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For most of the twentieth century, paleontology instruction focused on memorization of taxa, morphology, and stratigraphic ranges. Consequently, paleontology got the reputation as a boring, stagnant, musty old field with this “idiographic” approach that focused on details at the expense of the broader implications. The “Paleobiology Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s radically changed paleontological pedagogy. New generations of paleontologists who were weaned on the 1972 Raup and Stanley textbook (which had no systematic coverage of invertebrates) adopted a more dynamic, “law-like” or “nomothetic” approach. The emphasis on ideas, concepts, and controversies over memorization of names and dates makes paleontology far more interesting and relevant to geology majors, most of whom will not become paleontologists and will not need huge numbers of names to do their jobs. However, paleontology instructors still must include basic information about the major phyla of fossils or else the theoretical ideas lack any reference in reality. My own approach mixes both theoretical and systematic concepts, with lectures on major topics (taphonomy, ontogeny, population variation, speciation, micro and macroevolution, extinction, paleoecology, biogeography, functional morphology) alternating with lectures supplementing lab exercises.
It is commonly noted that students with no prior coursework in paleobiology are intrigued with it. Whatever the reason, many students look forward to an undergraduate course in the subject, even if they are not earth or life science majors. We, as instructors, can seize on this interest and build on it with careful course design. Here I describe a deliberate pedagogical approach in my undergraduate paleobiology course using repeated student-directed learning (SDL) activities. I also detail two course design strategies that I have found to be particularly successful: 1) placing uncommonly heavy emphasis on evolutionary processes, and 2) studying fossil groups according to their general chronological succession through the Phanerozoic. Specifically, SDL in this course involves a suite of activities that the students have some role in designing, such as choosing the study organism for an analysis or developing hypotheses for testing with data collected from the field. SDL activities are integrated into each course module, helping to create a learning environment of scientific inquiry that balances prescribed readings and lecture components with individual, interest-driven research investigations into captivating aspects of the discipline. The course design highlights evolutionary processes early in the term, then follows an unorthodox, chronological approach to organismal paleobiology in the course's second half. The strategies described here have met with success over many course iterations, both in terms of student evaluations of their own learning and in assessment of how students reach learning outcomes regarding the acquisition of knowledge and scientific research skill-sets.
This course is designed so that topics in invertebrate paleontology are discussed in the context of reefs and their change through time. The goal is to help undergraduate students connect modern conservation issues with an enlightened appreciation of the fossil record. Using reefs as the centralizing theme of the course allows key concepts (invertebrate taxonomy and systematics, form and function, evolution, etc.) to be emphasized while exploring the importance of biogenic buildups—and communities that inhabited ecosystems adjacent to those “engines of evolution”—from the past to the present. Students who satisfactorily complete the course achieve seven main learning objectives: They 1) are intimately familiar with the fossil record of marine invertebrate life; 2) understand the evolutionary history of reefs and the ecological roles played by key reef-building invertebrates through time; 3) are able to engage in discussions about paleontological data published in the primary literature; 4) are knowledgeable about the value of paleontological evidence for shedding insights into the decline of ancient and living reefs; 5) gain experience working collaboratively and thinking outside-of-the-box to explore solutions to societal problems linked with the degradation of modern coral reefs; 6) improve scientific writing; and 7) develop a personal style for communicating scientific information to the general public. During classroom discussions, laboratories, a field trip, and museum visit, students explore the anatomy, ecology, evolutionary history, and life-sustaining ecosystem services of shelly animals and associated marine organisms that coexisted in reefs and adjacent habitats past and present. Evolutionary events, including the Cambrian “explosion,” mass extinctions, and gaps in reef existence, are linked to dramatic physical (tectonic) and climatic changes that occurred in Earth's past. Emphasizing evidence for the impact of global change on ancient reef communities alerts students to the value of paleontological data for predicting how modern reefs—and invertebrates living in interconnected marine ecosystems—will respond as the Sixth Extinction gains traction. That topic is the focus of an optional extended study (nine-day field trip offered in alternate years during spring break) of modern and Pleistocene reefs on San Salvador Island, Bahamas.
Designing and teaching a vertebrate paleontology course for geoscience majors presents several challenges. Students often come to the course with limited or nonexistent biology backgrounds, and therefore may begin the semester anxious about their ability to master course material. Moreover, students may be skeptical about the value of learning vertebrate skeletal anatomy for their future careers as geoscientists. Vertebrate Paleontology and Taphonomy is an upper-level elective for geoscience majors that was intentionally designed to allow students to develop a basic understanding of vertebrate osteology for themselves before focusing on formational histories of vertebrate skeletal accumulations in geological context. The course relies heavily on hands-on exposure to modern and fossil skeletal material, field trips to local museum galleries and collections, cooperative laboratory activities and projects, and analysis of real-world data sets. Students work together with one another and the instructor to make observations on vertebrate fossils, analyze their own data and data from the primary literature, and interpret taphonomic histories of actual vertebrate assemblages. This structure makes success in the course less about ‘learning vertebrate paleontology’ and more about using vertebrate paleontology and taphonomy as a tool to become effective practicing geoscientists.
The future of any academic field relies on its ability and willingness to embrace change, objectively evaluate the value of that change over time, and adjust accordingly. Paleontology finds itself in a substantial educational paradigm shift with continued growth of online-based education; it has been slow to recognize and respond to the shift. This article describes technological changes facing paleontology education and provides a synthesis of recent literature of what is possible for faculty to adopt, from the simple to the complex. Trends in online learning are evaluated, as are quality issues behind some educator resistance to this learning format. Original research, the SOUP survey, demonstrates less than 2% integration of online technology in paleontology education at the undergraduate level. This new SOUP research is compared to previous work, the SUDSE survey, which showed a marginally greater use of the same technologies across science disciplines. The current best practice in online paleontology instruction should establish learning objectives with an emphasis on targeted levels of competence, rather than content memorization. Moreover, best practice incorporates a variety of online learning options that both novice and experienced online faculty members can successfully manage beyond such basics as enhancing and optimizing communication through course facilitation whether in fully online, blended, or webfacilitated formats. These include use of theme-based, problem-based, and just-in-time learning; incorporating games; maximizing informal paleontology resources, and judicious use of virtual-reality applications.
The high-enrollment introductory paleontology course, “Prehistoric Life,” taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington fulfills general-education life-science credit. Most students enter the course with little knowledge of evolution (90% are non-science majors). Some assume evolution and religion are incompatible, and as non-science students, they have little incentive to learn about topics perceived to threaten their faith. Nevertheless, such students need to be prepared to make informed decisions on public-policy issues related to teaching evolution. Five principal strategies have been effective in teaching evolution to such students: 1) creating a student-centered classroom in which active/ collaborative learning engages student interest and prevents them from tuning out a threatening topic; 2) building a foundation for evolution by fostering understanding of the fossil record and geologic time; 3) in discussing evolution, focusing not only on the evidence for and mechanisms of evolution, but also clarifying the nature of science and differentiating it from religion, reinforcing that science and religion need not conflict; 4) giving students the opportunity to respond in writing to one of the position statements on evolution available from professional societies; this approach helps students formulate their own views, reassures them that their religious beliefs are respected, and fends off potential hostility during class; and 5) cultivating evolutionary thinking throughout the course (e.g., discuss evidence for evolutionary transitions and role of natural selection in evolution of various groups). These strategies have been successful in fostering student learning about evolution as indicated by teaching evaluations, student attendance, and comments in student reflection papers on evolution.
A cornerstone of paleontological education is the topic of evolution. While formal evolutionary biology classes made up of lectures and labs are essential for students of biology and paleontology, these classes are closed to most non-science majors because they often require multiple prerequisites. Because of a combination of anti-evolution cultural forces and shortcomings in evolution-based education at the K-12 level, many American college students have not received accurate or effective evolution instruction before entering college. Because a working knowledge of evolution is essential for developing biological scientific literacy, some colleges and universities now offer seminar-style evolution courses designed for non-science majors that can help reverse this trend. Seminars such as these offer students the added opportunity to develop more sophisticated writing, speaking, and critical-thinking skills in the context of evolutionary biology. This chapter highlights two successful course models and two shorter course modules, provides lists of teaching resources, and details a number of different writing and discussion-based pedagogical strategies as they apply to teaching evolution in a seminar setting.
Students will come to class with misconceptions about evolution and about the nature of science itself. Erroneous views that create obstacles to teaching evolution include: 1) that the fossil record does not support evolutionary continuity between different taxonomic groups; 2) that the expected temporal pattern of evolution is linear and ladder-like; and 3) that evolutionary hypotheses are not subject to scientific testing. These views negatively impact the understanding of evolutionary science, particularly paleontology, in a number of ways. It is important that these misconceptions be recognized and explicitly countered. If student's false ideas are left unaddressed, new knowledge presented in the classroom will likely simply be superimposed on, or integrated with them. Effective teaching thus requires that we not only impart new knowledge, but seek to correct previously held false ideas. This essay presents several teaching strategies that can address misconceptions about evolution. These include: 1) teaching important concepts in their historical context; 2) having students construct and interpret cladograms; and 3) showing that, when interpreted as evolutionary trees, cladograms make testable predictions of the fossil record.
Although phylogenetic systematics is used to reconstruct evolutionar 123y relationships, undergraduates have a difficult time mastering its fundamental concepts. Because it is a key part of the mainstream professional thinking, we explored in what ways students misread cladograms, which are the abstract and synthetic diagrams of phylogenetic systematics. We developed a questionnaire to examine the following four hypotheses as to how introductory college-level students (n=51) read cladograms: 1) students read cladograms correctly; 2) students infer that proximity of tips equals relatedness; 3) students read cladograms as they might an evolutionary tree, reading left to right as primitive to more advanced, and perceiving organisms as branching off; and 4) students infer ancestors at the nodes. Most responses fell into one of the four hypotheses, with 55% following the scientific (‘correct’) hypothesis. Most students answered between six and eight of the ten questions correctly. Slightly more than half of the students generally followed the scientific hypothesis, while others applied both the scientific and proximity (hypothesis 2, above) hypotheses together. A few students followed the primitive hypothesis (hypothesis 3, above). Our recommendation is that instructors address discrepancies between the scientific and proximity hypotheses in particular. For undergraduates, generally, cladograms require focused teaching, explanation, and active-learning approaches to be successfully used to teach phylogenetic systematics.
In the most effective learning environments, undergraduates go beyond memorization to become more deeply engaged with the material. Active learning approaches, in which students participate in activities that result in improved learning, promote this sort of deep experience. Educational theories such as constructivism and recent research in cognitive and learning sciences demonstrate the importance of allowing students opportunities to confront misconceptions, reason out solutions, work collaboratively, and construct their own understandings of key concepts. Numerous studies have documented improved learning in classes using active learning approaches when compared to traditional class formats. Various obstacles to implementing active learning strategies exist, such as student and faculty resistance to such practices and the academic reward structure, which penalizes faculty who invest time in innovative teaching. These obstacles, however, are not insurmountable—effective communication of the benefits of active learning for improving student learning outcomes and the recruitment and retention of STEM majors can help. Paleontology instructors have a wide variety of active learning techniques to choose from, including some that make use of our field's uniquely visual and temporal characteristics (e.g., concept sketches, timelines), current research areas (e.g., textual analysis, case studies, guided inquiry), and classic controversies (e.g., role-playing, debates, and panel discussions). New technologies, such as classroom response devices and Web 2.0 tools, can facilitate many of these activities both in and out of the classroom. Incorporating active learning approaches into paleontology courses can help instructors clarify their course goals and learning outcomes while empowering students to succeed.
The Conceptual Change Model (CCM) is an instructional approach that helps students learn by deliberately targeting their misconceptions. The teaching of such paleontological topics as evolution, phylogenetics, and functional morphology—three concept-rich units that are components of any paleontology course—is confounded by ingrained misunderstandings. The inquiry-based CCM was developed to take into account current theories of brain function. It fully supports the National Research Council's standards for inquiry and follows their recommendations for teaching science. The CCM instructional process allows students to: identify their own preconceptions, recognize the wide variety of beliefs held by classmates, confront their misconceptions, revise and reconstruct their ideas, apply their knowledge, and, finally, ask new questions for further study and growth. Implementation of the model provides a socially safe and challenging environment that engages students in ways not possible in traditional lecture settings. The CCM is employed in the upper-division course in paleontology at Florida Gulf Coast University. The principles of the paleontology course supports our marine science, environmental studies, and biology undergraduate programs. At the introduction of each topical unit, a short inquiry-based exercise is implemented both to reveal preconceptions carried by the students and to demonstrate the inconsistencies and problems with those conceptions. This then provides an opportunity to cleanly present the correct rendition of the concept.
Students in traditional invertebrate paleontology courses typically are required to identify, sketch morphologic features, and memorize chronostratigraphic ranges of major fossil taxa. This traditional approach is viewed as mundane and unnecessary by many students. Integrating new learning strategies involving specific case studies into an invertebrate paleontology course creates a dynamic learning environment. This improves students' observational and critical-thinking skills as well as their understanding of the utility of the fossil record and key geologic concepts. New teaching strategies, such as investigative case studies, provide students with opportunities to develop good deductive reasoning and metacognitive skills. Strengthening these types of skills, which include comprehension, the ability to problem-solve, and the analysis and interpretation of data, will prepare students to be more successful as scientists.
We implemented an authentic research experience as part of the invertebrate paleontology course at University of North Carolina Wilmington to promote student learning objectives related to understanding course content, critical thinking, problem solving, and oral and written communication. This semester-long research project, worth 20% of the course grade, is incorporated into the laboratory component of the course, and employs best practices of active and collaborative learning. Students work as teams to develop and test paleoecological and/or evolutionary hypotheses using field-collected or archived bulk samples. Following sample processing, specimen identification, and data collecting and analysis, students write a research paper using the format of a professional paper, with individually and team-written parts, and present their results orally. After completion, one or more abstracts based on the results are submitted to a professional meeting. Typically, several students attend the meeting and present the posters. This approach allows students to experience authentic research from conception to dissemination. Since 2003, the course has been offered seven times, resulting in 13 published and presented abstracts. Over half the students remained involved in paleontology following the course by presenting the work or taking additional courses or independent study, demonstrating that the experience was received positively. This approach provides a model for other instructors, as the research project can be adapted to a variety of geological settings and topics. Successes and challenges in implementing such a project are discussed.
Since the mid-20th century, science education has focused on active inquiry rather than direct transmission of knowledge. The National Research Council's National Science Education Standards direct that inquiry-based activities be incorporated at all levels of education. The application of inquiry-based activities at the college level should include faculty-student research programs. This paper presents a class-based faculty-student research project conducted by teams of students over the course of a semester. The advantage of inquiry-based learning for undergraduates is outlined in a review of the educational literature. While there has not been much in the way of quantitative assessments of inquiry-based learning, it is clear that students with a good foundation in the subject benefit from open-ended inquiry. This information was used to create an inquiry-based approach to teaching science-process skills, which was used successfully in an upper-level undergraduate paleontology course at Missouri Western State University, a four-year institution located in northwest Missouri. Students worked in groups to design an original experiment addressing some aspect of taphonomic processes. After online class discussions of the research proposals and final approval from the instructor, students independently ran the experiments, monitoring and collecting data outside of class. During the final week of classes, the groups presented their experiments in a 20-minute, conference-style PowerPoint presentation that placed their experiment within the context of the literature.
Undergraduate research is rightfully viewed as a valuable educational endeavor, yet few students have the time or incentive to avail themselves of the opportunity. Those students who do obtain research experience typically do so during their senior year, at a time too late to best benefit from the experience. Finally, requiring students to conduct independent research can be unsustainable, drawing on limited resources and faculty time. We have developed a collaborative undergraduate research model that unites students as a research team in their standard courses. The method is applicable to all course levels, from introductory science courses to upper-division, discipline-specific courses. At the introductory level, students work on longer-term research problems that require regular monitoring, with each successive class adding to an iterative database. Students in upper-division classes design group projects that are completed in the course of the semester. The benefits of the model are numerous. Students develop a sense of ownership and stewardship; they obtain a thorough experience practicing science while their curriculum is applied to real problems; and students learn to work cooperatively. Results from many of these experiences are of a high enough quality to be presented at scientific meetings and eventually published. Projects often help students focus their discipline-based interests and spawn senior theses, and faculty members have a vehicle to vicariously increase their research productivity. Examples from an upper division paleobiology course are presented. Overall, this model has been highly successful, especially when employed at the upper-division levels.
Museum exhibitions possess a long history of serving as useful tools for teaching both paleontology and evolutionary biology to college undergraduates. Yet, they are frequently under-appreciated and underutilized. However, they remain potentially outstanding resources because they can be used to meet a spectrum of learning objectives related to nature of science, real-world relevance, and student interest. Specifically, even small museum displays can provide: 1) authentic specimens, which often are more diverse, of higher quality, and historically more significant than those in teaching collections; 2) specimens in context, with other specimens and/or geological or biological background available; 3) examples of how fossils connect to virtually all of Earth and life sciences (explaining why they have so frequently been at the center of traditional “natural history”); 4) cross-disciplinary experiences, connecting science, art, technology, and history within a social context; and 5) opportunities for students to learn about teaching. A survey of instructor-developed activities performed within a host of natural history museums—with particular attention devoted to the Museum of the Earth, an affiliate of Cornell University—suggests that natural history exhibitions, regardless of size and scope, can complement and strengthen formal education in an undergraduate setting.
Undergraduate paleontology education typically consists of formal coursework involving the classroom, laboratory, and field trips. Other opportunities exist within informal science education (ISE) that can provide students with experiences to broaden their undergraduate education. ISE includes out-of-school, “free-choice,” and/or lifelong learning experiences in a variety of settings and media, including museums, science and nature centers, national and state parks, science cafes, as well as an evergrowing variety of web-based activities. This article discusses ISE as it pertains to university paleontology education and presents examples. Students can participate in the development and evaluation of exhibits as well as assist in the implementation of museum-related educational programs with paleontological content. They also can work or intern as explainers either “on the floor” of museums, or as interpreters at science-related parks. ISE-related activities can also provide opportunities to engage in citizen science and other outreach initiatives, e.g., with undergraduates assisting in fossil digs with public (volunteer) participation and giving talks to fossil clubs. During these activities, students have the opportunity to communicate about controversial topics such as evolution, which is neither well understood nor universally accepted by the general public. Engagement in these kinds of activities provides students with a combination of specialized STEM content (paleontology, geology) and ISE practice that may better position them to pursue nontraditional careers outside of the academic arena. Likewise, for students intending to pursue an academic career, ISE activities make undergraduate students better equipped to conduct Broader Impact activities as early career professionals.