how it is magical.

NT: What has been your favorite face-off within March Mammal Madness?

KH: I couldn’t pick a favorite, though there are some that really stand out. Maybe one of the favorites that I personally wrote was in the third year. We had a numbat versus a quokka (pronounced “KWA-KA”). This was the same year that quokka selfies became a thing. People love the quokka. Everyone was tweeting “QUOKKA FOR THE WIN!” I knew that numbat was going to defeat quokka in the first round (because it has zero battle skills) and it would be a major upset.

As I was writing the battle, I wanted to use a lot of the weird science surrounding quokkas. For example, there was a study done years ago where researchers would put obstacles in front of quokkas and see which direction they turned to get around it. At the same time that I was researching, an upsetting video surfaced of tourists feeding a quokka fast food. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to educate the public about interfering with wildlife. So for the battle, after the quokka engaged in stylized aggression, tourists distracted the quokka with a cheeseburger and he turned to the right as quokkas prefer to do and that’s how he was defeated by the numbat. So it weaved a story about interacting with wildlife and science using humor.

NT: What is some of the best feedback you’ve heard about March Mammal Madness, or an inspirational story about it?

KH: There are so many. This year I got a note from someone who said “My high school teacher introduced me to March Mammal Madness and now I’m a teacher and going to introduce MMM to my students for the first time this year.” It was awesome to see that this was something that had a meaningful impact on this person such that they are carrying the tradition forward.

A lot of teachers use March Mammal Madness in their Advanced Placement classes. While this is awesome, these are students who tend to already be doing well and are interested in science. But teachers have come to me and said that MMM had been immensely helpful with students who can be more challenging to engage. That’s one of the things I love about the program. It brings students to science who aren’t already “there”.

NT: This year, you included non-mammals in the tournament. What prompted this decision?

KH: It started out as a joke. This year, I will be abroad for the first part of the tournament. I’ve left Josh and Chris in charge. Josh is an ichthyologist (someone who studies fish) and Chris is an entomologist (someone who studies insects), so the joke was that “while the Kat’s away, the mice will play.” This opens things up for them to share some of the expertise from their fields.

But more importantly, it’s because all animals are awesome and there are science stories to tell about all animals. Each year we try to keep things fresh by bringing in new animals and new topics. By including non-mammals, it opens up what we can do. I knew people were going to be excited, but they are so excited! It’s amazing. Although some mammalogists are wondering, “did we run out of mammals?”

NT: If you had some advice to give aspiring scientists, what would it be?

KT: Science is for everyone and the possibilities are infinite!

Featured image credit: “three-hyena-animals-on-grass-field” by Bibhash Banerjee. CC0 via Pexels.

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