FameLab Revisited


We just took part in another FameLab competition in Troy, New York, at Rensselaer Polytechnic (RPI) Institute sponsored by NASA’s Astrobiology program in collaboration with the British Council. Lisa Brochu is one of three judges along with Cheryl Zook of National Geographic and Planet Science researcher, Dr. Alex Lockwood from Caltech. After the morning round of three-minute presentations, I delivered a two and a half hour training activity to the competitors on the interpretive approach to communication.


FameLab is an international competition in science communication, part of the Times Cheltenham Festivals in Cheltenham, United Kingdom. The best way to get a taste of recent competition is to watch Fergus McAuliffe from University County Cork in Ireland with his award-winning presentation in 2013. He shares how the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) blurs the line between life and death. Fergus recently took his story further at a TedX talk on “Sharing Science Through Story.”


Famelab finalists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 29.

Famelab finalists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 29.

These three-minute elevator talks given by early career scientists demonstrate the power of effective interpretation of scientific research. And it aptly simulates the real-life circumstance of having only a few moments to connect with a foundation executive, major donor, or program director when chatting at a meeting or catching the elevator at a conference hotel.


In just three minutes a scientist can put her or his listeners into a jargon-induced coma or light up their minds with the potential for wondrous new discoveries in science. FameLab provides a chance to practice and get training and feedback. The regional event in Troy, New York was won by Graham Lau, a field geologist, who had his entire audience ready to stomp their feet to assist him in a daring escape from a crumbling glacier during one of his field studies. He will compete in the U.S. competition as a result of his success in the regional event. Fifteen other scientists also took part and the quality of their work was amazing. You can see some of the presentations at http://famelab-eeb.arc.nasa.gov.


Several years ago, Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA, learned of the FameLab competition and realized what a benefit it could be to astrobiologists and other scientists in the U.S. She placed the management of the events into the able hands of Daniella Scalice with the National Astrobiology Institute. They gather postdoctoral students, graduates, some undergraduates and early career scientists at regional and online events and the winners and some runners up go on to compete in a national competition. The winner of the national event will be sent to Cheltenham to compete with the winners from 25 other nations.


We admire these brilliant young scientists who take the challenge to become powerful communicators with the public. Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman, another NASA astrobiologist and coordinator of the Pale Blue Blog, served as emcee of this event at RPI. Paraphrasing Shawn, we once had Dr. Carl Sagan speaking eloquently for the importance of exploring space on national TV on a regular basis but we lost his amazing personality and articulate voice in 1996. Now with the extreme fragmentation of television with hundreds of channels, and dozens of social media outlets on the Internet, we need hundreds of mini-Sagans taking their inspired work to the public in myriad ways. FameLab and NASA’s Astrobiology program are helping pave the way for the future of powerful science communication. We’re proud to be a small part of that movement.


– Tim Merriman

Light Up People’s Brains with Music


When I was in the third grade, Lloyd Higgerson, the music teacher, came to our class and introduced the opportunity to be in the band. I wanted to play trumpet and my parents bought the instrument and encouraged me to practice. And practice. And practice some more. It was lots more pressure than I wanted so I quit band one day at school. When I arrived home, I found Mr. Higgerson waiting with my parents, in what could only be called an intervention. They all explained that I should not expect to quit learning new things when it became challenging.


The Hulihee Palace (historic site) in Kailua, Hawaii, hosts a monthly music celebration that is free to all who wish to attend.

The Hulihee Palace (historic site) in Kailua, Hawaii, hosts a monthly music celebration that is free to all who wish to attend.

Music became a part of my life from then on. I was in the marching band and a dance band in high school that performed at proms for other schools. In college I learned guitar and enjoyed participating in hootenannies, informal acoustic music gatherings on the Southern Illinois University campus. In my 30s I bought a mandolin and slowly learned to play well enough to play in a band. Playing music puts me “in the zone” in a major way.


If you’ve seen the video about recent research regarding music and the human brain, you know that researchers are finding out how music engages our senses in a holistic way. We use all of our brain when we play music and it helps us in other areas of cognition and emotional intelligence. Music is a catalyst for engagement. I am grateful that a dedicated music teacher bothered to ask my parents to keep me involved.


Think about the opportunity this knowledge creates for non-formal, free-choice learning programs. The National Center for Education Statistics released a report in 2012 on the arts in formal education. The good news was that music is still in 94% of grade schools showing no decline in the previous decade. Dance and theater did not fare as well.


The annual Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan, is a celebration of culture through music and dance for people of all ages.

The annual Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan, is a celebration of culture through music and dance for people of all ages.

Music as a part of programming at a zoo, nature center, museum, aquarium, community or historic site has great value. It lights up the brains of visitors just to hear music. If you involve them in making music the brain benefits are even greater. Music that is congruent with a place, culture and community can create lasting memories as it helps engage the brain in diverse ways.


Many free-choice learning sites host concerts, dances and varied arts performances. I haven’t seen many that teach music or bring musicians in on a regular basis. When I was a state park interpreter, I hosted monthly bluegrass and old-time music open-mike jams at the outdoor amphitheater. It was some of the most popular programming we offered and really appealed to local people who rarely took advantage of other park programming. It was a celebration of their local culture and a great social event over and over. As a nature center director, I started a music festival that became a great fundraiser and hosted many outdoor dances. We also had monthly music jams where players could learn from each other.



With our upcoming move to Hawaii, I am now learning to play ukulele and enjoying every minute of it. I hope to find opportunities to jam there, where the ukulele is part of the cultural soundscape at every community event (even though the instrument was originally introduced by the Portugese and is not considered a traditional Hawaiian instrument by many).


As a planner of interpretive experiences and trainer, I suggest that we think more about how to make music a part of the programming and ambiance of the places where we enjoy sharing our natural and cultural heritage. Neuroscience researchers suggest that the benefits of music to our well-being and in making memories are much more than we might have expected. Mr. Higgerson was obviously way ahead of them.


– Tim Merriman





13 Reasons to Take Our 2015 Tanzania Ecotour

elephantJoin us for this exciting opportunity from January 22nd to February 1st in Tanzania. Download the itinerary and TANZANIA REGISTRATION


  1. If you want to see lions, leopards, cheetah, elephants, cape buffalo, black rhinos, hippos, monkeys and diverse kinds of birds in their natural savannah habitats, you cannot do better than visiting the national parks and conservation areas of Tanzania.
  2. Tanzania has over a hundred distinct tribes and we meet and spend time with people from many cultural communities over our eleven-day tour as we visit a Maasai village, tour Mto wa Mbu village, and visit the Iraqwi cultural center.
  3. We travel as a very small group of 10 to 12 persons in Toyota Land Cruisers custom-designed for the rugged terrain of Tanzania that provide excellent photography opportunities from open roofs and windows.
  4. We stay in unique ecotour lodges, permanent tented camps and portable tented camps that keep us close to the landscape and wildlife.
  5. We are in the Serengeti during one of the best periods to see tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebras during the great migration that occurs each year. And the big cats follow the migration.
  6. Gabriel Kavishe of Maasai Magic Safaris is our exceptional guide who grew up in a Chaga community, attended a boarding school with Maasai young people, and worked with some of the most leopardsskilled researchers studying the wildlife of this unique nation.
  7. Lisa and I are making our eighth trip to East Africa to lead the tour and train guides. We enjoy serving as thoughtful hosts for people from other parts of the world.
  8. It’s expensive to make this journey but the price only goes up each year so now is the very best time to make the commitment in terms of price.
  9. Africa loses incredible wildlife resources to poaching and habitat destruction each year but if you go now, you can have a very similar experience to what enchanted visitors like Ernest Hemingway in the past.
  10. Space is limited and we had 3 reservations in the first 15 minutes the itinerary was posted so putting down your deposit early will guarantee the trip of a lifetime to Tanzania and the Serengeti.
  11. tim.maasaiThis is not a strenuous trip because we mostly observe wildlife from vehicles with open tops that permit easy photography in a safe environment. We do some easy walking in cultural communities.
  12. When else can you walk in the footsteps of your ancestors? We’ll visit Olduvai Gorge where the Leakeys found evidence of the earliest people.
  13. Our ecotours are designed to promote conservation of the local environment and contribute to local economies. Your fees help both conservation and humanitarian projects in East Africa.


If you have questions, we are anxious to answer them – call us now at 970-231-0537 or download the registration packet and let’s get started.


– Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu



Tim and Jim learn from Daniel about the traditions of Iraqwi people in protecting their home and cattle from cattle thieves.


The Interpretive Farm, Oz Style


entryWe were recently driving south from Melbourne to Phillip Island in Australia to watch the amazing emergence of 16,000 little penguins from the ocean at dusk. Along the highway we spotted a series of signs much like the old Burma Shave signs in the U.S., which were sequences of messages that pique your interest. These did the same, but the point of interest was a dairy farm. We were ready for a break from driving on the “wrong side” of the road and the traditions of afternoon tea in Australia are compelling.


The Caldermeade Farm and Café entry feature on the highway included a stack of milk cans atop an easily read sign. Clear directions to the parking area take visitors past fields of farm animals. A nice welcome sign at the entry trail to the café immediately made options available – we could either go straight in for tea, pet the baby cows, see the other small animals (piglets, chicks, bunnies), or wait an hour to see the cows come home and get milked in the barn. We could see families out in a farm petting area with young Holstein calves and goats and barnopted for tea instead, but we did note that the large milking barn had viewing windows all the way round allowing a self-guided view of the activities in the barn. We went into the café and enjoyed delicious scones, like the American biscuits you’d get with biscuits and gravy but served with berry jam and fresh clotted cream with hot coffee. Heaven. As I paid the bill, we browsed the gift shop, which had tea towels and other items with iconic black and white cows, along with a variety of the jams and honey made on the farm, local wines, and of course, a variety of stuffed toy farm animals. On the way out I was amused by the farm weather station that used a rock on a rope to monitor conditions.


This kind of interpretive farm is interesting for so many reasons. It helps city dwellers, especially children, understand where their daily milk and related products originate. The combination of good food, places to walk farm4around and touch animals and a storyline about the farm creates a quality, complete experience. It makes you want to tell others about it. We could have stopped at the fast food shops one kilometer further and paid less for a quick snack that would be even more quickly forgotten, but we can do that any day in any place. This unique experience created a memory, embedded in all of our senses.


Farm interpretation (also known as agritourism) is not new. Winery tours with interpretation have been popular in some areas for many years. In Scotland, you’re likely to come across tours of malt whiskey distilleries. The interpretive tour of New Belgium Brewery in our hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado is excellent. And nothing beats the Bluebell Creamery tour in Brenham, Texas, especially on a hot summer’s day (a product sample is included with every tour).


farm3Caldermeade was especially inventive in using signs along the highway at the decision point. We had no idea where we would stop along our two-hour drive, but we knew we would stop somewhere. Their clever signs invited us to stop and try their fare. And we were glad we did.


And, by the way, the penguins were amazing on Phillip Island. If you get to Melbourne, go see the penguins and have a snack at Caldermeade Farm on the way.


–Tim Merriman




5 Ways to Turn T-shirts into Memorabilia with a Message

Hawaii TI love owning, wearing and buying t-shirts. They are comfortable, usually inexpensive, and serve as a palette for art and messaging. I can think of five good reasons to use them at interpretive sites and in social marketing campaigns as a way to promote your mission and message.


  1. Brand Recognition – At its simplest, a good t-shirt with your logo or an theme-related slogan will advertise your brand to everyone who sees it. People who love you will wear it everywhere and that lets others know that you exist.


  1. Event Memorabilia – If you offer special events, great t-shirts each year become collectors’ souvenirs of the event. Each one should have something that ties it to events from previous years thematically but also show something distinctive for each year. Don’t forget to include your logo or brand identity in addition to any specially designed logos for the annual event.

advice T

  1. Great Messages – Really well thought out messages or quotes that link with the brand or organization can get people to notice the wearer and start a conversation. For example, printing the bold phrase “Only elephants should own ivory” is a great message on a shirt for an elephant conservation organization.


  1. Art with a Message – A beautiful t-shirt with exceptional artwork always attracts attention. Like a great written message, artwork makes a statement that can start a conversation between the wearer and the observer that can provide the opportunity to invite people to your organization’s website for additional information.


  1. Iconic T-shirts – When a t-shirt represents something special in your life, it becomes a treasure. Creating a unique shirt for political campaigns, fundraising efforts, or links to once in a lifetime events may create a collector’s item (which may then become a fundraising opportunity as well). The problem with these iconic shirts is that they are likely to stay in the closet. I have a treasured political campaign T-shirt I rarely wear because I want it to last. I rarely show it off, so its message doesn’t get seen as often as it should.


padvtreLGIlan Shamir of Your True Nature is an interpretive entrepreneur who writes, produces, and distributes the “Advice From . . . “ series of T-shirts, bookmarks, and other unique memorabilia mostly at parks, zoos, museums, nature centers and recreation sites. This popular series started with Advice from a Tree and has expanded in all directions. Lisa and I have several, ranging from Advice from a Shark to Advice from a Volcano. When we wear them, people smile and ask questions about the shirt. The messages have their attention because they are short, clever, and visually appealing.


I always prefer an interpretive gift shop with shirts that closely match the theme and feeling of the organization. When you can sell your own site-specific product the branding is always stronger. But shirts like the “Advice . . .” series may be a way to deliver a message compatible with your theme without having to create your own line of tees.


– Tim Merriman