Making Sense of Dinosaur Tracks

By MacKenzie, Ann Haley; McDowell, Brian | Science Scope, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of Dinosaur Tracks

MacKenzie, Ann Haley, McDowell, Brian, Science Scope

What do paleontologists, dinosaur tracks, and the nature of science have in common? They're combined here in an inquiry activity where students use methods of observation and inference to devise evidence-based explanations for the data they collect about dinosaur tracks, much like the methods used by paleontologists. Students then debate the plausibility of their fellow student-scientists' explanations of what dinosaurs were doing over 65 million years ago. As a result, students discover how scientific explanations are created and that these explanations are open to change based on continued testing, data gathering, and analysis.


The National Research Council (2012) makes it clear that students need experiences involving the practices used by scientists to understand the natural world. This activity provides students with an authentic opportunity to observe, infer, gather data, hypothesize, predict, and analyze data.

Science teachers often omit two of the most important aspects of doing scientific work: being curious and having a sense of wonder about the questions under investigation. Duckworth (2006) discusses the vital role of students "uncovering" scientific principles through exploration and being afforded the opportunity to have wonderful ideas. Traditional, didactic, textbook-driven forms of science instruction often fail to foster wonder and curiosity in students. As a result, many students see science as nothing more than a collection of unrelated facts imposed on them by the teacher.

Dinosaurs are fascinating, and through this activity, students experience the thrill and joy involved with the discovery and investigation of a trace fossil site.

Teacher preparation

The activity described here involves three different types of dinosaur footprints, adapted from Hunting Dinosaurs (Psihoyos and Knoebber 1994) and the BSCS activity Trackin' Those Tootsies (1993, p. 129). One set of footprints is similar to a two-footed, meat-eating dinosaur (Figure 1), while the other sets of footprints are similar to a four-footed, plant-eating dinosaur or two plant-eating dinosaurs of different sizes (Figure 2). The sets of footprints are arranged in three scenes (Figure 3), which students investigate over the course of two class periods. Day 1 starts with an investigation of Section 1, and Day 2 involves investigating both Sections 2 and 3.

We have used two temporary methods to set up the activity. In one, we created the scenes by taping laminated paper copies of the footprints to floors and walls in an area of the school with less student traffic. We set up Section 1 in a hallway and Sections 2 and 3 in a room separated from the hallway by a door (Figure 4), so that Section 1's tracks were in the hallway and Sections 2 and 3 were in the room hidden from students' view (during Day 1 of the activity, students investigate only Section 1 and shouldn't see Sections 2 and 3).

As Day 2 begins, Section 2 is uncovered for students to investigate, while Section 3 tracks are hidden by a tablecloth (Figure 5). After the Section 2 investigation is complete, the tablecloth is removed for the final investigation.

When we taught in more urban areas with less indoor space, we would tape down the footprints in the school parking lot in the morning each day before the activity began and keep Sections 2 and 3 covered until students were ready. The special needs of students must be taken into account when creating an outdoor set of tracks so that all students have equal access to the experience. It is also important the tracks are made in an area that is safe for students, e.g., free of poi son ivy and oak.

Student preparation

Student preparation before visiting the footprint sections is critical; the activity described here is usually done in the last 20 minutes of class the day before we plan to start the dinosaur trackway activity. …

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