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Teaching the straight dope



Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. wrote (responding to Norm King):
>>As a teacher, my biggest problem is finding a way to be current, yet not 
>>snow my audience of lay people under a blanket of undecipherable 
>>cladobabble.  The best approach seems to be to ignore the current 
>>("proper"?) definitions for reptile and tetrapod, for example, and 
>>explain what they are in the more traditional way.

>This may work for you, but I find that my students can handle current
>definitions very well.  (And, for the most part, my students are non-science
>majors).
        This summer, in an attempt to insert some phylogeny into the current
TTU Historical Geology Lab cirriculum, which has a somewhat non-evolutionary
bent, I introduced my students to reading cladograms. Stripped of most of
the theory, and a lot of the practical side of the subject, the material
proved to be pretty easy to teach. Within a forty-five minute period they
became *extremely* adept at determining who was related to whom using
various cladograms.
        While I never brought up phylogenetic taxonomy, many of the nodes on
the cladograms were labelled. When quiz time came around, they were
presented with an archosauromorph cladogram ala Gauthier, and a slightly
different one ala Feduccia. As an extra hard bonus question, I asked them
why they thought the "Archosauria" label was in a different position on each
cladogram. Three or four of them out of sixteen (of whom I should point out
nearly half had absolutely no interest in participating in the class at all)
could at some level understand that crocs+birds=archosauria. One of them hit
the nail on the head so hard my head spun. All I ever told them was that
sometimes we name nodes...
        I am not the world's most seasoned educator, but I'm willing to bet
that if *that* particular class could swing it, any class could.

        And now, back to dinosaurs...
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    Jonathan R. Wagner, Dept. of Geosciences, TTU, Lubbock, TX 79409-1053
        "Chimp here does the killing." - Doug Mackenzie