Paper No. 306-2
Presentation Time: 2:00 PM
LIFE ON A STERILE PLANET – RESULTS FROM A PILOT STUDY ON MISCONCEPTIONS OF MASS EXTINCTIONS
Mass extinctions play a major role in shaping the history of life on our planet, and with the likelihood that we are experiencing another such event, it is imperative that we understand how students develop their beliefs towards this topic. This presentation introduces data from our pilot study into student misconceptions towards mass extinctions. Since the Fall of 2014, students taking a course on Earth History have completed a short survey designed to elicit both the range of misconceptions as well as the origin of those beliefs. Participants were Earth Science, Biology, or Science Teaching majors. The results reveal a range of misconceptions on this topic including the belief that each successive mass extinction results in a sterilized planet devoid of all life – including bacteria. Another common misconception is that animals die off but plants are unaffected. Questions that probed the origin of these beliefs found that many students first encountered the concept form the extinction of the dinosaurs, but an almost equal number of students claimed to learn about extinctions in their formal science classes. When asked how many mass extinctions have occurred, answers ranged from once (the dinosaurs) to tens of thousands, with most informed answers being less than 10. Origins of these extinctions also varied, but focused on changes in the environment or climate with a few students invoking catastrophic events such asteroid impacts or black holes. Given that many of the participants were biology majors, it is not surprising that their responses had an ecological bias. These results suggest that many of our students enter our courses with misconceptions about mass extinctions. Future plans include interviewing students to probe deeper into the origins of their beliefs and expanding the participant pool to include the general student population.