THE DINOSAUR EDUCATION PROJECT:
A CURRICULUM MODEL FOR
TAKE ONE dinosaur, add a class of students (any age), mix liberally with an experiential
standards-based curriculum, and you have the delightfully successful effort in systemic
reform called "The Dinosaur Education Project."
Innovative programs often spring from unusual collaborations. In this case, the two partners
(Gunnison School District and Western State College) had very different goals. The
Gunnison School District wanted to provide teachers with curriculum and training in
standards-based education as part of the state-wide science and math initiative, called
CONNECT. The Western State College science department wanted to get its Apatosaurus
named "Morris" prepared. These two unlikely needs came together into a Goals 2000 Educate
America Grant to encourage K-16 students to learn and apply science and math through
studying and helping to prepare the dinosaur.
Kids love dinosaurs, so student involvement in the project was assured from the start. Though
many kids say they "can't do" science, none claim they "can't do" dinosaurs. However,
convincing teachers to add one more thing to their already beleaguered schedules was an
understandable obstacle. The key to teacher involvement was developing usable curriculum
that they could incorporate immediately as part of what they already teach.
Working with teachers directly and using a survey of grade level science topics, lesson plans
were written to enhance these topics, meet grade level standards in science content and skills,
and make science fun and relevant to kids.
A major topic of study for second graders in the school district is dinosaurs. So second grade
teachers were thrilled to get new material for the unit. One traditional activity is a tour of the
dinosaur preparation lab on the WSC campus. As eager little faces gathered around the table
of prepared vertebrae, the teacher cautioned them not to touch anything. Imagine trying to
teach science by NOT touching anything!
The students spent the next hour not just touching, but measuring, examining, and preparing
those 145 million year old bones. Never did a scientist scrub dirt off a dinosaur bone with
such gusto, or use such care with an air scribe to remove bits of matrix. As one little girl hung
up her lab coat to leave, she said, "I'm going to be a scientist when I grow up. This is fun!"
Sixth grade students began a unit on cells by examining the bone cell structure of dinosaurs.
"You mean, dinosaurs had cells?" asked one surprised student. After comparing thin sections
bone cells of petrified dinosaur to those of extant animals, they concluded that some
dinosaurs might have been warm blooded. A familiar theory?!
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A high school physics class investigated the fundamental vibrating frequency of the crests of
a whole family of Parasaurolophus. Using simple mathematics, they determined the
fundamental frequency of a given length of nasal tube, then found that pitch on a keyboard to
hear what it sounded like. Notwithstanding the effect of soft tissues on the sound quality of
such natural apparatus, students quickly made comparisons to musical instruments. A baby
Parasaurolophus would make a high pitch noise for the same reasons that a piccolo sounds
At Western State College, students in biology, geology, and environmental science classes
are participating in dinosaur science by developing curriculum materials for the public
schools, building displays for the dinosaur lab, and giving presentations about Morris the
Saurus during Earth Week Celebrations. One student is building a JURASSIC FOOD
PYRAMID to help in teaching about ecosystems. Another is creating a poster of the changes
in the Gunnison area through time. Even the art department is getting involved in science.
They are painting giant murals of the Jurassic Period on the outside of the lab building. Think
of what they are learning while they do these projects. If you want to link the college with the
local school district, dinosaurs provide a creative, cross disciplinary way to do that.
How do we keep kids from turning off interest in science and math? We teach them about
something they are interested in . . . like dinosaurs. Students will tackle chemistry, physics, or
math in order to understand what made the dinosaurs tick, rumble, or roar. Not only will they
learn basic science concepts, but they will be more likely to understand and make
connections with the world at large.
Science literacy is not comprised of a vast store of facts from different disciplines. Science
literacy means making sense of the world around us, being able to consider alternative
explanations for what we observe, and to think sensibly about evidence and uncertainties. Not
surprisingly, that is what paleontology is all about. That is why we love it. Sharing new
discoveries and research with an ever-so-willing public makes sense. A public that
understands scientific research is also much more willing to fund it.
There are specific ways that paleontologists, natural history museums, and paleo associations
can build science literacy. You do not have to have a multi-million dollar budget to be
effective. The Goals 2000 Dinosaur Education project models one approach. The most
important thing is to work as a team with the state and local school district science/math
advisory boards or persons, as well as with the local college or university
departments of education and science.
In Colorado, CONNECT is the name of the math-science initiative that provides funding and
coordination for education reform measures. It is an important driving force, and therefore, a
vehicle for significant accomplishments in science and math education. Similar organizations
function in other states. The Goals 2000 Dinosaur Education Project was supported through
Becoming part of the local team pools personnel and funding resources, coordinates
curriculum development efforts, and results in diverse, educationally sound and scientifically
exciting programs. This kind of partnership generates funds, not a minor point in making any
program possible. It also means that the programs will more likely be implemented.
THE DINOSAUR EDUCATION PROJECT
The first year of this Goals 2000 resulted in the development and introduction of a K-8
dinosaur science curriculum. This is an entire school district using paleontology to implement
standards-based education reforms. Use of this SBE curriculum throughout the district and in
pre-service classes at Western State College will result in improved teaching and learning
because of (1) teacher interest, (2) the usable format of the lesson plans, (3) improved student
performance, (4) availability of technical support, and (5) the model it provides for aligning
curriculum in current use.
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1) Teacher interest: Feedback from district teachers indicates an eagerness to implement the
new curriculum into the classroom. They know the curriculum was designed with their input
from a needs assessment survey and personal interviews to reflect their needs in the Gunnison
School District. Teachers and pre-service teachers feel a familiarity with the subject of
dinosaurs that overcomes the discomfort many experience with science content. They are
naturally curious and drawn into each lesson as a learner. Learning new content is fun for the
teacher, as well as for their students.
2) Usable format: The lesson plans are designed around explicit standards. They model
effective pedagogy and stimulate an inquiry approach to learning. Brief background
information provides discussion/presentation material. The directions give clear, step by step
instructions for classroom management of activities and teaching strategies.
3) Improved student performance: The activities provide for all learning levels. Starting in
first grade, they simulate the scientific method with hypothesizing, data collection, and
analysis. The journal page for each lesson provides assessments that promote student
learning. Simple student generated tables, charts, and graphs are used throughout to
encourage thinking. There are no right answers to memorize, only reasonable conclusions or
predictions. Student performance is directly linked to measurable outcomes, which are
generated by the standards.
4) Technical support: Availability of the teaching scientist for team teaching and content
support ensures confidence in implementing the standards-based curriculum. A well-designed
teaching kit is provided with materials such as fossils, books, models, and CD-roms that
expand learning opportunities for students. The dinosaur preparation lab and summer field
school give teachers, students, and the entire community the experience of science processes
and research going on in their own back yard.
5) Model for curriculum alignment: Part of implementing standards is getting teachers to
align curriculum they are already using to meet standards and to develop appropriate
assessment tools. While utilizing the Goals 2000 dinosaur curriculum, teachers are exposed to
a variety of effective instructional methods and assessment tools that model standards-based
education. Most teachers are quick to implement anything in their classrooms that helps them
and their students to be successful. Workshops in curriculum alignment and developing
assessments support teachers in this endeavor.
This Goals 2000 Dinosaur Education project is reproducible. While most colleges do not
have a dinosaur available for student and teacher use, the project provides a template for
partnerships between colleges and local school districts. The curriculum can be adopted by
teachers to institute standards-based classroom practice and by education professors to model
standards-based pedagogy for pre-service teachers. Examples of curriculum activities are