Teach the Earth > Early Career > Previous Workshops > Workshop 2011 > Program > Teaching Activities > Functional Morphology

Functional Morphology

Samantha Hopkins
University of Oregon
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review 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: Jul 11, 2011


This is a laboratory exercise has students make inferences about function from skeletal morphology. It uses data collection, quantitative reasoning, and hypothesis testing.

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undergraduate/graduate course in vertebrate paleontology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basics of the morphology of the skeleton, elementary physics, fundamentals of quantitative description of data. It's helpful also if they have a basic understanding of mammalian ecology.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the first of three labs at the end of the course that allows the students to apply knowledge gained about skeletal morphology to asking and answering questions about how fossil vertebrates "work" based on fossil evidence.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

application of lever mechanics to the construction of the vertebrate skeleton, display and interpretation of quantitative data, locomotor mechanics in vertebrates

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

hypothesis formulation and testing, finding data that display a process of interest

Other skills goals for this activity

measuring and describing morphological features

Description of the activity/assignment

The first seven labs in this course are simply a survey of skeletal morphology in vertebrate animals; this is the first lab of the course that actually applies this understanding to solving a scientific problem. Students measure isolated skeletal elements of vertebrates in order to quantify the differences among members of different locomotor groups. They're asked to formulate hypotheses based on an understanding of physics for the differences among the locomotor categories they're examining, and then they compare their data to those expectations. The activity allows students to understand how paleontologists interpret skeletal morphology to make inferences about the ecology of extinct organisms. This will enable the students to apply their knowledge of skeletal morphology to answering a scientific question. The experience also gives them an opportunity to practice the process of paleontological science, including hypothesis testing and data interpretation.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students turn in written answers to a series of questions that ask them to explain the process by which they form and test their hypotheses. They are also asked to turn in graphs of some of their data. Their work is evaluated on the basis of the explanation and justification of their expectations and conclusions.

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