Marquee Fossils: Using Local Specimens to Integrate Geology, Biology, and Environmental Science

Article excerpt

Above the entrance to some notable hotels and theaters is the marquee, a sign that draws attention to and identifies the facility. Often surrounded by large flashing chaser lights, the signs intend to grab the interest and curiosity of the viewer, inviting a closer look. As science educators, we also search for marquee objects or concepts that will serve as a hook for our students, tempting them into a deeper study of the curriculum. A good marquee will serve as a portal through which teachers may construct meaningful learning, building upon students' past knowledge and integrating the new content across disciplines (Mintzes, Wandersee, and Novak 1998).

As professors of an online graduate-level paleontology class, we developed the concept of marquee fossils--fossils that have one or more unique characteristics that capture the attention and direct observation of students. Our graduate students, who were primarily practicing science teachers, were required to develop activities around the concept of marquee fossils with the intention of integrating these activities in their high school science classrooms. In the classroom, marquee fossils integrate the geology, biology, and environmental science involved in the study of fossilized organisms, their paleoenvironments, and subsequent changes in Earth since their existence. In addition, the use of local specimens brings local context to the science classroom. This article discusses the concept of marquee fossils and teachers' development of marquee-fossil activities for their classrooms.

The marquee-fossil concept

We constructed the marquee-fossil concept around our previous research on marquee plants (Wandersee and Schussler 2001; Wandersee and Clary 2006). Marquee fossils include animal, plant, protist, or bacteria specimens that represent an interesting opportunity to learn geobiological concepts and to link a once-living organism to its paleoenvironment. Many states have identified a particular fossil as an official "state fossil" (Figure 1, p. 46). This is a fossil that was procured within the state and is singled out because of its unusual characteristics, its rarity, or conversely, its abundance. Some state fossils may qualify as marquee fossils in that they represent an opportunity to integrate geology and biology with an earlier environment in geologic time. However, there are also many fossil specimens within any state that can be interpreted for educational value, but have simply been ignored.

Marquee fossils may have important stratigraphic or environmental characteristics, but are not necessarily featured in museums or fossil parks. Although they may have been overlooked, these fossils can serve as a gateway for learning about geologic time, the significance of the local environment millions of years ago, and the changes exhibited by life-forms during Earth history. Furthermore, these fossils may help students connect their own community to the broader context of geologic time.

In order to qualify as a marquee fossil, a specimen must attract attention and invite direct observation--the fossil must exhibit one or more features that make it unique and capture the interest of students. For example, specimens representing the earliest fossilized example of an organism, the largest type of an organism ever found, or an extinct--but once local--organism can all serve as marquee fossils. Other interesting characteristics may include distinctive ornamentation or suture patterns in ammonites, or unusual eyes or "bumpy" glabella in trilobites. The fossil should serve as a portal to increase students' understanding of fossils, integrating the biological processes of the once-living organism, the geobiological concepts involved in fossilization, and

the environmental constraints of the ecosystem in which the organism once lived. For example, if students investigated the extinct Cretaceous rudist bivalves in area outcrops, they could draw parallels between modern oyster reefs and reconstruct an ancient shallow marine environment for their local community. …