That’s just what’s happening in Christopher Wren’s science class at East Greenwich High School, where students will be able to play the role of paleontologists, examining fossils and developing hypotheses about the evolutionary history and relationships between and among the seven hominid skulls that now occupy the classroom. A 2016 grant from the East Greenwich Education Foundation made the purchase of the skulls possible.
Even as the curriculum was still being developed, the skulls immediately became the center of attention, says Mr. Wren.
“I recently set up the skulls and the level of curiosity they sparked amongst students was terrific,” he explains. “Seeing them all lined up . . . seemed to trigger a response in many students. They automatically began to compare features and rearrange the order to reflect what they thought represented the correct evolutionary sequence. Of course, I was thrilled to see that they sparked such thoughts, as it is this very idea that I am building the unit around.”
The skulls are scale-replicas of hominids; some are modern and others are fossil remains of extinct species. EGHS science students will spend time observing and noting the items, comparing and contrasting them informally – until Mr. Wren hits them with their research question: What is the evolutionary relationship amongst these seven animals?
“Students will then be asked to select several measurable, quantifiable features on which to focus,” says Wren. “These may include brow ridge, cranium size, dental features, or any other traits that students observe and feel are relevant. In many labs, the students are instructed what data to collect and how to collect it. This lab will require them to determine which features are relevant, measurable, and how to obtain those measurements. With the data they obtain, students will construct phylogenetic trees, or diagrammatic reconstructions illustrating the evolutionary history and relationships of the hominid organisms.”
Wren’s goal is to make the experience as interactive, hands-on, and collaborative as possible. Once that part is done, students will have to present and defend their findings to their classmates.
“I am very grateful that the EGEF Grant has made this come together,” Wren says. “These skulls look and feel amazing. They are really captivating.”