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March Mammal Madness Takes to Twitter 2/28/2021

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By Karen B. Moore

Who would win in a battle between a musk deer and an aoudad? Or between a harpy eagle and a Goliath beetle? What about a pink vent fish and a lathe action (snail)? The answer to those questions could be answered in March Mammal Madness 2021 that starts March 1.

What started as a bit of Twitter-based fun among friends nine years ago has grown into a teaching tool used by educators from elementary school through college, and resulted in a paper published in eLife. ESF's Dr. Joshua Drew, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Biology, is a co-author on the paper that breaks illustrates the power of narrative in science outreach.

"March Mammal Madness is a simulated tournament of empirically-informed, yet hypothetical, encounters between animal 'combatants.' March Mammal Madness (MMM) seamlessly blends four approaches to science outreach- gamification, social media platforms, community event(s), and creative products- with salient animal-based content to reach large and diverse audiences," according to the paper.

In other words, storytelling.

"I think it's been successful is because it's grounded in storytelling that creates an emotional bond between the players and these animals and people get invested in that," Drew said. "As an educator, if you can get people invested and caring about the subject of their education, then those lessons stay with people much longer than simply having to memorize a couple of facts to do well on a test."

Dr. Katie Hinde from Arizona State was the originator of March Mammal Madness using a 64-animal bracket, and biological research to create (simulated) battles. Drew and colleagues from other institutions joined the fray in 2013 helping to devise the bracket and write the "battles" based on the mammals' characteristics, the defenses, and offenses it would use in the wild.

Initially, the group would get individual emails from students and teachers complimenting them on the competition. Around 2016, the group noticed a change, because it was a different way for such material to be presented, they started seeing educators incorporate it into lessons. "There's a lot more humor in it and there's more storytelling," Drew said. "They found that resonated with students who perhaps traditional methods weren't getting through."

"It transitioned from this 'let's be silly on Twitter' thing and became a real educational tool," he said. "Teachers would set up dedicated accounts to follow March Mammal Madness," Drew said and share pictures of school hallways festooned with brackets.

In their paper, the scientists looked at the 2019 data where they had approximately 1 percent of all high school students participating. "That blows my mind that so many kids were playing," Drew said.

March Mammal Madness continues to grow in popularity. Spawning a creative community, Drew said. "We've got people who do ESPN-style write-ups or videos the day after with puppets. We've got people who have done songs based on it. It's been fun to see," he said.

While it's mostly fun and games, a lot of work goes into the competition. "Now that we know this is being used by teachers and they're being seen by such a big audience, we want to make sure we're are appropriate with how we present the information."

The group partnered with the Arizona State University, where Hinde is an associate professor, to produce library guides, selected readings, and curriculum packages. "We made sure that this year we have them in English and Spanish. We also have an educator guide that went out to help teachers contextualize this including what is March Mammal Madness and how they can use it."

Like March Madness, people can download their bracket, fill it out and follow the action on Twitter with the hashtag #2021MMM. There is also a blog that summarizes the action each morning for those that don't have Twitter http://mammalssuck.blogspot.com/2021/02/march-mammal-madness-2021.html

The battles can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes on the Twitterverse. "The battles have ups and downs, with animals being on the ropes and miraculous comebacks," said Drew. "Everything we like about March Madness we try to recreate in March Mammal Madness, including the occasional 16-to1 upset."