Understanding Biological Shape with Pipe Cleaners: An Exercise in Integrating Multiple Learning Styles

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jann Vendetti, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

The analysis of fossil form and the possibilities of fossil shape (called Theoretical Morphology) are integral to paleontology and comprise an entire laboratory for Integrative Biology 108: Principles of Paleontology. A classic example of fossil form and its almost myriad varieties is the shape of snail shells. This coiling shape has been studied by paleontologists and is represented by four variables: S, W, T, and D. These represent the size of the coil, the rate at which it increases, the distance that it moves in one revolution, and the distance of the shell from the axis around which it coils. These variables are called Raupian parameters and can be manipulated to make almost any shell shape, from long and skinny to squat and wide. This important morphological concept had been part of the Principles of Paleontology laboratory curriculum for years, but while I was the courses GSI, I discovered that most students struggled with it. I watched them skip over shell coiling laboratory exercises and saw them cringe when this concept was listed on exam review handouts. Despite the aural descriptions and visual representations of Raupian parameters that were presented in lecture and lab, it was evident that most students did not grasp the concepts.

After some research and a trip to a craft store, I came up with a possible solution. Make these abstract shape parameters tangible and real for students using pipe cleaners. I learned that for many students to grasp abstract concepts required a kinesthetic-tactile approach. Though some auditory learners and visual learners could understand complex shape morphologies, a non-tactile approach left kinesthetic learners in the dark. I reasoned that for all students in this class to understand Raupian parameters, a kinesthetic-tactile activity might be successful. So, I incorporated a pipe cleaner coiling activity into their laboratory exercises. Students were required to make a three-dimensional pipe cleaner coil that represented the S, W, T, and D parameters that they heard about in lecture, describe it using its correct Raupian parameters, and hand it in with their lab. From such a simple activity came profound results.

Students in both laboratory sections were curious about the activity when they saw a box of multicolored pipe cleaners among the lab’s more familiar displays of fossil specimens. When they reached the pipe cleaner exercise they became lively, engaged, and focused on describing the correct morphology of their pipe cleaner coil. Students asked me questions and talked to each while using the proper S, W, T, and D vocabulary. Such attention and animation while learning the Raupian parameters had never happened in my two years of facilitating the Theoretical Morphology lab.

I assessed students’ understanding and retention of these shape concepts by grading their laboratory reports and testing them in a laboratory practical. In their reports, most students described their pipe cleaner coil accurately and needed only minor comments and corrections. In their laboratory practical three weeks later, I was delighted to discover that nearly all students answered the Raupian parameter questions correctly. To my surprise, many students also expanded their answers to describe the subtleties and specific changes of S, W, T, and D parameters in the specimens provided. For me, the larger lessons of this pipe cleaner activity was that it taught me the value of teaching to multiple learning styles and encouraged me to try whenever possible to teach concepts creatively.