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Summer SAVY Session 6, Day 1, Conservation Paleobiology

Posted by on Monday, July 24, 2023 in blog, SAVY.

Welcome to Conservation Paleobiology! What an exciting community of students we have gathered together this year. I am so excited to get to know everyone in the class and come together to learn about the amazing tools that paleontologists use to decode the fossil record. 

Today, we started out by getting to know one another through introductions. Students told us their names, where they were from, and an interesting fact about themselves. It is amazing to hear about the neat places our students have lived and the interesting people that they have met. We have a lot of students who are interested in science, reading, and the nature of life. What a great group! 

Before we dove into the material, I wanted to know what students already know about Conservation and about Paleobiology. As an instructor, this helps me understand what students already know, what they don’t know yet, and what misconceptions they might have about the field. To that end, I instructed students to complete a concept map detailing everything they know about the field. Learn more about concept maps, the science behind their efficacy, and how they can be used in the classroom at Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching here: Active Learning | Center for Teaching | Vanderbilt University. 

Next, I provided an overview of Conservation Paleobiology and introduced the unique question that this course seeks to address: How does the paleontological record provide a unique perspective into modern conservation theory? We will spend the next four days familiarizing ourselves with the nature of the fossil record and the tools that paleontologists use to answer this question. First, however, we need to understand how the field draws from the disciplines of geology, biology, anatomy, ecology, chemistry, and data science to answer broad questions. I had students define each field, including potential strengths and weaknesses when it came to understanding the fossil record. We then shared these definitions to the rest of the class. 

After lunch, students interrogated the question of just how “old” is old? It’s easy for us to talk about “ancient life” and “fossils” but it’s quite another thing to see these events born out on a familiar comparative baseline. Thus, we had an active learning activity where students translated the timing of past events (e.g., extinction of the dinosaurs; emergence of eukaryotic cells; the building of the Appalachian Mountains) into distances along a frame of reference of their choosing. Students chose the length of time in a day, the number of pages in the first Harry Potter book, and the distance around the equator, for example. Students came to see that much of Earth’s visible history is remarkably close to where we are now. One student remarked that, if Earth history equaled a typical school day, the dinosaurs only go extinct 15 minutes before departure! 

Finally, it is important for students to be able to read scientific articles to understand how scientists communicate to one another and to the public. Thus, we engaged in structured reading of the article by Gregoy Dietl and colleagues, “Conservation Paleobiology: Leveraging Knowledge of the Past to Inform Conservation and Restoration.” This article is a review article explaining the current state of Conservation Paleobiology. This paper was quite dense, so I gave students homework tonight to read a specific section. They will report on their findings tomorrow. 

Thank you for entrusting your children with us here at the Summer Academy at Vanderbilt for the Young. I look forward to a wonderful week together! 


Dr. Gregory Smith