A science game involving simulated animal battles reached half a million middle and high school students in the United States in 2021. Through this game, the students learned fundamental science principles. 

March Mammal Madness

Credit: Steve Filmer, Arizona State University

A science game involving simulated animal battles reached half a million middle and high school students in the United States in 2021. Through this game, the students learned fundamental science principles. 


Katie Hinde, an associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University is the creator of March Mammal Madness. Hinde will explore successful public engagement in science with MMM in her discussion, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 


“I’ll be talking about the ways in which humans as a species have cognitive adaptations for learning information, socially and what kinds of information they’re learning about.” Hinde said. 


The anthropologist explains the importance of using stories and narratives for engaging adults and children in science and how these techniques have been used for thousands of years. 


“Stories bring together aspects of the natural world and abstract ideas, and allows the scaffolding of new knowledge onto the learner’s existing knowledge. A story is co-constructed back and forth between the listener’s imagination and the storyteller’s narrative in dynamic ways, and different contingencies or events unfold.” Hinde said. 


MMM started in 2013 when Hinde did a bracket in one of her labs, then posted it to her blog. She wanted an animal tournament that was based on science. After all, the NCAA’s single elimination basketball tournament invites over 5 dozen teams. MMM has grown exponentially with a team of over 30 people, including scientists, scientific illustrators, artists, and librarians. 


Every year MMM features 65 new species in a 4 Division bracket freely available to the public. Players make their predictions about who’ll advance to the Elite Trait and the Final Roar to eventually become the March Mammal Madness Champion. “Behind the curtain” scientists use internal “scouting reports” to estimate probabilities, and then employ randomization to allow for upsets. Once the official outcome is determined, scientist-narrators gather information from the scholarly literature and then craft facts about physical traits and behaviors into a gripping story of a back-and-forth battle. The story is then performed as “live” play-by-play sports commentary on social media. 


But the MMM story is more than the live performance. “Librarians curate links for kids to do research, and lesson plans for teachers to guide student learning about adaptations and ecosystems, and puppeteers do a “sports” show for classroom updates the next morning,” Hinde said. “We develop all of these curricular materials that are tied to next-generation science standards and all of this is made freely available to any educator and learner who wants to engage.” 


Hinde and colleagues teamed up with ASU Libraries to develop an archive of these resources that exist in the ASU Library Keep Collection for educators, students and the public.


“What we know about children is that they have incredibly inquiring minds,” Hinde said. “What is this, why is that, how does that happen? And children are intrinsically, naturally adaptively little scientists full of wonder and imagination about the world. March Mammal Madness is designed to lean into what we understand about how human minds are adapted to learn.” 


Hinde says it’s time to start thinking about ways outside of just facts to teach children science. She would like to see more stories and narratives in science education like has been used in history and literature classes. She also says it’s important to show children scientists who are active today and that science should be for everyone. 


“I will be talking about how evolutionary social science has so much to offer life scientists who are keen to communicate about the importance of science, the findings of science and how to bring evidence-based understanding into people’s everyday lives.” Hinde said. “We see today how important valuing science and recognizing evidence is, now more than ever before in my life.”