2010 Annual Science Report

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

EPO Activity: Ediacaran Fauna and Environments EPO Report

Project Progress

In April 2010, the MIT Advent of Complex Life team, the Arizona State NAI team and the Australian Astrobiology Center participated in a week-long field trip to the Flinders Range of South Australia (Figures 1 and 2). The purpose of the trip was to develop educational resources and activities centered around the Ediacaran fauna, which are the oldest complex macroscopic evidence of life in the fossil record, and potentially the earliest evidence of animals. The field trip was held in vicinity of the Ediacaran Hills. During the course of the trip, team members shot many hours of video, hundreds of images, and a number of large, high resolution panorama photos of fossil beds, called “gigapans”. Gigapans allow for both wide-view and detailed exploration of a rock bed or landscape, just as is possible in person. There are a number of educational products and activities that are being developed based on this trip.

The Advent of Complex Life Team is producing self-contained education activities that can be used to help teachers address specific parts of the National Science Education Standards, in the context of learning about astrobiology. The activities, known as 'WebQuests’, are designed to be inquiry-based, such that students seek information to solve a problem or complete an activity. Students are challenged to explore, understand, and potentially resolve an issue individually and/or in groups. They are provided with background information and guidance to resources on the web in order to adequately address their issue. WebQuests engage students, increase their factual and conceptual knowledge of a given topic, and improve their critical use of the Internet. The activities are designed to be self-contained and completed within one to two class periods (with some self-directed outside work) and are easily modified for middle or high-school use.

Our team has produced the first of a three-part WebQuest series (http://www.complex-life.org/the_first_animals) centered around the Ediacaran and the organisms that lived in the world’s seas 550 million years ago. These WebQuests are distinguished because:

1) we created novel content, including graphics and extensive video clips, to complement pre-existing web resources;
2) we worked with research scientists in the development of the WebQuest from concept to content to ensure that the data in the activity are accurate, up to date, and exciting;
3) we incorporate varied content and “web 2.0” capabilities in the WebQuest including video, Google Earth, screen casting, customized Google search bars, surveys, and a wiki-style glossary page;
4) we encourage students to upload their WebQuest projects to the web and share them with others inside and outside their classroom;
5) we include assessment tools to determine the efficacy of the WebQuest experience.

By completing the webquests, students will learn about diverse topics such as geology, evolution, paleontology in the context of learning about astrobiology. Some of the video content we have produced for (available on YouTube, TeacherTube and on our website) directly supports this webquest. Website URLs for all materials referenced are listed at the end of this section.

The WebQuests are designed to promote exploration, research, and discussion; to come up with arguments and additional questions. WebQuests have many pedagogical benefits including increasing critical thinking skills, learning how to apply acquired knowledge, critically evaluating web-based information, and engaging in the process of communicating scientific ideas to others. While WebQuests are intended for use in a classroom setting, they can also be used independently as an informal education tool.

The WebQuests are currently being reviewed by a number of middle and high school science teachers before we make them widely available for public use. Phoebe Cohen will talk at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America on October 31st about the WebQuest project, and the MIT news office will run a video interview with Dr. Cohen describing and demonstrating the WebQuest soon thereafter.

Virtual Field Trip:
We are collaborating with the ASU NAI team and the Australian Center for Astrobiology to create a virtual field trip, or VFT, of the Ediacaran Biota of Australia. This project is well underway and Phoebe Cohen visited ASU in October to facilitate the finalization of the VFT. Part of this trip involved beta testing the VFT with ASU undergraduates (Figure 3). The VFT is aimed at a higher level than the WebQuests and is intended to be used in an undergraduate setting. Phoebe Cohen is providing important content, context, and activities centered around the Ediacaran fossils and the sedimentology of the area to teach students how to interpret signs of life in ancient rocks, as well as to learn about how and why animal life evolved when it did. Peter Mangiafico is aiding in video editing and curation for the VFT project.

Video Series:
All of the videos used in the WebQuest and the VFT are available on our YouTube channel for public use, as well as on our TeacherTube website.

Webquest: http://www.complex-life.org/the_first_animals
Webquest Resources: http://www.complex-life.org/resources
TeacherTube: http://www.teachertube.com/members/viewProfile.php?user=Complexlife
YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/AdventOfComplexLife