Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dinosaur Day at the University Museum of Natural History - Mary Cook

One of my favourite experiences at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has been teaching as part of Dinosaur Day.  The purpose of the day is to help Year 7 and Year 8 students to think scientifically and consider evidence carefully as well as to learn more about the fossils at the museum.  They take part in a range of activities from considering whether they could escape from the predator Megalosaurus by looking at the footprint casts in front of the museum and calculating its speed to reconstructing a skeleton from a bag of bones, to dating fossils in the collection and making casts of trace fossils such as skin impressions, footprints and coprolites and even looking for microfossils the size of a grain of pollen under the microscope.   

Rachel with fullsize Megalosaurus footprints

I was able to participate in two of these sessions, one of these being making plaster casts of trace fossils with fellow Education Officer Rachel Parle using museum grade moulds which produce exceptionally good results.  The cast lesson is great because it combines hands-on activity with a great deal of learning about fossils, how they are formed and what they can tell us. The casts are made early on in the session and meat of the teaching takes place while they are setting over a twenty minute period.  Students learn that this is not an anachronism, but a real technique still in use today since it is low cost, portable and possible for palaeontologists to use it to create casts of trace fossils in remote locations.  The students really enjoyed this session and the inclusion of examples such as the Chyrotherium which we have no evidence for except its footprints really helped to deepen their understanding of the evidence available or lacking to geologists now and in the past. As part of the session we were also able to offer the students the opportunity to see our 3D printer in action producing a replica ammonite. 

Chyrotherium footprints

The students all got their phones out and photographed or filmed the 3D printer and were really impressed by the technology. We were able to show them a range of examples of what it can create and discuss with them how it works and the uses it is put to in research.  We were also able to discuss its possible disadvantages and the students made some great observations, such as it needs a power source, it is expensive and not portable, but that it is much easier to share by simply sending the data over the internet to print anywhere in the world.  We discussed which the students would want most for Christmas: the 3d printer or the cast kit?  It turned out to be a great question producing really independent and thoughtful responses.  In the first group the majority chose the 3D printer, in the second group the group were more evenly divided in their decision and in the final group about a third chose the cast method and each had good reasons for their choice.  One of the main detractions for the students was that the 3D printer took 4 hours to create one replica, whereas multiple casts could be made in 20 minutes and if the plaster replica were dropped it could be recreated many times over in the same timeframe.  Others argued the plastic replica was more robust and that the 3D printer could be set going while they did other things.

3D printer

On the first of the days, I observed Chris Jarvis teaching about Microfossils and later in the day shared the teaching.  I had not long been on placement here and I missed out a learning point that first time through, but Chris picked it up.  Before I needed to go solo with this session, I had the opportunity to revise thoroughly and later could talk the session through with Sarah Lloyd, our Secondary Education Officer who had devised it.  Not only did I have the opportunity to teach the session, but also to physically prepare the samples ready for students to make their own discoveries. I really enjoyed being able to take control of all aspects of the session.  This really helped in understanding the logic of how it was presented and in practical terms, it helped that I could set up the room so that I could double check that the equipment worked and that there were samples to find under each microscope at the beginning of the session. 

When I was teaching independently, the students came in three groups of twenty to learn about Microfossils and their use in relative dating – a process by which geologists can identify the date of a large fossil by examining the microfossil content of the ground in which it is found. Microfossils are really useful in industries where they are digging down or tunneling and engineers need to know what layer of ground they are in. This technique is used by scientists in the petrochemical industry to establish where it is best to drill for oil, so it has a purpose outside of academic geology and palaeontology. Students really enjoyed making their discoveries and checking them against the Biostratigraphy sheet to assess the date of the microfossils and the mud.  They also learnt that along with microfossils there were fragments of other minerals such as pyrite and amber and more recent items like tiny fragments of seashells and sea urchin spines.  They realised that as a group they could more accurately date the mud by this method than they could independently with a single sample. 

In reflecting on the session, I realise I owe a lot to seeing it delivered previously which really helped to ensure all the content was covered and to the correct times.  There were things that went wrong – the first group could not view the 3D microfossil presentation I had for them due to a computer glitch.  Our IT Support did a great job and this was resolved by the second session, but this meant when the issue arose I had to judge the point at which it would be more detrimental to work on showing it than to bring the session to a conclusion and ensure they got to their next location on time. With no other staff member present this was entirely my call.  The teacher and students were very understanding.  In the second session a bulb blew on one of the microscopes when it was switched on, but the students affected responded well to a request to share microscopes between three instead of two. In the third session, my class arrived a little late so there was less time than I would have liked with that group.  Across the day, I recognised these were the challenges of an Education Officer – there are always things outside your control that can go wrong and you need to be calm and adaptable to deal with that with your focus being on getting the key learning points across.  Reviewing the session at the end helped to ensure the students had a wide view of why we undertook the activity as well a deepening their personal knowledge.  

Mary teaching the session

Above all, I think Dinosaur Days for secondary students help them to recognise Oxford University Museum of Natural History is not simply a static collection or repository of knowledge but a place of ongoing scientific research and that they are able to make discoveries of their own in a range of different ways. I realise that my own teaching style is developing too.

I realise I use questions to discover changes in attitude within the group and to create a conclusion which helps students become aware of the development in their thinking.  I began the session with “Who here likes a science?” This was an icebreaker question with no right or wrong answer that led into talking about the scientific technique of relative dating.  There were one or two students who said they liked science in each group.  By the end of the session I asked “Did you enjoy using this scientific technique?” which received a much greater positive response. These were in addition to the reflection inherent within the session, but for me helped me to instantly see the kind of impact the session had on the students on an emotional level. If students enjoy coming to the museum and learning here, that learning is more likely to stick.  Earlier this year I attended a careers day for girls run by  Education and Employers which highlighted that many girls would never consider a career in STEM subjects if they had no connection to anyone working in those areas.  It is fantastic that at the OUMNH there are opportunities for students to encounter women taking an active role in science while learning hands-on for themselves.

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