This year, inspired by previous conversations in this group about using hominid skulls in the classroom, my colleagues and I worked to develop a lab analyzing variation in hominid skulls. The original scaffolding for the lab came from an internet find created by ENSI (my typical process usually involves taking ideas from what others have done and mushing it all together until it resembles some sort of coherent learning experience. Sometimes it works).
The basic idea was that students would look at a variety of hominid and primate skulls, take measurements of some key adaptive features, and attempt to interpret the evolutionary significance of said adaptations/changes. The original lab seems to be directed towards students with a more complete background in anatomy. Since we were working with freshman biology students (and our goal was not to teach expertise in anatomy) we refocused on a few key features and walked the students through each of those measurements in the lab. Our main focus(hope), after the measurements were complete, was to have the students really think about why each of the species had the characteristics that they did and how we got to where we are today.
I began with a discussion on what a hominid was and a short discussion on human evolution. I then showed them “Dawn of Humanity” which is an amazing NOVA special on the discovery of Homo naledi. It’s 2 hours long so I only showed the second half that focuses on the discovery of this new species. It is really an amazing video that shows what all goes into the discovery of a hominid.
Next, I introduced the lab and discussed the expectations and demonstrated a few key measurements and how to use the calipers. Then I set them free. I had one hominid(or primate) on each lab station and had each group take all the measurements on their specimen (about 15 minutes for the first one) and then rotate to a new lab bench and start over with the new specimen. They get quicker each time (about 8-10 minutes on average per specimen) 7 specimen in total. You could either print out the instructions for measurements (in color would be best), or I just had them as a pdf and had the students access them with ipads.
After measurements are complete there is a 1 paragraph description of the specimen (provided by “Skulls Unlimited”) that does a nice job describing the organism. This information, paired with the measurements are what the students use to answer the analysis questions. I also have the students choose 1-3 key measurements that they feel early illustrate transitional adaptations to graph. (shown above)
I was a little hesitant to dig into this (get it?) at first because I am certainly no expert on hominid skull anatomy (hopefully we didn’t make any big errors in our set up but feel free to let us know if we did). However, once we got started and I saw the results I was very pleased. As long as the students took the time to read the species descriptions and took careful measurements, they did a good job and demonstrated a good understanding of the material. So, here you go. From our classrooms to yours.
I hope I attached the documents correctly…