An innovative lab on human evolution: 'Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day'

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 hominids.  Click here to download the lab's curriculum. 

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 protrusion, 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.

The Human Origins Kit

At the heart of the "Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day" lab are the recreations of the most important finds of our known ancestors, the 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 Curriculum
   2. Presentation
   3. Measurement tools: 11 protractors (custom, bevel angle gauge) and 11 calipers (long jaw)
   4. 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

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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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.