Meet the Professor Using March (Mammal) Madness to Draw Students to Science

March 10, 2017

Brooke Scelza
Katie Hinde, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State U., created the 64-bracket contest that simulates mammals going head-to-head in combat against each other.

March is a special time of year for college basketball fans, and it can be a headache for professors vying for students’ attention as the season reaches its peak. But what if faculty members could harness the excitement of March Madness and channel it into a learning device?

That’s exactly what March Mammal Madness has done. The annual event simulates mammals going head-to-head in combat against each other in a 64-animal bracket, with the most biologically fit animal advancing. The success of the tournament and its model offers insight for academics seeking to navigate the distraction-heavy business end of college basketball’s season.

The mammal-focused contest features a bracket and live commentary, and in the classroom it can offer an interactive and competitive way to experience science.

Katie Hinde, the founder of March Mammal Madness, is an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. She spoke with The Chronicle on Thursday about the competition and how brackets can be used as pedagogical devices to draw out students who might be disengaged during the basketball tournament. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did March Mammal Madness get started?

A. When I got to college, that’s when I was introduced to NCAA basketball — Men’s March Madness — and the suspense, the celebration, the defeat, and just the emotion of it was so exciting and full of joy. Fast-forward to my being a professor, I was on Facebook and saw that BuzzFeed had an animal bracket in 2013 in honor of March Madness, and I thought, Let’s recapture that fun.

So I printed out the bracket and handed it out to my lab, and we starting filling it out. And I remember thinking as we’re looking at it, it was only 16 species, and it was based on what animal was the cutest. I was like, What is this? March Madness is 64 species, not counting the play-in games, and there’s no science here. So I took the brackets back into my office and made a March Madness bracket and I gave it out to my lab, people in the department, and I tossed it up on my blog. And people were into it — I mean, they were into it.

Q. How did it grow from there?

A. Over spring break, I had scheduled to do field work in the Kalahari (Desert), and so I had really limited internet access. I’d stay up until the middle of the night when the internet was working most reliably, and Chris Anderson (an assistant professor of biological sciences at Dominican University) would email me some science about the animals and I’d use that to tweet out these battles.

I remember tweeting out the semifinals from the Johannesburg airport on my way home, and the championship between a warthog and an African elephant, which was great because they live in the same place and I could get research about how they actually interacted. So, I wrote this big battle from the warthog’s point-of-view, and it was a grounds-eye view of an elephant. We found some really cool footage of warthogs and elephants chasing each other at water holes. And at the end, everybody was like, "All right, see you in 2014!"

Chris had helped me, so I asked if he would come on as an organizer, and then I asked the two most intense players, Kristi Lewton, a paleoanthropologist, and Josh Drew, a marine biologist at Columbia, if they wanted to join and help write battles. And so we did that in 2014, and it went from there.

Q. And where does the competition stand now?

A. We had this team of incredible artists join us. Last year, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History became an official partner, and they tweet pictures of all their collections. The American Society of Mammalogists became a partner last year. We also had two geneticists come in who help tweet about the genetics and the relationships among species. This year, ASU libraries created an entire research portal for K-12 students, and Oxford University Press opened up their collections and curated a special issue of the top-ranked species in the tournament for people to get access to the primary literature. It’s become this big collective scientific endeavor that just grows every year.

Q. How have you used this in your classroom, or how are others using this in their classrooms?

A. I’ve distributed the bracket for my students to follow along with as fun because, as the architect of the tournament, I know everything that is behind the scenes, so it’s more of an extracurricular activity in my classroom. But I hear a lot of feedback on Twitter about what teachers are doing. They’ve created student groups that work to study the different species, talk about their weight, where they live, what they eat, how they move, and whether or not they’re likely to fight. They also use March Mammal Madness to study adaptations in animals, animal relationships, ecology, and environment.

Q. You mentioned that these brackets can be used to draw students out: Can you talk about how brackets in general can be used as a pedagogical method?

A. You know, a lot of the brackets that you see online are about voting. That gets really tricky, so you could have winners that don’t really reflect the state of the art, of the science. And that’s one of the reasons why I think our tournament has been so successful. We have actual scientists writing about the science that underlies these animals’ behaviors, and it’s very dynamic. People then make their best guesses and have to wait to find out and watch it in real-time just like a basketball game. So, the more that people design brackets to be dynamic that way, the more successful they will be.

What’s quite interesting is when I first put the bracket up on my blog, I didn’t realize that bracket knowledge and how to fill out a bracket was not universal knowledge. I had a number of my colleagues come knock at my door and ask what the numbers next to the species are and how to fill it out. So, if you have athletes that are familiar with single- or double-elimination tournaments, they all of a sudden are the ones explaining to their colleagues. They have specialized knowledge in the classroom and they get to be the experts and explain how a bracket works and here’s how you estimate what might happen. I’ve heard from several teachers that they find the student-athletes — not all of them, of course, but that it engages some of their student-athletes in new ways.

Q. What is your biggest takeaway from having done this tournament for five years and seeing it grow and develop?

A. That we need to make science about stories. That when you make science a story, everyone gets emotionally engaged. Competition and trash-talk and triumph and defeat, and the narratives you can build around that, have huge power to cut across all generations and demographics, and get people talking about whatever you’ve built your story around.

Someone on Twitter was messaging me about pangolins, which lost in the first round in 2014. Pangolin fought its battle two days after a scientific article came out saying it is the single most trafficked animal in the world. In our tournament, as the pangolin was in the midst of its battle, a poacher came along and picked it up and illegally sold it.

And people were irate.

Pangolin has these great adaptations for defense, so many people had it going far, and this was a human interference. But we wanted to say, yeah, humans are interfering with pangolins everywhere right now. And someone brought that 2014 upset up two days ago on Twitter, saying they were frustrated about the poacher. But all I hear is that you understand unequivocally that pangolin is the most trafficked animal on the planet.

If you’re a teacher and you walk in and you hand your students a list of animals and you say you have to do research about these 64 animals, then it becomes a chore — it’s an obligate task, and people are doing it for completion. But if you give them a bracket and say whoever guesses best gets this extra credit, then you have people who say, ‘I’ll sit here, and read all about it,’ imagining what the scenario could be. It becomes an exercise of imagination, and creativity, and narrative.

And that is powerful.

Clarification (3/10/2017, 9:30 a.m.): Ms. Hinde initially stated that the pangolin lost in the second round of March Mammal Madness in 2014. It actually lost in the first round. The interview has been updated to reflect that.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.