Educator How-To: Teaching taxonomy with simple sorting exercises

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to classify and categorize.

Objective: To gain a basic understanding of taxonomy by practicing sorting and classification skills.

Bags of assorted plastic animals
Index cards


Preparation: The beauty of this activity is that it takes very little teacher preparation!

Separate your class into groupings of no more than four children. Have the children collect small plastic animals from their homes to contribute to the project; they should all have them at the bottom of a toy box. Each group should have at least 20 animals, of any kind, that will all fit into a large zipping freezer bag.


1.    Working in groups, students will separate all the animals in the taxonomy bag into groups by identifying the various similarities the animals have in common. An example of this first grouping would be animals that have legs and animals that have fins. There are many ways to go about the first grouping; encourage each team to go with what makes sense to them.
2.    Next, the groupings are made smaller by sorting a second time. For example, you can separate by animals that have six legs or animals that have four legs.
3.    The teams should explore the many different ways they can sort and categorize the animals.
4.    When a team comes up with system with which they are satisfied, they should write a short, descriptive note card for each group of animals.
5.    The group will explain to the class how and why they sorted the animals in the manner they chose.


The taxonometric system of organism classification and organization is based upon the similarities between organisms. Carl Linnaeus, a biologist, is credited with the invention of this system of choosing standard scientific names for every organism. He chose Latin as the language to be used in this process.


Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the Binomial Naming System.

These are scientific names, not the common names that people use day to day. You may call your pet a cat or a dog, but the scientific name for your dog is Canis familiarus.  A scientist that doesn’t speak your language would understand which animal you are speaking of if you use the taxonomic, or scientific, name.

Linnaeus’ Binomial Naming System is employed to provide the scientific name for each organism. This system provides a two-part name for each organism based upon the genus and species of that particular organism. The first part of the name is the genus and the second the species. Homo sapiens, for example, is the name given humans in the Binomial Naming System.

The Heart of a Collector: 500 pez dispensers don’t lie

Pez Collection
Creative Commons License photo credit: Okaggi

One day it just happens. You look around your living space and realize, oh-my-gosh, I have 500 Pez dispensers. Well, ok, maybe not Pez dispensers and maybe not 500 of them but you do have a whole lot of one particular item. Congratulations! Whether intentional or not, you’ve got a collection!

Since you’re reading the HMNS blog, I’m thinking your collection probably runs more towards natural specimens and artifacts. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Pez dispensers or wombat figurines, every personal collection could use some management. And viewing your collection like a museum collections professional can be helpful.

To start, I’m putting on my registrar’s hat to caution all collectors strongly about specimen and artifact collection. There is a myriad of state, federal and international laws about surface collection, sale and import/export of natural history specimens and antiquities. Please be sure you’re up to date on them. Ignorance of these laws won’t get you out of hot water and the penalties are pretty stiff. If you want to know more about these laws contact me or a curator and we can point you towards the appropriate websites. Caveats issued, let’s begin.

Sand Dollars and Shells
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zevotron

First, define your collection – briefly please. Do you collect rocks, shells and fossils? Take a broader approach and say you collect natural science (or natural history) specimens. As you organize further you can break down the collection into its various categories of geology, conchology and paleontology. Next, spend some time pondering the scope of your collection. Are all additions welcome no matter how tangential? Or do you collect with a narrower focus? If your collection has a sharper focus what are the criteria? People collect for all kinds of personal reasons. The scope of your collection might be dictated by color, size, geographic place, cost or a combination of things. The important thing is to define it as one all-encompassing entity.

Now that you know what your collection is you have to know what’s in it. If you haven’t been an intentional collector it’s likely that you’re not so sure how many items you’ve got. An accurate count is essential. Start with an overall count of every item; for example, a pottery collection of thirty pieces. In the highly unlikely occurrence that you collect only one thing identically replicated over and over you can stop here.

Otherwise, the next step is where you truly put your own stamp on your collection. Decide and define the different categories of your collection. You’re not just a collector but a curator as well, so you can lump items together however it pleases you – size, shape, color, date, whatever. If you’re serious about natural science specimens, it is best to follow the Linnaean system. But whatever you use, get an accurate count of the number of items that fit in each category.

Harry Potter
A picture of the artist adds
to your collection.
Creative Commons License photo credit: lakshmi.prabhala

As every devout fan of the Antiques Roadshow knows, documentation is most important. Always document the date and place where you’ve collected. If you’ve added to your collection by purchase, keep the receipt. If your collection has ethnographic artifacts such as pottery or textiles, ask the artist if you if you can take their photograph. Getting yourself in a photograph with the artist also helps to document your collection. When collecting specimens be as specific as you can about location and circumstances.

Good images, digital or film, are very important. Individual images are best but group shots are good too. Brief written statements about your collection add to its educational value. Detailed documentation is of enormous help should you decide to part with your collection by donation or sale. It is absolutely necessary if your collection is lost to theft, fire or water. It’ll also stop your heirs from pitching it, especially if they haven’t a clue about what you collected.

How you keep track of your collection may also change over time.
This is the very first collections ledger for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Learn more in this year’s history series: 100 Years – 100 Objects.)

So, how do you keep on top of all that documentation and cataloguing? Again, it’s up to you. Many people do just fine keeping receipts, photos, etc. in an archival notebook or album. If you want to keep it all digitally you can scan hard copies (but keep those originals!) and use a spreadsheet for cataloguing. Excel will do, especially if you’ve got less than two hundred items. Should you want to get really serious, lots of collectors use Filemaker Pro, though I hasten to add that I haven’t personally worked with it. There are collection management databases but they’re all geared towards museums and libraries, expensive and way too complicated for the needs of a private collector.

These are just a few suggestions to start maintaining your collection. A future blog will cover basic care and preservation. And if all this seems too arduous, don’t worry about it. Collecting should be a fun and relaxing pursuit. After all, those 500 Pez dispensers are meant to be enjoyed.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (6.25.08)

I just can't get a break

Creative Commons License photo credit: jslander

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Sprained ankle? Eat two slices and call me in the morning. Researchers at the University of Bonn claim that the spice oregano – commonly found in pizza – can reduce inflammation.

Siberian mummies are revealing fascinting insights into a culture that warred with the ancient Greeks – including the earliest documented example of cancer.

You don’t want to know what happens when he blows his nose. A computer scientist has turned his face into a remote control – using facial recognition technology. 

Apparently, we’re all mutants. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that your genome changes during the course of your life.

The Linnean Society – named for famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus – has put its entire collection of plants and insects online. You can zoom in on these beautiful flash photos for an amazing look at all of the tiniest details. (Via)

What kingdom are you from?

We’ve seen how Carl Linnaeus’s system classifies Lucy. How is the classification that refers to her different from the one that refers to us?

Applied to humans, a Linnaean chart could be filled out in the following way. (Notice the prevalence of Greek and Latin terminology.)

Domain: Eukaryota – containing all organisms which have cells with a nucleus.

Kingdom: Animalia – including organisms with eukaryotic cells that have a cell membrane but lack a cell wall, are multicellular, and heterotrophic (meaning that they cannot synthesize their own food, as plants do.)

Phylum: Chordata – including animals with a notochord, dorsal nerve cord, and pharyngeal gill slits.

Subphylum: Vertebrata – animals possessing a backbone, which may be made of cartilage, to protect the dorsal nerve cord.

Class: Mammaliaendothermic vertebrates with hair and mammary glands which, in females, secrete milk to nourish the young.

Subclass: Placentalia – including animals that give birth to live young after a full, internal gestation period.

Order: Primates – including animals with a collar bone, eyes that face forward, grasping hands with fingers, and two types of teeth: incisors and molars. 

Family: Hominidae – including primates with upright posture, a large brain, stereoscopic vision, a flat face, and hands and feet with different specializations (such as grasping and walking).

Genus: Homo – having an s-curved spine, “man.”

Species: Homo sapiens – characterized by a high forehead, well-developed chin, and thin skull bones.

While Latin and Greek are no longer used when scientists write or e-mail each other, these languages continue to survive in the names given to plants and animals. For those few among us who did study Latin and Greek, here is one practical application of hours and hours of learning vocabulary and conjugating verbs: it allows one to more easily see the origins of the terms used and thus facilitates our understanding of what is meant.

For all those others who did not study these ancient languages, consider the old saying “The more it changes…”