GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA - 2019

Paper No. 97-9
Presentation Time: 10:40 AM


RITTERBUSH, Kathleen A., Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah, 115 S 1460 E #383, Salt Lake City, UT 84112

When we transform science research, but fail to transform science education, we exacerbate gaps in accessibility, literacy, and opportunity for new generations. Paleontology provides a frustrating example. Cladograms are tree-like diagrams that communicate paths of animal evolution. Trees are good examples of conflict between science fields eventually revising scientific consensus. Understandably, generations of today’s science teachers were originally taught hierarchical taxonomy, a more rigid scheme emphasizing different principals. This asynchrony widens gaps in science education across generations and regions. California’s standards for secondary biology education now require cladograms, but Utah’s standards do not. Many geoscience faculty are tasked with teaching evolution in the fossil record, but may have only a session or two to cover it. Many of us resort to outdated schemes familiar to the students, or use pre-packaged, jargon-heavy lessons (with oversimplified or imaginary examples) to present a new scheme that remains opaque to our students.

I will lead two quick and fun activities that introduce students to tree-thinking in evolution. The first uses cards with images of common home or class pets (e.g., goldfish, frog, dog, parakeet) to help students recognize shared derived characteristics in animals. Most traditionally-educated students are surprised by the “right” answer; this helps the instructor highlight a new concept in a fun way. The continued lesson helps students draw trees to represent descent with modification. It uses clear real-world examples, prevents the most common misconceptions, and requires no new vocabulary.

In the second activity, students receive a bag of four toy dinosaurs (some mixed with other animals) and are asked to apply what they learned with the pets. Now, most students are surprised by the “right” answers to the puzzle. This lesson shows how bones and fossils can resolve fundamental evolutionary and ecological puzzles. It builds curiosity for challenging material in specialized courses (World of Dinosaurs; Paleobiology), or, in a more general course, helps students view paleontology as an ongoing and surprising field of research.

Students deserve up-to-date science education, in language they can understand, with examples grounded in real observations.