DINOSAUR FOOTPRINTS (190 million years old)
"forensic paleontology"

Eubrontes footprints at Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, Connecticut.
Longest dimension of footprint is about 12 inches.

This module within Project Renaissance will provide an exercise in hypothesis-building (imagination), hypothesis-testing (innovation), hypothesis-elimination (critical thinking; hard work), and hypothesis-verification (discovery; quality). While this can be a linear and orderly process, it is usually a chaotic and exciting one that befits our being human as we explore the unknown.

To accomplish this goal of experiencing how scientists think about the natural world, we will be investigating a complex topic that is currently being worked on by less than one hundred scientists worldwide. The topic is 'dinosaur footprints' (ichnology), and unlike many science projects that students deal with in high school and college, this has been deliberately selected because it is (a) intrinsically interesting to a large proportion of students, and (b) open-ended. While item 'a' is clear, the 'open-ended' nature of this task may not be.

The 'open-endedness' of this project will be evident in several ways. First, there is no obvious end to this project. Like most real-world scientific investigations, it is imagination- limited. While some scientific experiments that students have experienced in the past were largely recipes (add X to Y, and the solution turns blue), which illustrated some principle or process, those exercises probably gave the student little opportunity for exercising imagination and personal initiative. In contrast, the Dinosaur Footprints will be a task where it is likely that there are a sufficient number of interesting questions that can be asked, and a sufficient number of measurements that can be made addressing those questions, that several Ph.D. dissertations could be written on this topic (and still have things to investigate)! It is an exercise that is limited only by your imagination to questions, frame hypotheses, and seek answers.

The semester will begin by providing the student with important information bearing on the project. Students will become familiar with a few important algebraic equations for describing animal locomotion, and will use these equations to calibrate and describe their own walking and running (How accurately do these equations describe reality? What limitations can be found in these equations?). Students will also be provided with an overview of our current knowledge and 'guess-timates' about the climate, geology, and biology of planet Earth 190 million years ago. Seminal scientific articles will also be read and discussed in class to construct this overview. Armed with this basic operational information, the class will travel to 1-2 localities to investigate dinosaur footprints.

    Students will:
  • work in 3-4 member teams to identify questions prior to arriving at the site(s),
  • frame hypotheses,
  • collect and interpret data,
  • eliminate hypotheses, and
  • identify promising hypotheses.
    Teams will present the results of their investigations:
  • both orally (in a classroom conference) and
  • in writing (individual field report; 15 pages).

Students are encouraged to use the four characteristics identified at the beginning of the syllabus (i.e., imagination; innovation; hard work; quality) through the use of careful measurements at the field sites, imaginative questions, innovative hypotheses, and additional information acquired from books, scientific articles, and internet sources.

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