Trial by fire in the vertebrate graveyard

Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian
Temple University
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Students work through a series of stations displaying isolated bones, and answer short-answer questions designed to introduce them to formulating and defending hypotheses concerning anatomical and taxonomic identity. Responses are then compared and discussed as a group.

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I have used this activity in upper level elective courses in vertebrate paleontology for undergraduate and graduate students in both geology and biology programs.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity assumes no prior course work in vertebrate anatomy (see "position in course" below). Students are expected to draw on general knowledge they may have obtained from news articles, museum/zoo exhibits, pets, food animals, personal medical histories (e.g. x-rays) etc.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is designed to be the introductory exercise for a course in vertebrate paleontology, or a vertebrate unit in a course with a broader focus. It may be used as a lab exercise, or an in-class activity in a smaller seminar-type class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Identification of isolated skeletal material by anatomical element and taxon

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Formulation and defense of hypotheses using supporting data from physical specimens

Other skills goals for this activity

Group discussion, confronting and diffusing student panic when dealing with unfamiliar and complex vertebrate anatomy

Description of the activity/assignment

As an introduction to vertebrate skeletal material, students work individually through a series of stations displaying isolated bones and teeth. Associated with each station are two to six short-answer questions that ask the students to identify, orient, and taxonomically classify the specimens, and to describe the rationale for their answers. Students must respond to every question. Even if they have no prior course experience with vertebrate anatomy, they are required to propose and defend an answer, based on careful observation, "common sense," and relevant personal experience. After the students have worked through the stations and answered all the questions, instructor and class discuss the samples and student interpretations. This activity is deliberately designed to force students to work outside of their comfort zone. In the exercise and discussion, students are required to employ careful and reasoned observation in developing hypotheses concerning the identities of the samples, and to defend those hypotheses based on physical characteristics of the bones. The point of the exercise is not to identify the specimens correctly (although students often do better than they expect), but to demonstrate that skeletal anatomy makes "sense", and that thoughtful reasoning based on solid evidence is key to interpreting skeletal remains.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Evaluation is based partly on participation in the class discussion, and partly on student answers to the questions on the worksheet, which they turn in at the end of the exercise. Grading of the worksheet is not based on number of "correct" answers, but rather on the logic and reasoning demonstrated by the student's answers. The only incorrect answers are those not backed up by logical argument, or any that are left blank in violation of the instructions.

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