Ever since Lake Lahontan dried up thousands of years ago, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada has been a forbidding habitat. The flat terrain is covered with a white alkaline powder, and dust storms are frequent. That has not deterred revelers at the annual Burning Man festival, however. This year they have come bearing water fleas, tardigrades and other creatures that would have been more at home in the Pleistocene lake.

“Ohhhhh, there's one!” Mariya Levina, wearing a lab coat over a bikini top and shorts, her pink hair pulled back in a ponytail, is peering into one of four microscopes arranged on a folding table. She is looking at a trumpet-shaped protozoan, Stentor, as it lurches to a halt on the slide.

The mobile science exhibit, known as the MicroZoo, is the brainchild of bioengineer Tristan Ursell, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. He aims to reconnect visitors, for whom science classes may be a distant (or even unpleasant) memory, with the wonder of biology. “There's a whole world just out of view,” Ursell says. “I want people to think about that.”

At another microscope, an iPad screen displays a magnified specimen of human skin. A group of young, tattooed men begins zooming in on different parts of the sample, posing questions about what they are seeing.

The MicroZoo is just one manifestation of science on the playa. The Phage, a 100-plus-member “theme camp,” hosts nightly talks on topics ranging from stem cells to 3-D modeling. Burning Man may be known more for parties and sculpture pyrotechnics, but by attending, “people allow themselves to be curious,” Ursell says. “They're open to trying new things.”