A New Kind Of March Madness Hits Schools

Originally published on March 30, 2017 8:22 am

It's a little after 8 a.m. at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., and Michelle Harris' AP Environmental Science class is getting right to it.

"All right, you guys got your brackets out?" Harris asks.

The class of mostly juniors and seniors ruffle through folders and pull out pieces of paper with brackets — 64 slots, four quadrants, and one central box to predict the championship. But there's something a little different about these brackets ...

"We're going to jump down to the fourth-seeded spider monkey against the 12th-seeded antelope squirrel," Harris says.

"Spider monkey better win!" one student shouts from the back of the class.

This is March Mammal Madness: Round 2. It's a competition that has been playing out online and in hundreds of classrooms over the past month. Real animals wage fictional battles, while students use science — a lot of it — to try to predict the winner.

March Mammal Madness was created five years ago by Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, though now, she says, the competition depends on a whole team of volunteer scientists and conservationists: biologists, animal behaviorists, paleoanthropologists, marine biologists.

Hinde's team meets every year for a Selection Sunday of its own. Team members pick the animals that will compete and even decide who will win, though they keep it a secret. That's because a whole lot of research has to be done.

Each scientist is assigned a specific battle, then studies up and writes a battle story based on facts.

"Then the battles are live-tweeted as a dynamic, play-by-play story, much like someone would watch a basketball game," Hinde says.

Those tweets link to scientific articles, videos, photos, fossil records — whatever the team can use to drop knowledge into the story. That's why so many teachers, including Michelle Harris, have begun using the brackets in class.

As in basketball, there are plenty of upsets and broken hearts — like the time a snow leopard and a flying squirrel faced off in the rain forest. The snow leopard overheated and lost. Or the time tourists used their human junk food to lure an adorable quokka off the playing field.

"Sometimes animals can displace one another. Sometimes animals can hide, animals can run away. Sometimes they get eaten. Sometimes they actually engage in contact aggression," Hinde says.

It's a little ridiculous, but she says the point is to have fun while also creating a learning opportunity.

"We really try to showcase animals that people might never have heard of," she says. "Like dhole and bandicoot and binturong and babirusa."

At Wakefield High, Michelle Harris is going over the tweets from one of the previous night's battles: the No. 6 seed tiger versus the No. 3 seed leopard seal.

"And apparently we need to bundle up," she tells the class, "because we're headed to the vast coastal ice floes of Antarctica!"

Near the back of the class, senior Jordan Simpson giggles with Tiara Jones, both looking at a computer screen. They've Googled the bilby, a tiny Australian marsupial with big, rabbitlike ears. Simpson says she picked it to go all the way.

"I thought it was cute," she says with a laugh. "I knew it had no chance, but I thought I'd give it a shot."

Jones bursts out laughing. The bilby was ousted in the first round by a Tibetan sand fox.

Harris says those fits of giggles are a big reason she uses the bracket in class.

"This time of year can be a little stressful as we're leading up to AP exams, so it's nice to have a little bit of fun along the way," she says.

That's Hinde's ultimate goal, too — to make science fun.

"I think it's a chance to return to that time when science was all about the imagination and the wonder at the natural world," she says. "Science is narrative, and that is incredibly salient to the human mind."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The NCAA March Madness tournament features some tough matchups - badgers versus gators, rams versus bulldogs, wolverines against cardinals. But what if those animals actually did face off, like in nature? Who would win? Kat Lonsdorf on the NPR Ed Team found a bracket that takes that question seriously and makes it educational.

MICHELLE HARRIS: All right, you guys got your brackets out?

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: It's first period at Wakefield High in Arlington, Va. And Miss Harris' AP environmental science class is getting right to it.

HARRIS: So we're going to jump down to the fourth seed, spidermonkey against the 12th-seeded antelope squirrel.

LONSDORF: This is March Mammal Madness round two.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Spidermonkey better win.

LONSDORF: It's a competition playing out in hundreds of classrooms around the country and on the Internet. It puts real animals in fictional battles and uses science - a lot of it - to figure out who'd win. March Mammal Madness was created five years ago by Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University. And now, Hinde says, there's a whole team of volunteers behind it.

KATIE HINDE: Biologists, animal behaviorists, paleoanthropologists, marine biologists.

LONSDORF: That team meets virtually every year to have a Selection Sunday of their own. They pick the animals, and they decide who's going to win, but keep the outcomes a secret. That's because a whole lot of research has to be done. Each battle is assigned to a specific scientist, who studies up and then writes a battle story based on facts. The battles are tweeted throughout the month...

HINDE: As an active play-by-play dynamic story, much like somebody watching a basketball game unfold.

LONSDORF: And the tweets link to scientific articles, videos, photos, fossil records, whatever the team can use to drop knowledge into a story. Which is why teachers, like Michelle Harris here in Virginia, have started using the brackets in class. There are heartbreaks and upsets too, like the time a snow leopard and a flying squirrel faced off in the rain forest. The snow leopard overheated and lost. Or the time a quokka, this cute fuzzy animal from Australia, was lured off the playing field by a group of tourists feeding it human junk food. Sure, it's a little ridiculous. But Hinde says the point is to have fun while creating a learning opportunity.

HINDE: We really try and showcase animals that a lot of people might not have ever heard of.

LONSDORF: Animals like...

HINDE: Dhole and bandicoot and binturong and babirusa.

HARRIS: The number six seed tiger versus the number three seed, the leopard seal.

LONSDORF: At Wakefield High, senior Jordan Simpson is giggling with Tiara Jones looking up the bilby, a tiny Australian marsupial.

TIARA: I thought it was cute, so I picked it (laughter).

LONSDORF: You picked it going all the way?

TIARA: Yeah. I knew I had no chance. But I thought I'd give it a shot.

LONSDORF: Did it get knocked out already?

TIARA: Oh, yeah. It's gone (laughter) the first round.

LONSDORF: So your bracket was busted day one.

TIARA: Oh, yeah. It's done (laughter).

LONSDORF: I get it. My alma mater, the wildcats, they lost to the bulldogs. But at least they made it to round two. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "RUINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.