Paleontology in the “Real-World”: Using the Recent Paleontological Literature to Engage High School Students and Encourage STEM-based Learning

by Gina Roberti

During the winter of 2015-2016, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument as a Geoscientist-in-Park (GIP) intern, a program made possible through a partnership between the Geological Society of America® and the National Park Service.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (HAFO) is small and unassuming, nestled along the banks of the Snake River in southern Idaho. A sanctuary for waterfowl and migrating raptors in the cold dry winter months, its riverside bluffs of Pliocene-aged sedimentary rocks are famous among paleontologists for preserving the greatest recorded abundance of an ancestral species of horse (Equus simplicidens), as well as some of the richest and most diverse fossil assemblages from the Pliocene epoch.

At HAFO, the National Park Service has a unique mandate: to preserve fossil resources, support paleontological research, and “to broaden public understanding of the science of paleontology and the significance of the Hagerma n fossil record.”

My mission was to take this mandate and turn it into a workable product, grounded in contemporary scientific research, usable for educators both in and out of the park. After a long period of investigation, the final product came to life when I realized that, with slight modifications, the scientific literature which I was studying contained all of the material necessary to craft a lesson that would allow students to come to their own conclusions. My ability to understand the scientific literature depended on a vocabulary developed during my training as a geologist/paleontologist. If I could break down the jargon and provide context for the data (what information was collected, how it was analyzed) the data could become accessible to a non-technical audience.

I chose a data set that was broad enough to allow students to draw big-picture conclusions: the fossil tooth data set from Jardine et al. 2012 contained information from over 800 fossil teeth, over 40 million years. I focused on graphs: modifying existing graphs and converting data tables into pie charts. Using Microsoft Excel, I simplified the graphs by eliminating jargon, labeling axes, and highlighting trends. Through graphical analysis and critical reading, students infer factors that caused the observed evolutionary adaptations and link biological adaptation to global climate change and localized habitat change. The lesson plan includes a pre-lesson with background about tooth morphology, as well as extended resources for teachers including assessments and supporting documents.

Sample graph from lesson
Sample graph from lesson

The ability to understand and interpret graphs is key to scientific literacy in an age where statistical analyses and scientific findings are commonplace in newspapers and online media. Graphical literacy is also a major component of high school and college mathematics. My experience tutoring and teaching has shown me how many students struggle to interpret even the simplest of graphs. To teach, step-by-step, how to read a complex graph (one that is conveying multiple pieces of information) is important for our STEM generation.

My lesson plan sought to provide all of the material for students to make their own decisions. If students were taught how to read the material, they could then interpret and draw their own conclusions.

Titled Fossil Teeth: A Record of Climate and Evolutionary Change in the Fossil Record, the lesson is designed for the National Park Service and is digitally accessible and downloadable for teachers across the country. It is intended for high school students in Introductory, Honors, and/or Advanced Placement Biology in grades 9-12. Curriculum standards align with the Disciplinary Core Ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and guidelines for reading and writing from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This project reflects my work as an earth science educator and my interests in developing educational materials that incorporate contemporary scientific research. The lesson showcases how primary data can be made accessible and then used in activities which require student synthesis. I believe this project has valuable applications for increasing scientific literacy and awareness of contemporary scientific practices in high-school and introductory college-level students, by allowing students to work with ‘real-world’ data.

To conclude a 3-month-long internship at the National Park Service, Gina Roberti presents the results of her education project to sophomore students at Hagerman High School. The lesson begins by asking, "What does paleontology look like today?" and teaches about mammalian tooth adaptations as preserved in the fossil record. Students learned to read a complex graph based on paleontological data published in 2012 (Jardine et al. "Grit Not Grass").
To conclude a 3-month-long internship with the National Park Service, Gina Roberti presents the results of her education project to sophomore students at Hagerman High School. The lesson begins by asking, “What does paleontology look like today?” and teaches about mammalian tooth adaptations as preserved in the fossil record. Students learned to read a complex graph based on paleontological data published in 2012 (Jardine et al. “Grit Not Grass”).

Acknowledgements: 

This project was made possible through the Geological Society of America® Geoscientists-in-the-Parks Program and the National Park Service. The Geoscientists-in-the-Parks (GIP) Program was developed by the National Park Service Geologic Resources Division (GRD) in 1996. The NPS partners with the Geological Society of America (GSA) and Environmental Stewards (ES) to administer the GIP Program. This project was completed thanks to the park administration and, specifically, paleontologist Dr. Kari Prassack at Hagerman Fossil Beds NM.

Data for this project was derived from Jardine et al. (2012) and modified to match high-school student learning levels. Readings and data are derived directly from this and other primary scientific publications.

Jardine, Phillip E., et al. (2012) Grit not grass: concordant patterns of early origin of hypsodonty in Great Plains ungulates and Glires. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 365: 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2012.09.001

The scope of this lesson was greatly inspired by a similar project developed by the University of Florida Center for PreCollegiate Education and Training (CPET). The final version of that lesson is available online at https://www.cpet.ufl.edu/resources/curricula/created-by-fellows/evolution/#ChewingonChange

You can find Gina’s lesson in the Resources section of myFOSSIL and on the National Park Service website.

 

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