Teach the Earth > Early Career > Previous Workshops > Workshop 2010 > Program > Teaching Activities > The Four-Winged Dinosaur

The Four-Winged Dinosaur

Tasha Dunn
Illinois State University
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jun 29, 2010


This is assignment is completed in two parts: It begins in class with a showing of the Nova documentary "The Four-Winged Dinosaur." It continues as a homework assignment in which students write a short essay (1 pg) describing which origin of flight hypothesis they believe is the most plausible. This assignment is useful for non-science majors in an introductory class because it gives them the opportunity to understand how new discoveries are made and how hypotheses are tested.

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This assignment is used in an introductory historical geology class primarily for non-majors, but it is also required for geology majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity occurs near the end of the semester during our discussion of the Mesozoic. By this time the students have a good understanding of how scientists learn about the geologic past and how organisms have evolved over time. Before this activity the students are introduced to dinosaur evolution and the idea that dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds. I briefly introduce the two hypotheses for how flight developed in birds before we watch the video.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone exercise that begins in class with a Nova documentary presentation and concludes as a homework assignment. There is also a follow-up discussion in class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The primary goal is to understand the development of flight in birds. On a larger scale, this assignment helps students understand evolution in general.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students must synthesize the information presented in the documentary and critically evaluate two competing hypothesis.

Other skills goals for this activity

This assignment should help students improve their writing skills.

Description of the activity/assignment

For this actiivty the students will watch a Nova documentary called "The Four-Winged Dinosaur." The documentary follows two teams of scientists as they create replicas of microraptor, a dinosaur with four feathered wings, in an attempt to determine how flight evolved in birds (from the ground up or from the trees down). As the students watch the video, they should think about each hypothesis and pay attention to the lines of evidence presented on both sides of the argument. The students are given specific questions to answer while watching the video that will help them pay attention to key ideas. Outside of class they are responsible for writing a short essay (~1 page, typed) describing which origin of flight hypothesis that they believe is the most plausible and why. Students must support their argument with evidence presented in the video.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The students have met the goals of the assignment if: 1) their essay shows an understanding of the two hypotheses and the arguments for and against each, and 2)they provide a strong argument for their argument, using lines of evidence presented in the video.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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