Taphonomy Experiment

Karen A Koy
Missouri Western State University
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  1. 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.

  2. 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 20, 2009


This is a semester-long project the students design and run themselves. They come up with an original question relating to taphonomic processes and design an experiment to test their hypotheses. At the end of the semester they give a 20-minute presentation about their experiment and its results.

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This is for an upper-level elective course for biology majors in introductory paleontology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

understanding and using the scientific method
taphonomy and basic taphonomic processes

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a semester-long project that culminates in a final oral presentation.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

taphonomic processes
data analysis

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

formulation of multiple working hypotheses
determining how to evaluate qualitative taphonomic changes (disarticulation, ect)
synthesis of data with previous work and literature

Other skills goals for this activity

oral presentations
visual communication
using web-based science journal databases
how to read and evaluate journal articles

Description of the activity/assignment

The taphonomy project is a semester-long experiment the students design and run themselves, using the decomposition studies area run by the Criminal Justice department on campus. Following a discussion of taphonomic processes during the first week, the students come up with original questions to test. Working in pairs, they design the experiment, including methods, materials, sampling interval, and taphonomic evaluation. The students set up the experiment in week 3 and monitor it over the course of the semester. They will be required to keep an experimental journal, data from which they will upload to a wiki page. The students will be required to periodically evaluate and comment on other student's projects. The professor will also periodically evaluate the groups' progress periodically through the wiki. The end result is a 20-minute presentation in the style of an oral paper at a conference given the week before finals. This project develops the students' skills in experimental design, data analysis and written, oral and visual communication.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The experimental plan and data notebook are reviewed multiple times throughout the project, monitored for adequate progress (adequate & timely sampling, thorough & detailed descriptions) as well as through periodic written updates. The final oral presentation is graded based on content (did the students cover all pars of their experimental plan? results?) and style.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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