A degu, a small mammal found only in Chile, is bringing together the Chattanooga community. In partnership with the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA), the Chattanooga Zoo, and local TV station WTCI, the University is creating a collaborative educational outreach program to inform students and the community about this little known animal.

A degu in a radiocollar.                                       Photo Credit: Dr. Loren Hayes

“This is a multi-faceted project involving the UTC Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering, and the UTeaChattanooga (UTeach) program. This outreach program will impact the education of numerous groups in the Chattanooga community, including high school and university students, zoo visitors, and viewers of WTCI TV,” Dr. Loren Hayes, Assistant Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said.

Hayes, who has studied degus, a social-living rodent, has been collaborating on behavioral and physiological studies with Luis Ebensperger of Universidad Catolica de Chile and Michael Romero of Tufts University. He is especially interested in how the degus’ communal rearing of young affects the animal’s stress levels and reproductive health. Last year, his first at UTC, Hayes took two UTC students to assist with his projects. He has brought 25 students to Chile since 2005.

“It’s crucial that students are actively involved in the scientific method and doing field research and lab work is a huge part of that. It introduces them to the joys and pitfalls of doing research and teaches them about the living world around them. Research with an international focus also exposes the students to new cultures and experiences. That exposure is powerful in giving a student a new perspective and a career-enhancing network,” he said.

With an outreach program planned for CGLA, Hayes hopes to inspire a new generation of scientists. UTC students will take what they’ve learned from their research on degus in South America and apply it to the prarie dogs located at the Chattanooga Zoo, located just a few miles from campus.

“We want to take the science we’re doing in Chile back to local schools. The hope is that our students take some of what they’ve learned in Chile and educate the students at CGLA. We hope to excite the kids about science,” he said.

In addition to partnering with local schools, the community will get a chance to learn more about degus. Hayes and students will participate in filming documentary segments for WTCI, and UTC College of Engineering students will plan and help build a prairie dog exhibit at the zoo.

“The exhibit will allow children to look into the prairie dog burrows, increasing the long-lasting educational value of the exhibit to the Chattanooga community,” Hayes said.

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