The Internet and Jurassic Park: teaching students to think critically about dinosaurs

Vitale, Gail, Piscitello-Pall, Susan, and Bennington, J Bret, 1996. The Internet and Jurassic Park: teaching students to think critically about dinosaurs. American Paleontologist 4(2):2-3.

Critical Thinking in the Classroom

Thinking critically is an important skill for students to learn, but it is a difficult one to teach. Critical thinking is hard work, requiring students to focus on an issue and apply previously learned ideas to evaluate new information. One way to capture the attention of students and get them excited about critical thinking is to take advantage of their interest in popular films. Fortunately, two recent movies have come along that contain enough scientific content to provide for fertile discussion in a science classroom. Previously, the 7th grade Earth Science students at Memorial Jr. High School were shown Apollo 13 during our astronomy unit. One aspect of the astronomy unit dealt with using this movie to explore the difference between reality and fantasy. We discussed several physical principles that apply to spaceflight and the students were asked to watch the film and note where violations of these principles occurred. The students really enjoyed their detective work, so we decided to use a similar approach and explore the science of paleontology through the film Jurassic Park.

The Internet

Prior to beginning the unit on paleontology, a request was sent out on the internet asking for assistance in identifying paleontological inaccuracies in Jurassic Park that we could use to focus our lessons on paleontology and dinosaurs. A message was posted on the Paleonet and Dinosaur listservers asking for any print/ newsgroup/ web references or personal observations regarding the scientific accuracy of the film. Not only were we delighted with the number of responses but we were amazed at the global distribution of those who responded. As teachers we learned the first lesson from this exercise when we saw the power of the internet to put us in direct contact with professionals who were truely interested in helping to answer our questions. The entire exercise took on a completely new and exciting dimension when we began to receive responses from paleontologists in the United States, Sweden, Poland, and Australia!

Preparing the Students

To prepare the students to think critically about dinosaurs and Jurassic Park we used several activities to introduce them to paleontology and Earth history. The geological time scale was introduced to the students through the visual aid of a time line (Bonnie Blackwell of Queens College graciously suggested this exercise). Four hundred and sixty five pages of continuous feed computer paper were used to show the span of Earth history, with each page numbered to represent ten million years. Students spread the time line out in the hallway and, given the dates for different geologic periods, were asked to calculate how many "pages" represented the history of humankind. They were then asked to determine how many pages represented the age of the dinosaurs. The students were very surprised to see that humans only encompassed one fifth of a page but dinosaurs were spread out over fifteen pages. They also saw quite clearly that humans were far separated in time from the dinosaur age.

Once the students were able to put geological time into perspective, they were given several worksheets to complete that enhanced their interpretation of the geological time scale. Treasure hunts on the geological scale became our daily introductory activity. At this point we were ready to zoom in on the Mesozoic.

To bring the students up to speed on dinosaur paleontology we first invited a guest speaker (Bennington) to give a slide presentation on what paleontologist can and cannot know about dinosaurs. The students were then shown an episode of Paleoworld on dinosaur paleontology from which they made notes. We then prepared a worksheet based on Robert Bakker's 'Field Guide to Jurassic Park Dinosaurs' (Earth Magazine, September 1993) that required the students to list the appearance and abilities of each dinosaur mentioned in Jurassic Park. Later on they would compare this information to notes made while viewing the film. The most popular topics during class discussions revolved around the intelligence of dinosaurs, their eating habits, size, speed, and the sounds they may have made.

Jurassic Park

Before showing the film, a few scientific errors were discussed to get the seventh grade paleo-detectives to thinking. Fortunately, all of the students knew the story behind Jurassic Park and most of them had previously seen the movie. However, they were now about to view the film from a different point of view. With their newly acquired knowledge of paleontology , they were going to compile their own list of inaccuracies in the movie. As 12 year olds are very competitive, motivation was not a problem.

Jurassic Park was viewed in class over a four day period. Each day of viewing began with a vocabulary list of significant terms mentioned for each portion of the film (prepared by the reading teacher, Susan Rollero). Students were urged to make note of any additional terms which they did not understand. Brief discussions were held before and after each viewing to share opinions and anticipate events in the upcoming section. At the completion of the film students turned in their complete lists of what they, as seventh grader paleo-detectives, felt were inaccuracies in the movie. Rather than administer an exam at the end of the unit, students were assessed by two alternative criteria. One criteria was their compiled list of possible inaccuracies and the second was a report. Students were asked to write a story in which they journeyed back into time to the age of dinosaurs in which they mentioned, in as much detail as possible, plant and animal life that they might encounter. They also wrote about fossil remains, ancient land masses, and geologic events. The results were wonderful! The stories were creative, detailed, and scientifically accurate.

Epilogue

Jurassic Park turned out to be an excellent vehicle for teaching students to think critically about dinosaurs for several reasons. First, as a popular film with eye-popping special effects it commanded both their respect and their attention. The students were excited about the movie, so they were also excited about learning from the movie. Also, as we discovered from the discussions posted over the internet, Jurassic Park was a movie that tried very hard to present a scientifically accurate picture of living dinosaurs. Many currently held ideas about dinosaur biology and a few controversies were folded into the storyline of the film. Fortunately however, the film was not perfect in this respect so that there were enough inaccuracies and inconsistancies to keep our paleo-detectives interested and on the hunt. The success of this exercise was shown both by the level of effort the students put into their final notes on the film and essay and by their success at discovering, as a group, almost all of the errors and controversial interpretations that were brought to our attention by our panel of experts assembled via the internet. 


Last modified 3-11-97 by Bret Bennington (GeoJBB@Hofstra.edu.) All rights reserved by the author. This document may not be distributed in any format or reposted on any other server without permission.