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To set adaptation in a historic frame, fossil records as evidence of …
Biology Articles » Paleobiology » Fantastic animals as an experimental model to teach animal adaptation » Results and conclusion
Phases of the project (1–9) and their realization with the students (1a-9a):
1) Review of previous knowledge
Review or introduction to animal characteristics (review process). Prerequisites needed by students to follow and perform this teaching project are related to the definition of living systems and to the characteristics of the organisms (with emphasis on animals), such as life cycle, relationships between animal form and functions, and the main properties and characteristics of animals.
For the students, it was a review of previous concepts. This phase was performed in the classroom by frontal lessons and Think Pair Share as a cooperative discussion strategy . This strategy is useful because it structures the discussion: (a) the teacher stimulates students with a question, prompt, or observation, using designated partners; (b) students talk about the answer each one has formulated and identify the best answers; and (c) then the teacher calls for pairs to share their thought processes with the rest of the class.
2) Lesson on fossils
A learning process is given to instruct students about the meaning of fossils as evidence of past life. There is a presentation on the different kind of fossil records and main processes leading to their formation. This learning process should be followed by a hands-on activity related to fossilization processes. In this phase the student should also understand the rarity of the event of fossilization.
Fantastic animals may have been introduced prior to this phase because fossils have been interpreted as traces or remains of monstrous creatures. For example, fossils of Belemnite shells were believed to be either remains of thunderbolt tips within the rocks or devil nails with curative power; Ammonite shells were considered remains of snakes; the myth of Cyclops probably originated from the discovery, in an ancient age, of fossils of draft elephants; fossils of giant salamanders were considered remains of a human who died during the universal flood. In addition, dinosaurs are popular extinct animals that always arouse interest in students.
This phase was conducted as a frontal lesson (in classroom) followed by a laboratory activity (in school laboratory), in which students participated in some simulated sedimentary processes with actual casts of shells and leaves they collected and brought to school.
3) Lesson on fantastic animals
Presentation of an overview of imaginary creatures, animals, and myths created throughout human history (stimulating process). This phase stimulates student curiosity and interest for the next steps of the project. Dealing with this topic gives the opportunity either to explain the characteristics of real animals cited in this exercise or to compare characteristics of fantastic animals with those of real animals.
This overview can be shown with different approaches and topics depending on the teacher and/or students' interests. With examples, we cite different possible approaches:
i. overview of the most famous imaginary creatures and their characteristics, with information of their origin ;
ii. fantastic creatures that inspired scientific names (e.g. Hydra is a genus name of order Hydroida, Cyclops is a genus of subclass Copepoda; Family Sirenidae is a family of salamanders and Sirenia, an order of mammals; Proteus is a genus of amphibians; echidna is the common name of a mammal in order Monotremata; Chimaera is a genus of fish; and medusae are forms of cnidarians or a species name of an orchid);
iii. fantastic animals in science fiction, card games, and videogames. This approach should create an empathy with the world of fantasy associated to student everyday life (e.g. it is possible to study the life cycle and adaptations of Ridley Scott's "Alien" , Pokemon and Digimon cards can be used to analyze and compare environmental adaptations and evolution of characters, analysis of role-playing game characters may be helpful to identify parts of real animals used to create them);
iv. analysis of hybrid animal-plants (e.g. Barometz, Bernacae), human-animals (e.g. Centaur, Minotaur, Siren) or human-plants (e.g. wak-wak, Mandragora);
v. creatures between science and science fiction studied by cryptozoologist  as "Nessie" the Monster of Loch Ness [12,13], the Yeti, the Bigfoot and the Sasquatch [14,15]. The interesting case of the Piltdown man (Homo piltdowni), the 'missing link' between apes and humans, was found to be a hoax [16-18]. This topic can also be useful to explain what "science" is, what the scientific method is, and how science knowledge is derived from the accumulation of data;
vi. introduction to the Renaissance "Wonderkammer" and an overview of the stunning adaptations produced by the process of natural selection in real animals, showing the natural world as a huge "Wonderkammer". Examples of abyssal creatures, the organization of social insects, mimetic adaptations, and organisms with strange features can be use to show that "the zoology of the dreams is poorer than the zoology of God" .
This phase was performed as a conference on fantastic animals with the title "The Monstrous and the Fantastic: A Journey in the Zoology between Myth and Reality", a time travel from prehistory to the present in which the fantasy of the human being and the reality of nature intertwine and compete in the creation of creatures whose power of suggestion continues today. The conference was held at the university by a university zoologist. The conference, held in a university classroom, gave the opportunity for students to meet the "university world", of which they frequently hear but can rarely explore.
4) Planning an imaginary world/environment
Planning an imaginary world/environment (creative process) has to be explained to students that the world/environment to be created is to have an intrinsic coherence (e.g. without any source of heat, such as energy from stars or volcanoes; the temperature can not be high; and low gravity does not allow dense atmosphere, etc.). After the creation of the imaginary cosmos, its characteristics have to be discussed with students, identifying possible incongruence or excessively fantastic characteristics. The properties of the imaginary world/environment have to be adjusted or corrected according to results of the discussion. This led the students to review previous knowledge on several topics related to subjects such as geology, chemistry, physic, geography, and botany.
As an alternative option, the teacher can plan and create imaginary worlds/environments to be assigned to students , so that the teacher can manage each step of progress.
This phase was performed in classroom with the help of the teacher using a cooperative learning strategy called the Consensus Placemat [20,21] (Figure 1). Placemat allows students to think about, record, and share their ideas around a key idea or issue. When using this tool, students work individually to brainstorm their ideas about a topic and then combine their most important ideas with ideas of others in their group. Members of the group discuss the ideas selected by individual members and, with a consensus, develop a group list. At the end of this work the students produced posters with a drawing (usually a map) and a list of characteristics (e.g. temperature, day length, water availability, gravity, composition of atmosphere, mountains, vegetation) of the imaginary world/environment. Posters were hung in the classroom, and then students proceeded with a gallery tour [20,21] to view and discuss posters of other groups. After the gallery tour, the teacher proceeded with the plenary discussion of the world/environment created by students so that they could perform any changes that might be needed.
5) Creation of an imaginary animal adapted to the imaginary world/environment
Task for students: creation of an imaginary animal adapted to the imaginary world/environment (creative process) (Figure 2). Each student created her/his own animal giving it a scientific name (according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature ), describing and drawing its life cycle, morphology, and anatomy.
This led students to review knowledge of animal morphology and anatomy, relationships between form and function, and adaptations of organisms to their environment. The student learned how: (a) a scientific name is attributed to a species after its discovery and (b) the rules of the scientific community for such topic.
In the classroom, the teacher explained the task and presented basic rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Students, individually, performed the task for homework (Figure 3).
An important goal of this step was the spontaneous creation, by the student, of trophic relationships among the imaginary animals of a same world/environment, although this was not specifically requested in the task.
6) Revision and discussion of the imaginary animals
Two aspects have to be analyzed and discussed with the students: (a) the congruence among the animal characteristics and (b) the congruence between the animal adaptations and its environment (analytical process). After this analysis, students have to correct their animals according to results of the discussion.
To judge the student's work, a rubric such as that presented in Table 1, can be used.
In the school classroom, an open and plenary discussion  among the students, the teacher, and a university zoologist were useful in analyzing the animals created by students.
7) Identification and discussion of the adaptations of real animals
This phase is important because it represents the synthesis activity of previous steps. After understanding relationships between animal form and function, and between function and environment, the student should be able to: (a) grasp specific adaptations of real organisms and (b) deduce information on the environment in which they evolved (synthesis process). This phase can be accomplished either: (a) by a visit to a Zoological Museum, (b) in the classroom using pictures of real animals, or (c) in the laboratory observing animals (or part of them) collected by the students.
It would also be important to perform this analysis work in relation to characteristics of the human being, to understand why human beings, in specific geographic locales, evolved with determinate features. For example, why people have different skin colors, why various eye and nose shapes, why each one of us is different from everyone else, why human males and females are different, and so forth.
Wrong interpretations by scientists or applications of "common sense" about the origins of some human features can be used in these teaching activities. For example, questions such as why we resemble a "Naked Ape" or why both men and women have nipples. These questions were addressed with the following incorrect answers: the reduction of hairs in humans is due to an aquatic evolutionary phase of human beings that selected for a reduction of hairs to reduce the water friction [24,25]; men have nipples due to a past role of their suckling newborns .
This phase was developed within a guided tour in the Zoological Museum of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, with the aim of discovering and discussing adaptations of real animals. Students were intrigued in the work of an expert museum guide who stimulated them to: (a) find out the animals' environments, (b) observe their feeding habits, and (c) see how these habits compared to the animal's morphology.
8) Identification and discussion of fossil animals' adaptations
Students conduct identification of morphology and autoecology of extinct organisms by analysis of fossil records (synthesis process). Students have to be stimulated to perform the same work described in step 7 but this time with fossil animals. For example, paleontological records can be viewed in Paleontological Museums, in the classroom with pictures, and/or by analyzing students' fossil finds. After completing this task, students should be able to understand that the modern and ancient animals and communities are/were adapted to their environments and that the natural forces that create/created those adaptations are/were the same in both cases. Also, students should (a) evaluate the importance of fossils for our knowledge of past life, (b) identify conditions necessary for fossilization, (c) and construct a possible scenario for the formation of fossils .
This step was impossible to perform with students.
9) Public exposition of the experimental project
This is another important step of the work because it allows students to review all their work, to reflect upon and synthesize their new knowledge (metacognitive process). Moreover, it allows them to attain objectives related to the formation of their personalities because students are stimulated to use an appropriate language, to test their exposition capabilities, and to overcome their shyness.
This step can also represent a way for the teacher to verify and judge a student's final works.
The students present their works to the public of the Zoological Museum during the International Museum Day ("Museums and young people" 18 May 2006). The museum's current theme was to allow the museum community to reflect upon, address, and celebrate the role young people play in fulfilling their mission, and to sensitize the public to their contribution toward a more solidarious and tolerant society .
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