Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Theoretical Morphology – Modeling the Growth of Clonal Organisms

Theoretical Morphology – Modeling the Growth of Clonal Organisms

Thomas Olszewski
Texas A&M 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 activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: May 12, 2009


Students use a Matlab/Octave program to model the growth of stromatoporoid sponges in a variety of different sedimentary conditions and exploring how assumptions about their growth affect their morphology. Main strength: this exercise demonstrates unfulfilled alternatives to real specimens, thereby providing a basis of interpreting what we actually see in the rock record.

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This exercise is used in a majors-level paleontology course. I implement it in our departmental computer teaching lab, where Matlab is available. However, the code (pam5.m) can also be run using Octave, a shareware package that is equivalent to Matlab.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They should have already been exposed to the concept of theoretical morphospace.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a one-week lab exercise that is coordinated with classroom lecture on theoretical and functional morphology.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Using theoretical morphospace to interpret the depositional conditions influencing the growth of real specimens.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Exposing students to the idea that the real world is one possible alternative and interpreting observations and data requires a basis for considering alternative hypotheses/explanations.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

Students will have been exposed to the concept of theoretical morphospace in class prior to undertaking the lab. When introducing the lab exercise, the basic algorithm for stochastic growth is presented and students are walked through how to run the program (it is interactive). After they have completed all the exercises, they are asked to use their virtual stromatoporoid sponges as the basis for interpreting a set of real specimens.

Determining whether students have met the goals

1) The quality of the assignments that they hand in.
2) There is usually an exam question asking students to interpret and use information based on a theoretical morphospace of some sort.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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