Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A First-Grade Class Considers Tiktaalak

by Edward Hessler

When I first watched University of Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin visiting his daughter's first-grade class, the physical setting reminded me of David Hawkins’s description of an ideal science classroom. He described it as classroom-laboratory-library-atelier. And Hawkins was also arguing for the importance of early science (today STEM) experiences.

The discovery of the fossil,Tiktaalik roseae is certainly one of the most exciting recent finds. This transitional fossil shares features with its fish ancestors and features that are recognizably amphibian. For these reasons, Tiktaalik roseae is commonly referred to as "fishapod."

Neil Shubin, one of the co-discoverers, brought the fossil to his daughter's first-grade class, and a record of the lesson may be seen in Shubin's video of the experience, Young Students Recognize a Transitional Fossil. The introductions, daughter of her father and father of his daughter, are a delight.

The result is simply lovely. Young minds and hands at work. Engaged in scientific reasoning. Using evidence. And Shubin is very effective at helping them think about what they see and then what to make of it. He is a warm, interested, friendly, and responsive teacher.

In It's a Fishapod, biologist Sean Carroll provides the details about the discovery and its meaning.

Hawkins's essay, Nature Closely Observed, was published in Daedalus (112 (2) 1983). The link is behind a firewall. If you have access to JSTOR it can be viewed on-line. It is still worth re-reading, so next time you are on a college/university campus, it should be in the library, or ask a local/school librarian to get it for you.

One experience — a lesson and or classroom visit by an expert — does not a concept or scientific process make, but it is a beginning and also, in this case, age/developmentally appropriate. It is also about collecting data (observational) and using that evidence to reason about these data.

Support for introducing the concept of common ancestry to young learners may be found in several documents on science standards: Minnesota Academic Standards--Science, the Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for Science Education.

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