Active learning on the first day of Constance Clark’s course on History of Evolutionary Thought

Filed in engaging students in class, first day of class by on October 17, 2016 0 Comments
WPI Professor Constance Clark

WPI Professor Constance Clark

On the first day of class I arrive early with a cart full of skeletons, skulls, fossils, shells, plants, an ostrich egg, some rocks, shark teeth, and a peculiar upside-down drawing of a sloth.  Before the students arrive (at least with any luck before they arrive—if there are people who got there early I ask them to help me) I arrange these objects on tables.  I have some things that resemble each other such as ankle bones of modern and fossil artiodactyls, and a nautilus shell and some ammonites; and I have a variety of types of animal skeletons, extant and extinct.

When the students arrive, I tell them to get together with a couple of other people and go from table to table taking notes.  They are to imagine that they are 18th century European naturalists who have been receiving specimens from naturalists who are traveling around the world—mostly specimens of things that are unfamiliar to them.  Because it is the 18th century, their objective is to try to classify these objects.

Initially, the students generally look for things that are familiar to them, and I remind them to imagine being someone in the 18th century who does not know most of these objects.  Working in groups, they are to come up with a classification scheme, including some sorts of principles of classification.  I sometimes give them big Sticky Pads and colored pens and have them try to create a visual depiction of their classification scheme.

After they’ve had some time for this, I’ll put up a slide show, with pictures of the organisms and we’ll talk about them (there’s funny story about the upside-down sloth), and about classification.  I have a slide of a very funny parody of a nonsense classification scheme that Michel Foucault took from Borges, and we’ll talk about the nature of classification and our assumptions about it.  Then I’ll put up a slide showing the Linnaean classification system and ask if they’re familiar with it, and if they know the logic of it.  That will introduce them to the things they’ll read for discussion in the next class.

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