A little class...

A little class...

September 27, 2011 · No Comments

It's the first week of classes here at UCLA, (we're on a quarter system, so we start later than most campuses), and I'm ready to teach my usual two fall courses, which together exemplify what paleontology is all about.

The first course is GE70: Evolution of the Cosmos and Life. This course is part of UCLA's Freshmen Cluster program. These are year-long courses (students sign up with the option to stay in them for 3 quarters) designated only for incoming freshmen. There are a number of these courses (about 10 are offered each year) and all are intended to be multi-disciplinary, with instructors from different departments collaborating on the content of the individual courses. For example, there is one on "America in the 60's", that has 2 political scientists, an English professor, and a musicologist teaching it; and another on Sex and Gender, with a sociologist, a behavioral neuroscientist, a psychologist, and a geneticist.

Our particular teaching team has an astronomer, a geologist, and two biologists (including myself). We also have 5 Teaching Assistants (TAs) from all over campus - biology, geology, archaeology, and history of science. We cover everything from the Big Bang to the origin and evolution of humans and everything in between. We like to say we have the biggest course, because we cover nearly 14 billion years of history. Starting with Big Bang and relativity, the astronomer takes us on a tour of the universe and its workings. Then the geologist takes over and talks about the formation of the Earth and the processes happening on its surface now; that takes us to the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter is concerned mainly with biological evolution and the history of life, going into the mechanics of evolution and major milestones in life's march from its origin to the present, and into the future. We take a number of field trips - to an observatory, to the La Brea Tar Pits, and a 3 day fossil collecting trip in Nevada (sorry, only invertebrates...). During the third quarter each student takes a seminar offered by a member of the teaching team (professors and TAs) on topics relating to the course broadly. We've had seminars on black holes, energy, extinction, the atomic bomb, the age of exploration... etc. My own seminar is on Darwin and being a naturalist.

This is a large course, 200+ students, and is designed as a General Education (GE) course. This means that most (>90%) of the students are not, and will not be, science majors. Instead, they are mainly from the humanities and social sciences, taking the course to satisfy their science GE requirements in one fell swoop. Because of this audience, our goal is to get them to understand the process of science, some major advances in the study of evolution (broadly defined as change), and to be more informed citizens about the topics. Along the way we want to get them excited about science as well.

I obviously teach mostly in the second quarter, covering evolution and the history of life, although I lend a hand with other parts - the definition and history of science, plate tectonics and sedimentology, etc. I also am the coordinator for the course, so I do all the logistics for the course, including things like lab set-up and TA wrangling.

The other course I'm teaching is a large Human Systems Anatomy course. 300+ students in this one, and I team-teach it as well. The other instructor does neuro- and cardiopulmonary anatomy, and I cover musculoskeletal anatomy. The contrast between our teaching styles is interesting, and typifies the unique position we as paleontologists have in the broader world of science. My co-instructor is a classic lab researcher, studying the effect of injury on the spinal cord and development of neuronal tracts. Her lectures reflect this - very clinical, with little comparative information. My lectures are filled with evolutionary tidbits. That's how I learned anatomy, and I figure it will help the students learn it as well. In a class of mainly pre-health professionals, many of them appreciate it (although more than a few or them don't...)

Evolution, deep-time history, comparative, multidisciplinarity, anatomy, geology - I get to teach all the aspects of paleontology in these two courses, and hopefully get some students excited about the field along the way.


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