Educators Hope Dino-Mania Will Invigorate Science Teaching
Next week's opening of "Jurassic Park,'' the Steven Spielberg-directed movie of Michael Crichton's best-selling dinosaur thriller, already has the film's producers rejoicing at the prospect of owning the summer's first box-office smash.
It also has scientists and science educators celebrating a popular film that they say is both good science and a good teaching tool.
"This is great! They're teaching real science,'' says Robert T. Bakker, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Colorado Museum and a well-known renegade in the field.
In the 1990 best seller, scientists retrieve dinosaur DNA from fossils in order to breed a number of species to populate a theme park for a wealthy foundation director. Not all goes well.
In writing the book, Mr. Crichton drew on the most recent developments in genetic engineering, as well as the discoveries of Mr. Bakker and John Horner, the curator of paleontology for Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies.
Both men's work has helped change the reigning view of dinosaurs as cold-blooded, slow, dimwitted creatures most closely related to lizards to one of them as warm-blooded, fast, surprisingly intelligent creatures that more closely resemble birds.
Beasts With Appeal
The science in both the book and movie is done "very, very well,'' Mr. Bakker says.
"You can't teach rocket science from the 'Star Wars' movies,'' he concludes. "But you can teach dinosaur science from 'Jurassic Park.'''
Museum curators have long recognized the attraction that dinosaurs have for vast numbers of people, young and old alike. Museums regularly report that dinosaur attractions draw some of their largest crowds.
And science teachers, too, recognize the appeal dinosaurs have for their students. Several sessions at the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in April focused on using dinosaurs to teach science in both elementary and upper grades.
Mr. Bakker himself addressed a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds of teachers at the meeting on the pedagogic uses of dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs, he says, can be used to teach a wide array of scientific and mathematical principles. For example, the fact that the plant-eating triceratops vastly outnumbered the meat-eating tyrannosaurs teaches the ecological principle that the predator must be rare compared with the prey it feeds on.
Similarly, the fact that dinosaur skeletons often are stained rust red from iron oxide in the rock layers helps students understand chemical reactions.
Such simple teaching devices as leftover chicken and turkey legs can be used to show the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, he says.
One teacher who regularly uses dinosaurs to teach science is Jo Wixom, a science teacher at Provo (Utah) High School.
Ms. Wixom says she has encountered many students who believe they cannot do science, or who become bored with standard science classes. So she has begun a "dino-centric'' course that looks at a wide range of scientific fields from the viewpoint of dinosaurs.
"There isn't anything in science you can't teach through a curriculum based on dinosaurs,'' Ms. Wixom says.
"Even for students who've had some failure experience in science,'' she adds, "if you mention dinosaurs, their eyes light up.''
For one thing, Ms. Wixom teaches the principles of lenses by talking about the differences between human and dinosaur eyes. Students begin with a hands-on lab with lenses, trying to answer the question of how well dinosaurs could see if they had eyeballs five inches in diameter.
The principle of binocular vision is explored by examining the dinosaur skulls in nearby museums. Students learn that predators were more likely to have eyes capable of binocular vision, she says, because they needed better vision to stalk prey.
Ms. Wixom, an enthusiastic part-time dinosaur-hunter who heads the Utah Friends of Paleontology, has included Jurassic Park on a list of supplemental readings for her course, and plans to recommend the movie version as well.
"They were completedly enthralled'' with the novel, she says of her students. "Most of them finished the book overnight and came in the next day bug-eyed with questions.''
Perhaps the most important principle she teaches from Jurassic Park, she says, is the need for scientific research to have an ethical base.
"The science in Jurassic Park is cutting edge,'' she says. "And the question needs to be asked: 'What are the right uses of biotechnology for commercialization?'''
Teachers should encounter little difficulty in making their students aware of the film. Its producers, Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, have mounted what Advertising Age newspaper calls "one of the most aggressive movie-marketing campaigns ever.''
Universal's parent company, the entertainment giant MCA, has awarded more than 100 licenses for more than 1,000 products based on the film. Among them are a slew of video games, storybooks, apparel, trading cards, and action figures based on the giant models in the movie.
Patrons of McDonald's restaurants will be able to purchase "dino-size'' orders of fries as part of the chain's promotional efforts.
Also included are plans for a theme park featuring replicas of the life-sized dinosaur models used in the film.
The major television networks also plan a number of less-scientific dinosaur offerings this fall. ABC, CBS, and the Fox network will all be airing new children's shows featuring dinosaurs, and PBS will be continuing with its "Barney'' series, which features an imaginary purple dinosaur.
In addition, a number of educational products and activities are tied to the film's release.
In April, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City mailed a dinosaur-education poster based on the film to seven million schoolchildren, in cooperation with Amblin Entertainment and the McDonald's Corporation. The colorful poster includes a number of dinosaur facts.
It also includes guidelines for earth-science, biology, and physical-science students to prepare for a simulated television debate over the cause of the dinosaurs' extinction some 65 million years ago.
Museums in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and other cities have timed dinosaur exhibitions to coincide with the film's opening.
In a move the firm says is coincidental, the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation this summer is releasing "DinoPark Tycoon,'' a computer simulation in which players create a dinosaur theme park to attract paying visitors.
And the Dinamation International Society, a nonprofit education and research group, is beginning its fifth year of summer fossil-finding expeditions in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico. This year, for the first time, the group is offering a program for children ages 6 to 12.
Using the Movie
Mr. Bakker has some suggestions for using the book and movie in classes.
"Buy Jurassic Park in paperback,'' he says. "It's full of ideas about DNA and chromosomes, and fossils, and zookeeping. It's lively and fun.''
Then, he says, go see the movie.
"Go see it at a matinee,'' when it's less expensive, he suggests. "The movie is very, very faithful to the book. It portrays dinosaurs very dramatically and gracefully.''
Early on, Mr. Spielberg decided that the Velociraptor--the central nonhuman villain in the book--at five or six feet tall was too small to be frightening for the big screen. So he ordered his design team to make it more like 12 feet tall.
Shortly after production began on the film, a raptor claw found at a Utah dig suggested that some raptors may have grown to reach that height.
A case of life imitating art, Mr. Bakker says.
"Spielberg's artistic decision understood viscerally the rules of evolution--size evolves fast. There ought to be a range of sizes,'' he says.
The novel and its cinematic and other spinoffs delight Mr. Bakker.
"Those of us in the nonprofit area are terribly inefficient,'' he says. "We make small things for a small market. But there really is an economy of scale. If you have $140 million to make an educational film about dinos, which is what 'Jurassic Park' is, you can make one hell of a good one.''
Mr. Bakker also likes the video game based on the movie that Sega of America is releasing this summer. "I don't know of another commercial video game that's based on pure science,'' he says.
At a time when science museums, libraries, and other nonprofit educational groups are taking budget hits and cutting services, the for-profit sector is coming through for science education, he says.
Ms. Wixom says that if the "Jurassic Park'' action figures now flooding toy stores embody the sound design of the movie models, they will help children better understand dinosaur physiology.
"There's so much dinosaur junk out there on the market now,'' she says. "Most of it is just lizards repainted as dinosaurs. Misrepresenting science just to make money is not a good idea.''
Why the fascination with dinosaurs? For the paleontologist, the answer is simple.
"Without exaggeration, dinosaurs are nature's special effects,'' Mr. Bakker says. "They were spectacular creatures, of tremendous, unbelievable variety who lived in a complex world that's real.''
Vol. 12, Issue 36