Learning happened on several levels when Miller Middle School’s seventh-graders went to college for a day this week.
The trigger for the visit to Fort Lewis College was a project in the physical-anthropology laboratory, where the young students explored concepts of adaptation and evolution by looking at skulls and bones.
“They’re also getting some free time on campus to go swimming or play volleyball in the gym, lunch in the cafeteria, a tour of campus, a look at robotics and 3-D printing,” said Aaron Schiff, a resource teacher at Miller. “They’re getting a taste of college.”
Developing the classThe lab came about over the summer when Mountain Middle School science and math teacher Dave Farkas contacted Dawn Mulhern, an associate professor and chairwoman of FLC’s Department of Anthropology, to ask about collaborating.
“I’d been thinking about doing something like this for a while,” she said. “This was a good reason.”
Mulhern developed a lab lesson for the appropriate age level. About 60 Mountain Middle School students inaugurated the lab lesson earlier this fall, and Mulhern knew she had a winner.
Each of three stations, with two sections for each station, posed a series of questions about different species of mammals and different types of primates. The students used measuring skills, deductive reasoning and what they had learned in science classes before going to FLC to come up with the answers.
“We also studied early humans in social studies,” said Miller student Maya Olivier, adding that it gave them additional information for their analyses.
The Mountain Middle students had just completed multi-week projects on the subject when they participated in the lab, while Miller students are just beginning their studies on the module, which led to different kinds of questions, Mulhern said.
“But they all understand humans are primates,” she said. “We asked, ‘Why is 3-D color vision so important in primates?’ It developed when primates were living in heavily wooded areas, so they could see fruits and better differentiate the world while living in trees.”
Station 1 included skulls from mammals including hominins, monkeys, a coyote, sheep and porcupine.
“You can see a coyote doesn’t have as much protection around the eyes as primates do,” she said, “because their sense of smell is more important for them.”
In addition to vision, Mulhern asked students questions about how the shape of the teeth and jaw demonstrate different types of diets, and how different groups of primates have developed different ways of moving around – the locomotor pattern. One question asked how, using only the skull, the students could determine if a primate was bipedal and walked on two legs.
“Whether the spinal column enters in the center of the skull or the back of it determines whether they were walking on two feet or moving on all fours,” she said.
Station 2 focused in more depth on bipedal locomotion, which is one of the most distinctive adaptations in humans and human ancestors, she said. Students discussed why that matters and how it affected other development in humans. And Station 3 looked specifically at human evolution. Confronted with a table full of hominin skulls, the students were asked to put them in order from oldest to most recent evolutionary stage.
“They seemed to know intuitively that the brain got bigger and the jaws and teeth got flatter,” Mulhern said. “When you eat meat, you grow a bigger brain and have the ability to ratchet up culture.”
She reached out to Miller to see if there was any interest in holding their own physical anthropology lab after the Mountain Middle students gave it a dry run.
“My son is a seventh-grader there, so I had to offer it to them,” she said with a smile. “We talked about the standards for seventh-graders, and this lab meets them.”
The lab supports two of the Colorado Department of Education’s Colorado Academic Standards in life science for seventh-graders. Students are expected to understand five concepts, including these:
“Individual organisms with certain traits are more likely than others to survive and have offspring in a specific environment.”“Multiple lines of evidence show the evolution of organisms over geologic time.”The day opened some eyes among the students.
“I’m starting to recognize how we evolved,” Layne Haven said as she examined a skull.
‘Sense of wonder’Her teaching assistants and other students who served as lab assistants were struck by the high energy in the lab with the seventh-graders, Mulhern said.
“This age is not fixated on what’s the right answer,” she said. “They’re still in a very exploratory phase. Their sense of wonder is pretty elevated. They think about it and ask insightful questions with very little prompting, they’re not as inhibited as college students.”
The sense of wonder stuck with Pamela Mendisco.
“It’s cool how fossils are evidence of life,” she said.
The group of seventh-graders livened up the atmosphere for all the college students who came into contact with them.
“Freshmen are getting younger every year,” a passing FLC student said as the Miller kids headed past him to the cafeteria for lunch.