Social engagement in Dino 101

Happy new year folks! There are no pictures in this post, SORRY NOT SORRY.

A group of researchers at the University of Alberta recently published a study on learner engagement in Dino 101, and I thought I’d summarize it briefly here and share a few thoughts about it. You can read the original article online for free via Google Books: “Emotional and social engagement in a massive open online course: an examination of Dino 101“. You might also want to check out another summary of their data at the University of Alberta’s site.

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Blog survey results!

It’s hard for me to even believe this, but I’ve been writing Pseudoplocephalus for over 5 years now. I’d been an avid reader of many science blogs for a couple of years before I decided I wanted to try it out myself, and I decided to jump in finally because I was going to be spending three and a half months working and traveling around Korea, China and Mongolia back in 2010 on an NSERC-funded study abroad kind of thing. I figured that blog updates would be the best way to show what I was doing to friends and family, and if I liked it, I’d maybe keep writing about my research afterwards.

As I started writing here, I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to use Pseudoplocephalus as a science outreach tool (as opposed to keeping a grad school diary for my own benefits, etc.). At this point, my general goals with the blog are:

1.  Providing summaries of my research papers for nonspecialists, especially for papers that are paywalled.

2. Showing what it’s like to be a research palaeontologist, for people who aren’t scientists. (And, to be visibly female while doing so.)

3. Promoting the research environments of the various institutions I’ve worked at, to help increase the public’s appreciation of research in museums and universities.

4. Talking about other issues of interest to me, like where palaeontology intersects with popular media and social justice issues. For this goal, I’m interested in reaching both scientists and nonscientists.

So, am I accomplishing any of those goals? I took part in Paige Jarreau‘s science blog survey and some of you were kind enough to fill out the survey, so here’s a little bit of what I learned and how it relates to what I’m doing.

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It’s #SciArt week on Twitter!

I think we often downplay or take for granted the role that art plays in science. High quality art is obviously a hugely important aspect of public science communication. A paper describing a new species of dinosaur will have much more impact on the public if it’s accompanied by an excellent life restoration of that dinosaur. Astronomers and their spacey kin use illustrations to show us satellites, the solar system, and far-off planets we can’t photograph. Biologists dealing with the very small need illustrators to show us the cells in our bodies, what’s inside those cells, what DNA looks like and how it works – the list is endless. Continue reading

Edmontosaurus in Edmonton

Happy 2015, readers! So many exciting things are happening right now – the Dino Hunt Canada website launched a few weeks ago and the documentary will air on History Channel Canada later this month, things are chugging away here in North Carolina, and the Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed special issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences was published just before Christmas. There’s already been lots of great coverage of the special issue, but I wanted to share a few thoughts here as well.

Please enjoy these very fine Edmontosaurus bones!

The special issue on this bonebed came about when Mike Burns and I got to talking about how the Albertosaurus Bonebed special issue had been such a good motivation for the lab to do some collaborative projects, and given that the PALEO 400 fieldschool students needed to develop research projects on the bonebed, wouldn’t it make sense to try to polish those into publishable form as well? This was back in 2012, and at that point there’d been 6 years of really good fieldschool students who had come up with a variety of interesting small-scale independent research projects. We put out a call to current and former students to see if anyone would be interested in expanding their project and contributing it to the volume, and also invited some of our colleagues who were working on hadrosaurs and/or bonebeds in some way to see if they would be interested in working on the material as well. Not all of the former students contributed papers, but I was really pleased by the number who did – it’s a big job to get a paper through peer-review, and I’m really proud of all the first-time papers in this issue!

Albertosaurus tooth!

It’s also been really rewarding to watch our volunteer fossil prep program grow over the years I was at the UofA – we started with a few volunteers here and there, but in recent years we’ve had as many as 8-12 people working in the lab on a weekday evening. We run two shifts of volunteers – an evening program from 5-7pm on some combination of Mondays to Thursdays, depending on the schedules of the grad students who supervise the volunteers, and a daytime program by appointment in our larger basement laboratory with the larger and more challenging projects. Most people start in our evening lab programs, and many of the bones prepared during those hours were from the Danek bonebed. The Danek material is amazingly good for volunteers – with a bit of soaking, the surrounding shaley matrix flakes off the relatively durable bones. We would never have gotten through all of that material so quickly without the dedicated help of a very large crew of volunteers! If you’re reading this from Edmonton and are interested in volunteering in the DinoLab, follow our Facebookpage for up-to-date contact information and hours.

Ian is a shoveling machine!

Although I haven’t gone out to the bonebed for the full 3 weeks each year, I’ve tried to get out at least a little bit each year, even if it’s only for ‘overburden removal’ days. It’s amazing how much dirt we’ve moved since my first year there in 2007! Because the bonebed is located in a nature preserve, we need to be a bit careful with how we handle the overburden – we can’t let too much sediment get into the creek, and we also can’t just cover up existing plants. What we’ve taken to doing is removing the topsoil from a ‘meadow’ nearby, evenly spreading the relatively sterile Quaternary sands/gravels in the clearing, and then ‘replanting’ the topsoil overtop and sprinkling with local plant seeds. We dig in the early spring, and by July the area is so green you’d never even know we had disturbed it. The bonebed is a beautiful place to work – we see lots of interesting wildlife because of the stream nearby, the matrix surrounding the bones is soft and incredibly easy to work with, and the bones are plentiful.

Clearing the ‘meadow’.

Sometimes it’s cold in April in Edmonton!

One of the things we mentioned in the press materials for the special volume is the presence of other dinosaur fossils throughout Edmonton and the surrounding areas. I have a hunch that if you dig pretty much anywhere in Edmonton, you’re probably going to hit a dinosaur bone at some point. There’ve been dinosaurs in the sewers and dinosaurs in the pipelines, and dinosaur bones pop up along the North Saskatchewan River with relative frequency. If you think you’ve found a dinosaur bone in Edmonton, make sure you understand the laws protecting fossils in Alberta – you need a permit to dig up fossils in Alberta, and fossils should be stored in accredited facilities like the Royal Tyrrell Museum of the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology. But if you find something, tell the University of Alberta about it! Take a picture of what you found, and if you have the ability to mark the latitude and longitude with a GPS or your phone, do that too. You can get in touch with us via the DinoLab Facebook page. Maybe you will be the next person to stumble across a dinosaur in your city!

Not in Edmonton? The Danek Bonebed is where much of the taphonomy and fieldwork lesson for Dino 101 was filmed! The 4th session of Dino 101 started today, so go have a look if you’re interested in learning more about the bonebed.

What’s new with Dino 101?

The third offering of Dino 101 kicked off again last week, and we’re already into our 2nd lesson, on taphonomy and fossilization. Here’s a quick update for what’s new this time around!

  • A new section about the palaeobiogeography of dinosaurs was filmed, including lots of new scenes at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
  • We get to show off the Edmontosaurus with the “cock’s comb”!
  • We added in some more information on non-dinosaurian critters from the Mesozoic throughout the course, including pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and early mammals
  • I made a bunch of new 3D models for our fossil viewer interactive – now you can enjoy the baby chasmosaur’s skull in three dimensions of terror and amazement!

These are all in addition to some of the snappy upgrades to version 2, like the section on the baby chasmosaur and the fancier study guides.

So far there’s more than 11 000 students registered in Dino 101 v3, which means we’ve now reached nearly 50 000 students from around the world! The on-campus versions of Dino 101, including the flipped/blended PALEO 201, are also underway, and the PALEO 201 team is making some new activities about dinosaur footprints and trackways. I’m sure they’re going to have a great time!

You can join the fun at Dino 101 for free – register now at Coursera! And you can follow the course in its various social media forms, including Facebook and Twitter.

Many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.

I was reminded of an old post on this blog today when someone brought up the all too common question of “Is that real?” in museums. In 2011 I had visited the Smithsonian natural history museum for some of my Euoplocephalus research, and spent a day browsing the galleries and shamelessly eavesdropping on people’s conversations. I was dismayed by the number of people saying things like “What’s that!” and then walking away without finding out, or saying “Look, a T. rex!” to things that were patently not T. rex. In the comments on that post, there was some discussion of the fact that visitors to museums often mistake any skeleton as a dinosaur skeleton.

Anyway, that in turn reminded me of a photo I took in the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History‘s marine gallery a while ago:

Despite being surrounded by all manner of marine specimens, including a fleshed out model of a sei whale up above, the museum has to explicitly say that a pilot whale is not a dinosaur. In fairness, the museum (sadly!) does not have any dinosaur skeletons, what with Halifax being located on top of the Cambrian-Ordovician Meguma Terrane, and with the Fundy Geological Museum fulfilling the role of the dinosaur-having museum in Nova Scotia.

What lessons can we learn from this?
1. Museum people: put a dinosaur in your museum. There’s no excuse not to have one.

2. Everybody else: many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.

3. ????

*Bonus! Sable Island is a super neat place that not many people have heard about outside of the maritime provinces – you can read more about it at their National Park page!

Paleo201 comes to an end

The first offering of Paleo201, Dinosaurs in the Fossil Record, essentially comes to an end today with the final field trip of the semester. The students will have their exam later in December.

Even though it is a lot of work to be involved in the creation of a new course, I think Paleo201 is a great addition to the University of Alberta’s paleontology offerings. Using the Dino101 content on Coursera, and pitched at an essentially first-year level (despite its 200 designation) for students from all faculties, Paleo201 is what’s called a blended learning course. We rely on the Dino101 course videos to deliver the base lecture content for the course, which means we typically only meet once per week for an in-class lesson. These lessons have included research talks by grad students in our labs on topics relevant to each week’s lesson. However, we also tried to break away from the lecture format for at least some of the in class lessons, to take advantage of some of the resources available on campus. One week we learned the basics of the rock cycle and general Canadian geology using the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Geoscience Garden, an installation of rocks from around Canada arranged in a particular fashion for students to learn basic mapping skills. And last week we did tours of the Paleontology Museum and our prep labs, including sneak peeks of some cool up and coming research projects. FUN FACT: Our Dunkleosteus skull cast was ranked higher than the dinosaur specimens in my highly scientific ‘what did you find most interesting’ poll. Blindingly obvious take-home message for instructors: Students like new things and surprises, and dinosaurs are not necessarily the be-all and end-all!

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Dinosaurs 101

In addition to working through the home stretch of my PhD, an exciting project has kept me hopping for the last few months. I’m part of the team creating the University of Alberta’s flagship MOOC, in partnership with Udacity: Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology. If MOOC is a new acronym for you, don’t worry – it was for me, too. There will be three flavours, so to speak, of Dino 101, but all will feature the same online content. Dino 101 will be available through Udacity, for free, to everyone around the world. Registered University of Alberta students who want to take the course for credit will register for PALEO 200 (online only), or PALEO 201 (same online content, but with additional in-person activities like field trips).

Working on Dino101 has been a great experience for me so far, even though it can be challenging. We’re working closely with educational specialists to make sure the pedagogy is sound, and that our assessments will be rigorous. We want to make sure that real learning will occur. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the foundational aspects of the course, like what our learning outcomes will be, and what skills will be tested. I’ve been learning a lot about educational theory – even though the scale of MOOCs is new, there’s a lot of people on board with this project who have researched the best ways to deliver and assess online content. We also have a great team working on unique interactives for the course, which should enhance the experience for students.

As we finish off scripts and move into production, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the cool ideas we have planned for teaching the basic concepts of dinosaur palaeontology come to life. I also hope that this course will serve as a springboard for people who are interested in animal biology and geology, and that everyone will come away with a better understanding of the scientific method.

I hope we’ll see you in Dino101 when we launch this September!

(Check out the UofA’s official Dino101 page for more information and to sign up for updates.)