(provided by high school teachers who witnessed the 'Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day!' lab delivered to their biology class)

Upon initial instruction to contextualize the fossil replicas and to orient them, learners individually handle and measure the skulls, placing them in the anthropologist's seat.  This tactile analysis of the skulls elicits questioning and hypothesizing, answers to which emerge through facilitated discussion. As the diagram depicts, by conducting measurements and discussing the significance of their measurements, learners begin to understand how, and what, kind of hominin emerged from the survival contest.

Our approach thus counters the traditional abstract textbook treatment of the subject, which is lecture-based and thus less interactive and vivid.  Rather than being taught the already established theory, or told to be critical of an existing theory, students collect data and are thereafter facilitated in their own generation of knowledge.  As no prior knowledge on human evolution is presumed, students are readily able to engage the material.


(provided by high school teachers who themselves administer the 'Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day!' lab)

Talking about those three measurements – foramen magnum, cranial capacity and prognathism – kids definitely got into the idea of what those things mean, and I think this mixing of the social sciences (us studying ourselves in a way) and then looking at what the complexion of earth was at that time, with all these different species, was a really useful way for the students to experience that.  I think [inquiry-based learning] is something the students need, and I think you are providing a really great way to do that with evolution in a way to which most students don’t have access.

-- Michael Wytock

The opportunity to, first of all, see and interact with the trajectory of human evolution was very powerful for many of the students who couldn’t conceptualize the incremental change. Being able to see the plethora of skulls was very meaningful and really brought that to life.  Secondly, and maybe the most impactful, was that the variety of skulls, in conjunction with the lesson really made it clear that this was not a single trajectory, and that it was not a quick one at that.  For them to see that there were lots of dead ends, that there were lots of simultaneous relatives, gave them a much deeper understanding of evolution.

-- Alex Treiger

Due to deeply embedded cultural ideas, holding the evidence in their hands helped a lot of them.  The hands-on experience with fossil casts convinced them, and even those still in disagreement may eventually come around.

-- Jessica LeBlanc

One of the most invaluable things is having that complete set, not obviously entirely complete, but from a geological standpoint, you covered a really good piece of ground there, and being able to see that progression laid out in front of you in a spectrum is really powerful. It’s not three, it’s not seven, it’s like 13 that really cover the diversity of hominid species that the students can look at. Being able to take their own data, and trust that someone else that they know collected similar datapoints on other skulls was probably part of that.

-- Michael Wytock

There was a group of kids in the class who were like: 'Evolution isn’t real because we weren’t monkeys', and then they went through this and they had a much better appreciation: 'Oh, I see how it went!'  

-- Alex Treiger

If you survey a lot of the textbooks and look for their coverage of hominin evolution, you would find that it’s poorly covered.  They don’t try to draw a particularly strong line between all of these different concurrently living species on earth. It’s kind of like: 'They existed, here’s a paragraph about it, and we fall here in this big classification/cladogram.' Your presentation shifted the focus to looking on ourselves and thinking about how we may have evolved, and applying fossil evidence for evolution to humans.  It really changes that unit for a lot of students.  We can now discuss this in terms of humans as animals, not just ecosystem-wide.

-- Michael Wytock

There is definitely a deeper and longer-lasting understanding observable with this class.  They now understand for life!  For those on the fence told themselves 'It must be real – I’m looking at these skulls.' Furthermore, the students saw how ideas can translate into research and a career. 

-- Jessica LeBlanc

I also liked the data-driven method at arriving at the conclusions, and there was a really cool social aspect to it as well.  We’re people studying people, and that falls underneath this branch of biology but it also falls in this branch of social science, and I think there were a lot of students who were really inspired by that mixture, which you don’t always get in your science class.  

-- Michael Wytock

This gave students a roadmap for discussing the process of evolution, particularly in humans, from Lucy to us, and from a Neanderthal to us.  Whereas a past class says: 'There was us and a caveman, and my mom says there was a monkey, and I don’t understand how the monkey got to us, and what the caveman had to do with it, isn’t the caveman us?'  This gave them a visual clue, something they could hold, to say: 'Ok, I see how these are different.  You’re telling me based on their age they were around at the same time, I get that they are different, I see how they are related...'  It was very helpful.

-- Alex Treiger

I would say next to non-existent would be the degree to which my students in the past could have talked about human evolution. A lot of my current students would use this as a way of framing their thought around it.

-- Michael Wytock

Seeing the skulls and measuring them, hearing where they came from, and what we look at and measure to compare and date them to piece together this timeline gave students one more example of evidence for evolution and that scientists are not just guessing, that we have empirical evidence that we use to support the claims that we make.

-- Casey McMann

In terms of teaching human evolution, this was so much better.  Students need visuals.  A textbook really doesn’t do that for them.

                            -- Jessica LeBlanc 

I’ve had kids from last semester this semester come up and ask: ‘Oh, are you gonna do the skull thing again?’ So in a semester, or in a year, or in 5 years, this will be something they will remember from biology class.

-- Katherine Adler

Interestingly enough, the students began to really believe that learning for real is hard.  They were interested, as in: 'These skulls are coming and we’re going to learn about them, and it will be interesting.'  Then they had to put all this thought into it, graph it, and work.  They were like: 'Man, I thought this was supposed to be fun.' Well, you did have fun, I’m glad you had fun, and also this is a school.  You learn things from the experience.

-- DJ Johnson

I think we were on the cusp of a lot. It was mind-blowing to a lot of students that there were other hominids around at the same time, that they interacted with each-other, and there is evidence of these interactions. And their imaginations ran wild with this idea of Neanderthals and humans shivering in the wintertime in caves. It was really powerful, not just in social terms, but also in artistic and self-evaluative.

-- Michael Wytock

It takes a long time to go through the measurement phase.  What a lot of teachers do, especially in settings where you are crunched for time, is you give them the data.  But the actual measuring helped them appreciate how detail-oriented science can be, and maybe even how mundane sometimes it can be if you have to do this a thousand times, or replicate after replicate.  It allowed them to appreciate a little bit what real science is, because they don’t always get that.  They think science is memorizing processes and terms and vocabs, and not actually doing the process. They got to do the process this time.

-- Katherine Schilling, PhD

It answered a key question for a lot of students which is: 'Why does the monkey at the zoo never become a human?' In other words, seeing how gradual this was, this took a really long time.  And being able to hold something that was really old was helpful in them gaining an appreciation for that.  That this is not a fast thing, and that is why a monkey at the zoo does not become a person.  That was really great!

-- Alex Treiger

It was a one-of-a-kind valuable experience that I don’t think can be taught adequately any other way.  I definitely felt privileged and lucky to have you guys around to help present that material. It’s something that I don’t have a lot of resources to actually provide to my students, and it is something that gets them interested in something close to home. That frames their understanding of the rest of the biology we cover.  Most textbooks’ examples are comparative anatomy between whales and birds and seeing how they are similar, but really just focusing on these hominin species and digging into that was this world that most students felt wasn’t adequately explained to them along this whole process.

-- Michael Wytock ​

Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day!  --  A human origins lab


“Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day” is an inquiry-based lab that involves biology students carrying out measurements on 11 skull replicas using customized calipers and protractors, honing in on three variables of hominin evolution: bipedalism (upward gait), encephalization (cranial capacity), and prognathism (size and strength of jaws). The high school student is challenged to him/herself become the paleoanthropologist and deduce evolutionary facts and patterns based on direct observation.


We devised a compact lab utilizing skull replicas designed for the high school level: Our Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day!  lab features an inquiry-based, hands-on  pedagogy that brings to life the central organizing principal in biology – evolution – as it applies to hominins.

With calipers and protractors in hand, students are guided in the analysis of the morphological changes in cranial dimensions.  By focusing on three major developments in hominin evolution – upright posture, jaw size, and cranial capacity – a clear picture is painted of the evolution from distant hominid ancestors to modern humans. After measurements are taken and the data is discussed, the dating of the skulls is revealed providing a temporal perspective, known as the hominin cladogram.  The course provides an intelligent and science-based dialogue on the compelling evidence revealed by paleoanthropology.  Any textbook treatment of the data is ultimately inferior to a lab-based course where the actual archaeological evidence is in the hands of the students.

Our Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day! lab allows the complex data of hominin evolution to be clearly articulated.  Skull replicas provide a tangible means to observe the millions of years of evolution that led to Homo sapiens.  By replicating a simplified process that scientists use to analyze the hominid skulls excavated by archaeologists, our lab places the student in the driver's seat of discovery and knowledge.  The result is an engaging lab which yields a deeper understanding of the subject and ensures better retention.  In sum, we champion inquiry-based learning as the most effective and empowering vehicle for the high school student to first learn about the subject of human evolution.

Human Origins Kit

In addition to using their own physiology, students collect data from hominin skulls.  The skulls reveal many crucial details of a species' life.  Teacher feedback and academic studies have shown a hands-on approach in three dimensions is the most valuable and effective method for communicating morphological changes of evolution.  AncientAncestors offers a detailed curriculum, providing support and suggestions to teachers for communicating the facts and guiding discussion on human evolution.

The full Human Origins Kit consists of: 
   1. Lab's Instructor Curriculum

   2. Excel Lab Worksheet (can be turned into Google sheets file as well for simultaneous data entry on one file)
   3. Presentation
   4. Measurement tools: 11 protractors (custom, bevel angle gauge) and 11 calipers (long jaw)
   5. Set of 11 hominin skulls: 

           Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus afarensis*, Australopithecus africanus*, Australopithecus aethiopicus,

           Australopithecus boisei*, Homo habilis*, Homo erectus*, Homo heidelbergensis*, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens*

           (To 3D print out your own set of hominin skulls, here a table with the .stl files.  If you do not have access to a 3D printer, contact Molly Selba at HETMP)

           (To inquire whether your school can borrow a set of skulls and instruments through our skulls-on-tour program, contact Chris Bayer at cbayer@tulane.edu) 

​​Video Preview

Here a brief video summarizing the 'Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day' lab by Michael Luberda, who delivers the science lab with personal anecdotes and insights to New Orleans High School Cohen Prep. 

Overlap with AP Biology
The AP Biology Course and Exam Description (Revised Edition: Fall 2015) contains the AP Biology Curriculum Framework and represents a coherent and challenging biology course.  It recommends that educators “devote 25% of instructional time to lab investigation, and conduct at least two investigations per big idea” (p. 121).

The College Board uses a combination of "Enduring Understandings" and "Science Practices" to create Learning Objectives for each course.

1.  Our Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day!  lab touches on aspects of each of the 7 science practices featured in the AP science courses. 

                             They are:

# Science Practice
 1 The student can use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems.
 2  The student can use mathematics appropriately.
 3 The student can engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP course.
 4 The student can plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question.
 5 The student can perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence.
 6 The student can work with scientific explanations and theories.
 7 The student is able to connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts and representations in and across domains.

2.  It furthermore hits on many “enduring understanding” and “essential knowledge” items as outlined in the AP Biology framework.

Our Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day! lab notably bolsters a student’s comprehension of “Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.”

More specifically, the lab furthers the following learning objectives:

  • Enduring understanding 1.A: Change in the genetic makeup of a population over time is evolution.
    • Essential knowledge 1.A.1: Natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution.
  • Enduring understanding 1.B: Organisms are linked by lines of descent from common ancestry.
    • Essential knowledge 1.B.1: Organisms share many conserved core processes and features that evolved and are widely distributed among organisms today.
    • Essential knowledge 1.B.2: Phylogenetic trees and cladograms are graphical representations (models) of evolutionary history that can be tested.
  • Enduring understanding 1.C: Life continues to evolve within a changing environment.
    • Essential knowledge 1.C.1: Speciation and extinction have occurred throughout the Earth’s history.
    • Essential knowledge 1.C.2: Speciation may occur when two populations become reproductively isolated from each other.
    • Essential knowledge 1.C.3: Populations of organisms continue to evolve.

Overlap with Bloom’s taxonomy 

Bloom’s taxonomy – a classification of the possible learning objectives within education – is furthermore a useful framework to explain how the lab engages students.  The table below describes how the lab exercised all three learning domains an many corresponding learning modes [1].   The lab’s immersive quality and employment of these various learning modes explains how the lab achieves such excellent learning outcomes.

 Learning  domains
 Pertinent learning modes Lab-specific applications
apply, analyze, understand, evaluate, remember
  • comprehension of instruction
  • synthesis of data
  • generation and corroboration of findings
  • raising new questions
perceive, initiate, adapt, fine tune
  • tactile inspection of skulls
  • learning how to use measurement implements
  • honing measurement of skulls
receive, respond, value, characterize, organize
  • communication such as instructor-student and peer discussion
  • satisfaction derived from empirical understanding
  • revision of personal schema/worldview

[1] Anderson , L.W., & Sosniak, L.A. (Eds.). (1994). Bloom's taxonomy: a forty-year retrospective. Ninety-third yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt.2 ., Chicago , IL ., University of Chicago Press.

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