Scientific Practice in an Inquiry-based Activity Exploring Changes in Skull Shape in Humans and Our Ancestors

Rebecca M. Price, Ph.D. (Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences)

The Council of Undergraduate Research distinguishes between inquiry‐based curricula and research‐based curricula, arguing that the research experiences are far better at teaching the nature of science because students can engage in discovery and create new knowledge. On the other hand, inquiry‐based activities result in a known outcome, but are often shorter and easier to incorporate into a course. Can an inquiry‐based activity teach the scientific method effectively? The activity in this study uses inquiry to test the hypothesis that human skulls evolved from small changes in the timing of development of a chimpanzee‐like ancestor. Students measure skull shape in fetal, infant, juvenile, and adult chimpanzees and compare them to adult skulls of Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, and Australopithecus afarensis. The students then re‐interpret their findings in light of Ardipithecus ramidus, whose discovery indicates that the ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees was actually quite different from the chimpanzee. To conclude, students revise their original hypothesis. After completing the lab, nineteen students in an upper division evolution course at UW Bothell (BBIO 466 Evolution) outlined the lab as they would a scientific paper. 8 students were able to evaluate the data they collected and information about Ardi to construct a reasonable alternative hypothesis. An additional 6 students were able to evaluate the data they collected, but did not construct a 2 reasonable alternative hypothesis, in part because they failed to incorporate the evidence from Ardi. (Data on student performance in other courses are not available, so these results cannot be standardized based on student ability.) This outcome suggests that, although research‐based experiences may be more desirable, inquiry‐based experiences can still be a component of learning about the scientific method.

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