Education: Pedagogy and Technology in the Modern Paleontology Classroom

By Jen Bauer Jeanette Pirlo 

The first lecture of the workshop was focused on student-center teaching methods in geoscience classrooms.

Every year there are special short courses, or one-day programs at the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting, surrounding a topic in paleontology. This year the workshop centered on incorporating new pedagogy (practice of teaching) and technology into the classroom (click here for advertisement). The program was set up where there would be several lectures followed by group discussions. Three FOSSIL Project team members were included in the near 200 participants in the workshop. The morning centered on others sharing their experiences trying new teaching techniques or methods. Talks included how to best identify and help your students work through prior conceptions about content, challenges and successes of flipped classrooms (online recorded lectures), bringing motion or movement into in-class activities (active learning), and promoting diverse and inclusive learning. 

Lecture on prior conceptions students may have before and after instruction on paleontology history and methods.

Discussions were free form but centered around a question or theme and usually involved about 10 other workshop participants per group. The first discussion was used to determine what methods of active teaching help your students explore paleontology. After discussing ideas within your small group an advocate would share with the larger group so everyone could benefit from the ideas. Many of the ideas focused on making sure the students grasped the content but could explore the material on their own. For example, one educator gave students several cards outlining events in Earth’s history. The students are then tasked with attempting to place the events in sequential order without direct instruction or content about the events. This gave the students freedom to examine the information on their own before diving into when the events took place and what evidence support these ideas.  

The afternoon shifted to exploring data aggregators that can be used in paleontology classrooms. This includes: the Paleobiology DatabaseMacrostrat, Neotoma, and many others that were not explicitly discussed. The idea is to bring real data into the classroom, providing students the ability to use the same data that active researchers use. Many of these databases already have associated classroom activities posted under a resource page that can be modified to best fit your classroom.  

Jeanette Pirlo putting the final touches on “RepreSTEMtation” while Adriane Lam discusses place-based-learning using MacroStrat.

The last portion of the workshop was structured to give the participants time to explore their new creative ideas and produce lesson plans. Large post-it notes were set up in the room and hall so that we could go out and write on them. We teamed up to create two lessons; the first was on increasing representation in STEM fields where students would research and present as a scientist they identified with. The second was on place-based learning and allowed students to digitally explore the geology of their hometown and present their findings to their peers. To get immediate feedback on assembled lessons, participants were given regular sized post-it notes to go around and provide constructive feedback.  

Overall, the workshop was very productive and provide many great ideas for formal (in the traditional classroom) and informal teaching (museum, club, park, or other setting). Many of the topics discussed are tools or techniques that are actively used and studied by researchers in K-12 settings, so it seems only natural to work to incorporate them into college classrooms as well. The speakers produced a short course volume through the new Paleontological Society journal, Paleontology Elements, and are available online free of charge for a short time.

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