Fluvial Transport of Bones Lab Exercise

Thomas V Evans, Western Washington University
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The lab starts with a short lecture on the scientific method, after which students observe the results of a flume run that includes skeletal clasts. They form hypotheses about how bone clasts (or any clast for that matter) move and are deposited by a flow, then the students test their hypotheses by running a flume trial. The hypothesis tests take place in small groups (3-5 students), and the lab ends with homework where students use the information they learned from their hypothesis tests to interpret a fossil assemblage. As such, this is a wonderful activity for introductory geology classes, could be used effectively with minor adjustments for advanced paleontology, taphonomy, and forensic physical anthropology classes.

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I originally used this activity for a dinosaurs (100 level) class. Since then I have used it for introductory geology classes, and have started modifying it slightly for advanced taphonomy/paleontology classes. This activity could also be used in archaeology or physical anthropology classes at nearly any level if implemented thoughtfully.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

None. The goal is to get the students to learn the scientific method and apply it to an interesting problem. So no prior understanding is necessary, however, understanding mass, density, volume, and surface area are useful to know in advance.

How the activity is situated in the course

In every class I have employed it, this activity has been a stand alone exercise. It could be broadened into a longer project in an advanced taphonomy course, but few universities posses such classes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goals of this activity are:
1. For students to learn the scientific method.
2. For students to perform the scientific method from beginning to end, by themselves.
3. Science is inherently awesome, even for students who are not science majors. So this activity stimulates a joy and wonder of science that I have rarely seen in during classroom activities.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

1. Understanding the process of science
2. Developing hypotheses (with direct mentoring)
3. Testing hypotheses
4. Dealing with the ambiguous results that often confront us in professional science

Other skills goals for this activity

Students learn to work in small groups collaboratively, and they learn how to frolic in science. The enjoyment of science is the best part of this lab, and while not a skill, it is one of the best outcomes of this lab activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

The lab starts with a brief (10-15 minute) lesson on the scientific method (my lecture notes are provided as an example). Students then divide into small groups (3-5 students) and observe the results of a flume trial performed before they got there. This requires the teacher to run a flume or stream table with bones in it for some time before students arrive in class. Students observe the results of the flume run, then form conclusions about why the results were observed. They translate these conclusions into hypotheses that they then test by placing skeletal material in the flume and running it again. The hypotheses can be amazing, so be prepared to support hypotheses related to shape, size, density, mass, surface area, etc. End the class by having the groups share their results with each other. The results are always interesting! I also end by pointing out how research in to some esoteric subject can have some direct societal use. So while the lab focuses on paleontology and archaeology taphonomy, the results can be used in forensics as well.
Provided here are the handouts I provide to the students as well as the notes I use during my lessons.
Lab Handout (Microsoft Word 342kB Jun16 14)
Potential Lesson Outlines and Notes (Microsoft Word 30kB Jun16 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I would suggest to students that they wash their hands after this lab, which is largely self explanatory.


At the end of the activity there is an assessment where students apply their new knowledge to a fossil assemblage. These are graded on content and quality of thought rather than any one right answer.

References and Resources