How do hornets make their paper nests? What’s the secret to spotting springtime salamanders? Naturalist and outdoor educator Karen McDonald gives nonscientists a peek into the secrets of the flora and fauna all around them through her blog, The Infinite Spider ( http://infinitespider.com). McDonald, an education outreach coordinator with the Maryland-based Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, writes the blog as part of a personal mission to equip the average person with tools to explore the natural world.
Q. From your website, we learn why we need never fear the appearance of a 50-foot cockroach, that some birds have built-in toe combs used for preening feathers and that bats have regional dialects. What would you say is the thread that ties all your blog posts together?
A. The idea that I provide neat information that gets people curious about nature and to be inspired to find it interesting and fascinating, like I do. And I try to provide information that would be useful for people leading walks and talks and in the classroom.
Q. Early in our nation’s history, it was common for people to pursue careers or hobbies as naturalists. In a world of scientific specialization, are naturalists now a dying breed?
A. It depends. I think people are specializing more and more. But then there’s always a demand, too, for people who have a broad spectrum of knowledge and information, as well. That’s why you find degrees like environmental science. Unfortunately, I find the amount of science literacy is going down in some ways. What I’m seeing is an absorption with technology and virtual reality as opposed to the real world. And … there’s a term coined for that: nature deficit disorder.
Q. What is needed to make people see science as approachable?
A. I’ve been an educator for 15 years. I like to show by doing. I’ll hold an insect and say, “Hey, come check this out.” Or write a blog post about 50-foot cockroaches.
Q. What are some of your favorite subjects to tackle in writing?
A. Bio mimicry is one of my all-time favorites. It’s going to nature as a teacher, looking for solutions, (helping) scientists, engineers and designers to solve problems. It’s an emerging field. And birds: I’m an avid birder, and I love birds and insects. … The purpose of this blog is not to aim just for educators but to inspire (in everyone) that sense of wonder.