As one of this semester’s recipients of the Center for Teaching and Learning faculty grant, Assistant Professor of Geoscience David Kendrick was able to expand his paleontological “tool kit.”
The grant, available to faculty through the CTL each semester to help and support their creative and experimental projects with new learning initiatives within the classroom, enabled Kendrick to conduct greater experiments and employ new techniques in for his Geoscience 290: Paleontology course, keeping up with “the changing nature of the field.”
Specifically, the grant allowed Kendrick’s students to explore “real research,” examining their own hair samples for stable carbon isotope analysis. Students analyzed and interpreted the results of the isotopes measured, Kendrick says, “in light of their known diets, then compared those results with published archaeological and ethnological data showing changes in human diet over time and variations across cultures.”
In his grant proposal, Kendrick expressed hope that some faculty members might donate their own hair samples or samples from their children’s hair for a wide range of data, but didn’t anticipate the response he received once campus got wind of his project.
Once the class gathered the hair samples, they sent them out to a lab at the University of Maryland, where Kendrick’s colleague, Professor Jay Kaufman, is currently processing and measuring the stable carbon isotope ratios.
While they are processed, students are now focusing on the study of paleontology and considering how they will analyze the data: what differences to identify within the data, how to correlate their results with historical data about human diets.
As Kendrick emphasized, one of the main goals and broader implications of this project is to allow his students to “experience the actual process of science from posing hypotheses to interpret real data, rather than simply performing a ‘canned’ experiment.”
Kendrick says that while it may be difficult to work with real, unique data, it is important for them to analyze ambiguous results, in order to push students beyond their comfort zones. As he wrote in his last sentence of his grant proposal to the CTL, “I predict the study will provide a memorable and, perhaps, surprising learning experience, as well as be fun for all participants.”