Minimester Musings: Human Evolution and Paleontology

One of the trends in independent school education that I’m noticing with great interest is the minimester.  A minimester (which can also go by a variety of other names) is break during the regular academic calendar when short, intensive courses are offered.  I’ve been thinking about what minimester courses I’d like to offer if I get the opportunity to do so.

Consider this post as a bit of online brainstorming; while the idea I will be describing here is awesome it might be too physically ambitious to actually carry out.

My title for this minimester?  “Human Evolution and Paleontology”

Before going further, I should explain that the idea for this class is strongly inspired by a legendary homeschool class known as the Dig.  To prepare for the Dig, a big hole is dug in the ground and then it is filled with a variety of historical objects, similar to what an archaeologist might find at a particularly rich site.  (They are reproductions, of course.)  The objects aren’t just thrown in – they’re placed with attention to chronology, so that the earliest objects are at the lowest levels.

This is a reproduction of a Homo ergaster skull, available from the wonderfully named supplier, Bone Clones.
This is a reproduction of a Homo ergaster skull, available from the wonderfully named supplier, Bone Clones.

Several years ago I visited the Dig, and it was quite an experience.  The students were explicitly learning about archaeological techniques and history.  Implicitly there were lessons about being organized, methodical, and patient.  It was intense, tactile, and very memorable.  I’d like more students to be able to have an experience like that.

Human evolution is a fascinating, rich, and complex field.  I think students would get a great deal out of a mock archaeological dig in which they “found” reproductions of pre-human and human fossils, tools, and other associated artifacts.  I think I’d organize it so that the students found remnants that spanned a wide time period but were restricted to one relatively limited physical location.  They would have to do research about archaeological finds from other areas using print and internet resources.  They would then work in teams to synthesize their findings and present hypothetical descriptions of human evolution.  Finally, we could compare the ideas that the students developed with the various ideas that professionals are currently proposing.

The logistical hurdles to offering such a minimester are considerable.  Reproduction fossils are expensive.  Finding a place in New York City to dig a big enough hole is difficult.  Even side-stepping an outdoor dig and filling sufficiently large containers with sediments and so on would be messy, laborious, and expensive.  It would be difficult to pull off, but the result would be a peak educational experience for students.

I’ll probably never run this minimester… but I can dream!

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