Paper No. 6
Presentation Time: 3:00 PM
PALEONTOLOGY IN DECLINE - MAKING FOSSILS LIVE AGAIN
Since the 1980s, there has been a drastic reduction of classical paleontology programs in US universities coupled with calculated censure attempts on evolution in schools, museums, and park programs. Thus, it is important to restructure how the discipline is taught and perceived by the public. Paleontology courses must be made more relevant in geology departments' curricula and should no longer simply concentrate on morphology and taxonomy. One way to do this is to link society to its geologic history and disseminate theories about the past environmental changes and the lessons that they have for human society and economy. This means not only reasserting that our economy is dependent on fossil fuels, but linking current paleoecology theories to hot topics such as anthropogenic climate change, habitat loss, and implications of altering natural selection pressures. Topics that I have found to stimulate students the most include the development and paleoecology of the Ediacaran Fauna and its role in the Cambrian Explosion and the faunal and environmental changes that occurred during the Great Dying at the end Permian. Both of these examples, when taught with relevance to our society, excite and motivate students towards paleontology.
Exercises that not only teach basic paleontology concepts but relate to the student's daily lives are becoming important tools. For example, one successful exercise reconstructs the Ediacaran fauna using clay and not only teaches morphology but how structure is related to function and how species interact to create assemblages. Another on the Permian Extinction examines the possible causes then discusses the structure of marine faunal assemblages before and after the event. This is followed by a similar exercise on human influences presently constituting the major pressures on biodiversity (not continent building, asteroids, climate, anoxia, ocean currents, etc.). This exercise relates paleontology to recent ecology and allows students to see that evolutionary patterns occur at immense spatio-temporal scales and that our society will have influences that could linger for millions of years.