Primates, evolution and neuroscience: A Primate Tales Summer

How primates can get campers excited about science

This summer has been a busy one.  I visited a variety of GTA and Toronto summer camps for programs ranging from talking about the amazing world of primates, to human evolution, to the evolution of the human brain.  It is amazing to see the variety of science and nature themed camps out there for kids.  The excitement and enthusiasm I saw during the presentations validated my assertion that primates and human evolution are a great way to get kids interested in science and it can be a great gateway into that world.  Here are some of the highlights from my visits:

My first stop was to the Bright Lights camp run by the Firefly foundation and took place at the University of Toronto Schools.  It is a camp dedicated to learning about the brain and neuroscience which is an area that is so important for kids to learn about so they can understand how their brains work.  They asked me to come and do a presentation on how the human brain evolved.  By understanding our evolutionary history and how we ended up with the biggest brain to body ratio of any animal on the planet is key to understanding our brain in general.

Campers engaging with human skulls

I talked about the various theories that scientists have come up with to explain how we grew such big brain compared to our ape and early hominid ancestors.  Theories such as the expensive tissue hypothesis, the social brain hypothesis and the ecological change hypothesis.  The campers had a lot of great questions and insight. One camper asked me what I thought was the best hypothesis but I threw the question back at him and the rest of the campers and their answers were that all three theories probably played a role in pushing our brain to become so large, which was what I was going to say!

At the end the campers came up to see and explore our collection of ape, early hominid and modern human skulls.  It was great to see them comparing and contrasting the skulls and seeing how things changes from australopithecines to Homo Erectus to modern humans.  I was blown away by the level of knowledge these campers had and it made me hopeful and excited for the next generation of scientists.  Due to how well received this program was by the campers I am going to be launching a special Evolution of the Human Brain program for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year.  You can check out the details here.

I also went to Appleby College in Oakville for a presentation to their science camps about the amazing world of primates, introducing them to what makes primates different from other mammals, the different groups of primates, problems primates face in their natural environment, what can be done to help and what it is like to be a primatologist.  

I spoke in depth about the crisis for orangutans in Indonesia due to palm oil plantations decimating the rainforest where they live. I was so thrilled to see so many hands go up in the audience to ask questions about this topic.  One camper asked what organizations are helping orangutans, another spoke of how he told his friends to not buy Nutella as it has palm oil in it and harms the orangutans.  After every slide I showed during the presentation I had at least 5 hands go up in the air with questions and comments and it warmed my heart to see how engaged and excited these children were about primates and their conservation.   Primates are relatable to all of us as we are primates and children see these similarities in themselves.   

camper made skull

I also went to Pawsitively Pets Kids Camp to present to their mini-vet campers about primates and human evolution.  The campers had a lot of great questions and really loved having to try and figure out which skulls was an ape, an early human or a modern human.  We also got a little creative and they got to make their own skull with model magic.  I was really impressed with their creativity and skill and they made some amazing skulls which they could then take home.  I really wanted the kids to be able to take something home with them and to be able to learn about the skulls and their different features while also being creative and having fun trying to make their own.  I think the hands-on approach I take with Primate Tales programs is one of its biggest strengths.  Children love the skulls, always asking if they are real (they are replicas) and are so excited when they get to touch and explore them.     

After busy summer I am ramping up for a busy school year of presentations. If the above experiences sound like something your students or campers would enjoy you can check out our program offerings and book your own Primate Tales program for your students or campers. 

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