The Pangea Puzzle

Friday 1:30pm-1:50pm Northrop Hall: 340
Teaching Demonstration Part of Friday Session B


Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina-Columbia
Callan Bentley, Piedmont Virginia Community College
Mark Uhen, George Mason University


Participants will learn how to produce maps of fossil distributions using the PBDB, interpret evidence of plate tectonics from those distributions, and make predictions between modern and paleo maps for marine and terrestrial organisms.

Find this activity here!


Students learn how to use the Paleobiology Database (PBDB) to produce maps of fossils on the present day Earth's surface, as well as past continental configurations. They do this by mapping the occurrence of fossil organisms: where a species occurs in space (geographically) and when a species occurs in time (stratigraphically).

Students then use these maps to understand the biogeographic distributions of fossil organisms, and how these distributions constitute evidence for past continental plate positions. Fossil distributions examined include Lystrosaurus, Mesosaurus, Glossopteris, Marsupialia, and finally a fossil chosen by the student(s). Students compare distribution patterns of marine and terrestrial organisms. During the exercise, students pause to make predictions about the distributions and how they change over time.


This activity is designed to be used in an introductory or intermediate undergraduate course, including (but not limited to) physical geology, historical geology, paleontology, etc. Students can work as individuals or in pairs, and class size can range in size, as long as sufficient computer facilities are available. Each student or student pair will need access to a laptop or desktop computer connected to the internet, running an internet browser.

Why It Works

"Big data" science initiatives, such as the Paleobiology Database (PBDB), may provide inexpensive and accessible research opportunities, but their incredible potential in the undergraduate classroom has yet to be tested. We present here an activity developed through an NSF-funded initiative between 4YC and 2YC partner institutions called "Leveraging "Big Data" to Explore Big Ideas." The project is an attempt to assess how applicable "big data" science is to undergraduate education, specifically to what extent online databases can effectively engage students in authentic research experiences in the classroom. Our research activities focus on content crucial to scientific literacy, including climate change and evolution, scaffolded to build transferable skills including critical thinking, quantitative skills, and computing literacy. We also assess changes in student skills and attitudes towards science that result from these mini-research experiences.

Presentation Media

The Pangea Puzzle - Ryker, Bentley and Uhen - EER 2017 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.8MB Jul21 17)
PBDB search (MP4 Video 798kB Jul21 17)