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Students access real-life scientific resources to build dinosaurs

Jul 25, 2018 03:29PM ● Published by Jet Burnham

Research Quest provides online activities and printable resources to engage students in scientific research. (Photo Alex Goodlett)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com 

Like scientists in a scene from a popular dinosaur movie, students teamed up with the Natural History Museum of Utah to design the ultimate dinosaur species. Using Research Quest, a creative digital program developed by the museum, students determined the best combination of various heads, torsos, tails and legs from a digitized library of fossils scanned from the museum’s paleontology collection. 

“We are getting some of the expertise of our scientists out there to kids, and we’re getting objects out there—they’re looking at actual scanned fossils that we have at the museum,” said McKenna Lane, digital learning and curriculum specialist at NHMU. 

Research Quest brings the museum resources to the classroom through the internet and is easily accessed from computer labs or classroom Chromebooks. Using digitized fossils and scientific materials, video segments from leading scientists and printable resources, students work their way through activities called investigations. The teaching resource—available to all Utah teachers—was developed by the museum in partnership with the Utah Educational Network and the University of Utah’s departments of Educational Psychology and Entertainment Arts and Engineering. 

Kirsten Butcher, of the University of Utah’s Instructional Design & Educational Technology Program, said not all species of dinosaurs have been discovered, so students are using the simulation to create a feasible design for a potential species using the same resources as actual scientists. 

Students designed dinosaurs that would most successfully perform in simulated tests of survivability, diet, reproduction and physical stability, based on the features of each fossil. 

Research Quest provides teachers with three different investigations that engage students in actual paleontology work as well as the development of critical thinking skills. 

“Critical thinking has been recognized as a huge concern for education for a long time,” said Butcher. “But it’s notoriously difficult to teach and to engage students in these processes.” 

Research Quest uses a digital interface and a gaming style to appeal to students, while providing practice in this important life skill. 

“We live in a very information-rich world,” said Butcher. “It takes really strong critical thinking skills to sift through information, to make sense of information, to know what to do with that information.” 

Another investigation, targeted to older grades, asks students to study a real-life quarry site where many dinosaur skeletons have been found. Students develop a theory of how the dinosaurs ended up there, based on available evidence. Then they debate with peers who interpreted the data differently and support an opposing theory. 

“This is a real scientific question—there’s no one correct answer,” said Butcher. Students use the same resources that are available to paleontologists to develop their theories and then compare it to leading scientific theories. 

“From the teachers, we hear a lot that it's a really great tool for getting kids to construct evidence-based arguments, and that’s something they feel is really unique and valuable,” said Lane. “Students are gathering evidence to support an argument and communicating that argument—something they don’t usually get a chance to do.” 

Another investigation gives students access to 3-D digitized models of fossils found in the NHMU’s collection. Using observation and analysis, they determine what kind of dinosaur the bones are from. 

Research Quest has been available for classroom use since the beginning of this school year and has been well received by students of all ages, said Lane. The program was initially targeted to middle school students but is adaptable for younger grades as well.

“I had to do a little preparation to scaffold the program since it's a middle school-designed program,” said Kristine Jolley, a teacher at Midas Creek Elementary in Riverton. She said her students were excited to use the technology and were engaged in learning. She felt her fourth-graders benefitted from the challenge to think more critically in a fun way. 

“The best part is just the fact that it is a cool subject, and the kids enjoy it,” she said. 

More information can be found at www.researchquest.org.

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