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Comparative Functional Osteology for Young Audiences

Do you know what the title of this article means? Neither do nine year olds, but they could if scientific jargon didn’t get in the way. Much of science can be easily understood. It’s the words scholars use and linkages they make that complicate the picture for young children. By using the right words, analogies, and techniques, however, it is possible to teach many important scientific concepts to children as young as seven and eight.

All science begins with observing and questioning. Learning good observational skills and asking big questions, such as “how” and “why,” are appropriate to virtually all age groups and essential for children. Direct observation makes the abstract real and gives children some control over the subject. Osteology (the study of skeletons and bones) and Paleontology (the study of extinct life) easily draw the attention of children as young as four and five. By using their inherent interest, and asking questions to fully engage their learning, powerful teaching activities can be constructed.

Education for any age group requires an understanding of the group’s possibilities and limitations. If children do not grasp the ideas and concepts you present or the examples you use, they will not learn. Even worse, such misunderstandings can make the whole museum experience a negative one.

I asked one young boy who endured a guided geology tour far beyond his comprehension if he enjoyed the experience. Mournfully, he responded, “She made us look at every single rock!” Regardless of his instructor’s good intentions, the message received was not a positive one.

Before the age of eight, children have difficulty separating the concepts of time and space. That simple but powerful reality jeopardizes the educational value of most historical, archaeological, and paleontological exhibits for younger audiences. It also threatens many of the activities used to teach related concepts.

Even the presentation of contemporary osteological specimens can be problematic. Using an isolated skull to symbolize a live animal requires a lower level of abstract thinking. Further abstracting that live animal into concepts of ecological niches, special adaptive characteristics or phylogenic relationships, however, can totally confuse. Though these levels are important and need to be understood, they may not be the best route available to interest young children in nature and how the natural world works.

Remember the title of this article, Comparative Functional Osteology for Young Audiences? The title of the actual class taught for seven and eight year olds was Fun with Bones, a more palatable title for both children and their parents. The two-hour class took place at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago a few years ago. The first hour of the class was spent in a classroom with a selection of bones and teeth from different animals. The second hour took place in the Museum’s incredible Osteology Hall. While few museums have as varied a display of contemporary skeletal specimens from so many vertebrate groups, the teaching technique adapts to a wide range of situations.

During the initial classroom phase, children handled the bones. Discussion was open but directed. The instructor asked the kids to describe what they saw and, as needed, redirected their attention. The example bones had been chosen to represent large and very small species, different body parts from skulls to feet, and a variety of adaptations such as carnivorous predators and herd herbivores.

The method of instruction emphasized question and answer dialogue directed toward observation and comparison. This isn’t new. It is inquiry, or the Socratic method, applied to real objects. For example, the instructor asked the group to look at the teeth from a carnivore and a herbivore. Then, the instructor asked the group to compare the forms of the two sets of teeth. They easily recognized the cutting and piercing function of carnivore teeth and contrasted them with the flat grinding surfaces of herbivore dentition. Following this, the children compared these structures to those of their pets and to different kinds of tools, such as pliers, saws, and knives.

Once the basic dentition models were established, other examples including primates were presented. The group was able to identify that the dentition of some animals include teeth having both carnivore and herbivore characteristics. In that way, the concept of omnivores was introduced.

A second task used the skull to determine whether an animal was bipedal or quadrupedal. The position of the foramen magnum, the opening in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord connects with the brain, is the primary indicator. If the opening is at the rear of the skull, the skull and spine are in a line parallel to the ground and, therefore, the animal must be quadrupedal. If the foramen magnum is at the base or bottom of the skull, the brain sits on top of the spinal cord, which is perpendicular to the ground, and the animal is bipedal. Throughout the skeleton, similar skeletal structures from different animals were compared and discussion focused on functional differences.

Feet were also included. By looking at the structure of a foot, from toe to ankle, students noticed that some had many separate bones while others had bones that were partially or completely fused. The forms of these bones were then related to an animal’s ability to run fast or maneuver from side to side. The horse was the primary example of an animal with a streamlined foot form. The lion exemplified unfused foot elements and adaptations for agility. From these two specimens, other animals with other foot forms were introduced.

After the classroom session, the group adjourned to the Osteology Hall. The excitement and level of interest zoomed. The knowledge gained in class now was used in a competitive game . . . who could determine the most things about an animal from its skeleton. The group ricocheted from one mounted skeleton to another. The instructor asked questions about morphology peculiar to each animal.

The children were shown that virtually all mammals have the same hand structures. Though the forms are different, the pattern is the same. With that knowledge, the children looked at the flippers of seals, the flukes of a whale, and the front paws of a mole. They compared differences and similarities and then made conjectures about how those forms related to the lifestyle of the animals. Only after a lively observation game was the actual name of each animal given.

The primary goal of both the classroom and gallery portions of this class was to help kids understand the nature, rather than just the names, of animals. Why is an elephant an elephant? What is carnivorous about a lion? Why can I scratch the bottom of my foot with my hand but a buffalo can’t?

The goals of such specialized museum teaching are simple — to spark the curious mind and to show that learning is achievable and fun. Factual knowledge is passed in the process. If museum educators, regardless of their subject, consider the developmental realities of their audience as closely as they consider their subjects, the needs of their audience, the museum, and the person teaching will be easily met.

Dr. Robert B. Pickering is Head of the Department of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Natural History. Before this, he served as Curator/Educator Of Anthropology at the Children ‘s Museum of Indianapolis and directed the Adult Education Program at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Pickering received his Ph. D. in Anthropology from Northwestern University. He has conducted archaeological and physical anthropological fieldwork in the American Midwest. Northern Mexico, the island of Yap, and Thailand. In addition to conducting research and fulfilling his curatorial responsibilities. Dr. Pickering lectures widely and writes children’s books.

Pickering, Dr. Robert B. “Comparative Functional Osteology for Young Audiences” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 4-5.

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