As a young girl, Jessica Theodor found a fossil in her backyard. The curious six-year-old hopped on the subway and headed to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to find out what it was. Eventually she would head there on weekends to explore.
“I was fascinated,” says Theodor, a paleontologist in the Department of Biological Sciences. “I would just wander and look and think ‘that’s neat.’ And I would want to learn more.”
Theodor’s research work on the size of mammals after dinosaur extinction is one subject in a pilot project that will be taught in Calgary high schools this fall.
“Science is a really creative process, something students don’t often realize. It’s not all about facts and memorization,” says Howard Ceri, a professor of biological sciences and former president of Sigma Xi, an organization with a mandate to improve the public’s understanding of science.
It was Ceri’s idea to start Sigma Xi Research Connections, an outreach project that connects teachers and their students with the excitement of scientific research. A collaboration of the faculties of science and education, the university’s Biogeoscience Institute as well as the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District, it provides opportunity for teams of high school teachers, faculty and graduate students to co-develop lab and field experiences based on research at the University of Calgary.
During this past winter session, a team of six high school teachers focused on Theodor’s research that was recently published in the journal Science. The research demonstrated that the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago made way for mammals to get bigger—about a thousand times bigger than they had been.
Theodor and her team studied the fossils of teeth of mammals that lived 60 million years ago. By studying these fossils, researchers learned a lot about the mammal: its body mass, what it ate and the group in which it belongs.
These findings were a perfect fit for the current Alberta Biology 20 curriculum. Brian Rankin, a PhD student in Theodor’s lab, worked with the teachers to develop a lab and field experience based on the Science article. In addition, the team “translated” the Science article into a form suitable for use by high school students to explore how this research was conducted.
Cathy Piedimonte, a teacher at Calgary’s Notre Dame High School, says this approach will help engage both teachers and students. “This gives us a more innovative way to teach the Biology 20 curriculum,” she says. “We will be more aware of current research and it will help make science a lot more relevant to students.”
Bonnie Shapiro, a project co-leader and professor in the Faculty of Education, says, “Not only is this an outstanding opportunity to help teachers and high school students learn to work with scientific information in new ways, it also is an outstanding opportunity to help scientists, science educators and graduate students to think in new ways about how scientific information is made available for use by the community.”