Using the Paleobiology Database to explore tectonic events

Friday 1:50pm-2:10pm Northrop Hall: 340
Teaching Demonstration Part of Friday Session B


Callan Bentley, Piedmont Virginia Community College
Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina-Columbia
Ander Sundell, College of Western Idaho


We'll walk users through a quick version of the activity, demonstrating the power of (quickly, easily, and elegantly) mapping fossil occurrences as a reflection of tectonic plate position/connection.


In this teaching demonstration, we will model a student activity we developed utilizing the Paleobiology Database's (PBDB's) user-friendly "Navigator" interface. The activity has students to explore the tectonic implications of the Great American Biotic Interchange, an event where North American species moved into South America and (to a lesser extent) vice versa. Students use the PBDB Navigator to access information about the time/space distribution of several terrestrial fossil taxa, plot maps of these results, formulate hypotheses about the timing of the build-up of the Isthmus of Panama (and hence the connection between North and South America), and then test those hypotheses using several other sources of online data. The activity has been piloted using our project's research protocols, and refined based on feedback from multiple colleagues using a rubric. It is now available for any educator to utilize.


Educational level: To be used in an introductory or intermediate undergraduate course, including (but not limited to) physical geology, historical geology, and paleontology.

Class size: Students can work as individuals or in pairs and class size can range from a small seminar (< 10 students) to a large lecture (> 100), as long as computer facilities are available.

Institution type: Can be used with non-majors or majors from two or four year institutions. Each student or student pair will need access to a laptop or desktop computer connected to the internet, either running both Microsoft Word and an internet browser, or (if paper handouts are provided) simply running the internet browser.

Why It Works

"Big data" science initiatives, such as the Paleobiology Database (PBDB), may provide inexpensive and accessible research opportunities, but their 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. Changes in student skills and attitudes towards science that result from research experiences are also something we assess.

Link to activity

The activity "lives" on the SERC website.