Dinosaurs roam Cal State Fullerton, in and out of the classrooms

http://www.ocregister.com/2017/12/06/dinosaurs-roam-cal-state-fullerton-in-and-out-of-the-classrooms/Opens in new window

Dr. Natalie Bursztyn and Dr. Scott Mata

December 6, 2017

First a new mammoth skeleton arrives on Cal State Fullerton’s campus. Now some people are seeing dinosaurs.

No doubt there’s a prehistoric fever going around, with Associated Students Inc. playing off the mammoth’s unveiling with a week-plus of “Mammoth Study” events during finals, including “Prehistoric Painting” night and an “Excavate a Mammoth Bone” promotion.

A skeleton of a giant woolly mammoth is now on display at the Cal State Fullerton Titan Student Union. John Gregg of Gregg Family Foundation donated the fossil to C.S.U.F. during a ceremony on Nov. 29.

But it’s no hallucination that dinosaurs are roaming the campus. One class and one research project focus on the long-departed creatures to advance concepts in geology.

“Stride Like a Velociraptor,” a faculty-student research project, encourages students – from elementary to college age – to experience walking the way dinosaurs did. The idea is that the new perspective will allow them to appreciate the range of size of dinosaurs and how the length of their stride can help scientists figure out whether they were walking or running.

“One of the biggest sources of confusion in the sciences is the concept of scale,” said Dr. Natalie Bursztyn, former assistant professor of geological sciences.  Geology deals with vast stretches of time and colossal physical entities, such as prehistoric animals, she said.

“To confound matters, geologists have the additional burden of communicating both of these scale problems at the same time — that is, the unimaginable size of things that existed at times unimaginably long ago — like dinosaurs.”

Helping students from elementary school through college understand the scale of dinosaurs is the goal of a research project in Cal State Fullerton’s geology department.

Using foam cutouts glued onto Crocs clogs, geology major Rhyan Ibarra crafted “shoes” for seven dinosaurs – velociraptor, brachylophosaurus, camptosaurus, dilophosaurus, tyrannosaurus, megalosaurus and struthiomimus – for which scientific data about footprints, stride and size are available.

“For my project, I want answers to questions such as whether students can discern walking and running speeds by walking the dinosaur strides,” Ibarra said. “Can they figure out how big something is based on how big their footprint is?”

The research team took the shoes to Riverdale Elementary School in Garden Grove and Westminster High School – along with the Cal State Fullerton campus – where students wore the shoes for various activities to mimic the stride of each type of dinosaur.

Studying the stride of dinosaurs, such as this Tyrannosaurus rex chasing a velociraptor, is the object of a research project in Cal State Fullerton’s geology department.

“This activity gave the students a way to be engaged in learning through actively ‘doing’ science and not just listening to a lecture,” said Amy Rudenberg, a C.S.U.F. secondary education teacher credential candidate and student teacher at Westminster High School.

Ibarra is analyzing the data to see whether students’ perception of scale changed through this kinesthetic activity and whether it had a positive impact on their learning. He plans to wrap up the research for his senior thesis in the spring.

While Bursztyn and Ibarra turn the campus into “Jurassic Park,” a class in the Department of Geological Sciences offers some background on the creatures that roamed Earth for 160 million years until their sudden extinction some 65 million years ago.

“Dinosaur World” – officially Geology 110T- Topics in Earth Science: Dinosaur World – teaches the evolution of dinosaurs, their changes and their demise as it relates to changes on Earth.

This year, Dr. Scott Mata, lecturer in geological sciences, is teaching the course, which has been taught by several professors for at least a decade. The class no longer has a laboratory component as in previous years, he said. Mata, who earned his bachelor’s degree in geology in 2007 at Cal State Fullerton, answered some questions for C.S.U.F. News Service on the world of dinosaurs:

Dr. Scott Mata, Cal State Fullerton lecturer in geological sciences, is seen at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana.

What is the course all about?
Dinosaur World is a course rooted in modern geology and biology that covers the many facets of dinosaurs and dinosaur life, including their anatomy, behavior and diet, as well as their relationships to animals from both the past and present.

Why should students learn about dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs are a very approachable topic that opens the door for students to start exploring the ways in which we can use our current understanding of modern-day geology and biology to start reconstructing the many worlds and ecosystems of the past. From these examples of the past, students can start projecting forward to imagine and predict what we might have in store for us when it comes to the future of our environment and the future of every living thing on this planet.

What do you hope the takeaway is for students?
I hope that students take away the notion that life, in all its forms, is actually quite similar when you look at it in terms of our basic needs and functions and behaviors. Dinosaurs are no different, and there are countless comparisons one can make to show that for every seemingly odd dinosaur that we discover, there is probably some animal alive today that is living a similar life, under similar circumstances, utilizing similar behaviors, and wielding a similar anatomy that can be used to make sense of these strange creatures of the past.

What is your interest in dinosaurs?
As an undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton, I found my passion for Earth history and the strange, and not so strange, life of the past recorded in the fossil record. I carried that passion with me to U.S.C. where I earned my doctorate. Dinosaurs are a large and significant part of that fossil record, and no story of Earth’s history would be complete without them.