I have taught undergraduate students geology for the last 11 years. The majority of these students are non-geology majors, who will likely never take another geology class again, and in spite of this, many become quite engaged in learning about their Earth, and in particular about fossils, paleontology, and the evolution of life. What is it about these topics that are so engaging for students?
It starts with the enthusiasm of the instructor. I have great interest in all natural and physical sciences, and a particular passion for paleontology. I knew that I was destined to be a paleontologist from the moment I gave a talk on dinosaurs to my fifth grade class. The first class for all courses I teach is the same. I bring in several skeletons, skulls, bones, and fossils that I have prepared and collected. I ask students to get into small groups, grab a skull, or a bone, etc., put their paleontologist’s hats on, examine and study the bones in front of them, and answer the following two questions: what do you think you can learn from studying these bones; and what would you like to know about these bones, that the bones might not be able to answer. A recorder in the group jots down observations, and questions, and the spokesperson shares with the entire class the group’s observations and questions. I bounce from group to group listening to their observations, including what animal they think it may be, and interjecting my own observations.
My enthusiasm, excitement, and joy in sharing this with everyone is contagious, and everyone, even those who may be otherwise reticent, are actively engaging in the process. We finish up the exercise with me passing around a coprolite for all to handle, and attempt to identify. Very few ever figure out what it is, and once they are told what it is, are rather surprised, and grossed out to know that they have handled fossil poop. It is something they talk about throughout the term, and tend to remember, most, rather fondly.
Why is this so successful? One reason is that it is a hands-on activity. Secondly is my enthusiasm, and obvious passion for what I do. And third, being the first day of a new class, everyone is apprehensive, and unsure of what to expect, not only of the course, but of their instructor. When I have as much fun as I do playing with these bones and fossils, it puts them at ease, lets them relax, and realize that this course and instructor are okay, and this experience might not be so bad.
Field trips are an excellent way to give students an appreciation of the geology and the ancient life forms in their own backyards that they have likely never considered before. Taking students out to collect fossils is an especially eye-opening experience for them, and they become quite excited as they search through the shale, siltstone, and limestone looking for the remains of marine organisms. They try to wrap their head around the notion that the very spot where they are collecting fossils–surrounded by farm fields– was once like the Bahamas.
One recent trip to collect Devonian age fossils in Central New York provided further evidence of how engaged some students can become when they are on a quest to find fossils. A cold front was predicted to sweep through the area just about the time that we were going to be out and collecting. Right on cue, the front moved through, temperatures dropped 20 degrees in less than an hour, the wind picked up, and the rain came down heavily. Only a few were prepared for this onslaught, yet none complained, and in fact, I had to be the one to say we had had enough, and to call it a night.
Mid-Devonian fossils from the Hamilton group of central New York
On another occasion, at this same location, a partial skeleton was found of an animal that had been hit by a car, and enough time had passed that the skeleton was pretty clean. Two students asked if they could take the bones back to the lab and attempt to identify what the animal was. I was thrilled that they wanted to take this on, and set them up back at the lab with Gilbert’s Mammalian Osteology, and let them go at it. Within a short period of time, not only had they identified most of the bones correctly but correctly identified the animal as a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). The challenge to them was akin to putting a difficult jigsaw puzzle together, and very gratifying for me.
All paleontologists have a comparative collection, oftentimes put together by collecting and processing roadkill. Students have flagged me down in the middle of campus to ask if I saw the dead deer just down the street, in case I wanted to pick it up for my collection. Students will often tell me that they saw some dead animal on the side of the road, and thought of me– now that is a what I call a true compliment! One evening, a student enters class about 10 minutes late, carrying a plastic grocery bag. He was grinning from ear to ear, as he excitedly said: “Its fresh, its fresh!” I said, “what is fresh?” He opens the bag to show me a still warm raccoon that he stopped to pick up on the way to class. After I made sure that the animal was truly dead, I thanked him for the donation, and gave him the bad news that he was not getting extra points for bringing me the raccoon, and that it was actually illegal for him to collect roadkill without a license from the Department of Environmental Conservation (at least in New York State).
It is possible to amend my license to list my students as my agents, which would allow them to collect roadkill legally. It would be fun to have them start their own comparative collections, and perhaps conduct some taphonomic studies as well. The raccoon prepared out beautifully, and is in a box in my collection. This same student also came to me one day upset that he did not get the chance to bring in dozens of dead mice killed in the back room of a popular grocery store where he worked (I won’t say which one). I assured him that I had plenty of mice in the collection already, and that it was okay.
I recently had a non-traditional student that had been out of school for many years take my historical geology class. As a teenager, he had amassed quite a collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils, which his mother had unfortunately thrown away on him. Every opportunity that he had to collect fossils on class field trips, on his own, etc., he took advantage of. Nearly every night I came to class, he would meet me at the door with renewed excitement and anticipation to show me what cool things he had found since the last class. It was fantastic to see his enthusiasm. Every fieldtrip, he found more fossils than anyone, he was a machine.
It is often fossils and field trips that prove the most eye opening and enjoyable for students, but not always. I had a student in my historical geology class several years ago who was a devout Christian, a believer in a 6,000 year old Earth, if for no other reason than that is all she was ever taught. I do not attempt to alter any of my students’ thinking when it comes to their beliefs regarding creation versus evolution. I respect their views, even if I do not agree with them. It is not my goal to “convert” anyone. It is my goal to provide a new perspective, and to encourage critical thinking and reflection. By the time that this student was done exploring the 4.6 billion year history of Earth, not only was she blown away by what she was exposed to, she was also confused, and not ready to abandon her faith, but she had a new perspective to consider. Maybe 6,000 years was simply not long enough to produce all of the natural wonders that she had visited as a child on summer family vacations. It was a very gratifying end of that semester. Motivating students to think about things that may not have thought about before, or with a new critical eye, is one of my biggest goals and most satisfying outcomes.
The majority of my students take my classes to satisfy their general education requirements, and mine may be the last geology class that they ever take. However, occasionally there are students who get excited about geology and decide to pursue it as their undergraduate degree. I am working with some former students now on pursuing graduate work in geology. This is especially exciting as we need to continue to motivate students to pursue the Earth sciences. With 7 billion people now gracing the planet, understanding the Earth’s processes is even more critical as we confront potential resource shortages, continue to understand how changing climate will effect life on earth, and ponder how human society will adapt to these changes. These are vital reasons to encourage the study of Earth science, but there is also the thirst for knowledge; the desire, the passion to understand how life began, how it evolved to produce the incredible diversity that we see today, and how evolution will shape the future of the Earth. This curiosity should be fostered at every opportunity, for I truly believe that it is invaluable– it is what separates us from all other life forms, and to not pursue it prevents us from reaching our full human potential. Instructors with enthusiasm, and passion can go a long way in igniting this curiosity in their students, and that is a beautiful thing.
Mark Lawler is a Quaternary paleontologist with over 11 years of experience teaching geology in both the face-to-face, and online environments. He is an adjunct instructor in the Chemistry/Physical Sciences Department at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York. He also teaches for institutions in California, and Minnesota as well. He lives with his wife and teenage daughter on a small lake in upstate New York.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.