Carole’s Column 10/1/2013: How to Build a Dinosaur by Jack Horner and James Gorman
I am a science teacher who also happens to love books, books of any kind. Most of my readings are unknown adventures that are picked up while on vacation, in used bookstores, or loaned by friends. How To Build a Dinosaur by Jack Horner is one such adventure that began by an attraction to the cover. Now I know you cannot judge a book by its cover, but I often will purchase them because of the front cover art or the descriptions on the back. This gem of a book led me on a rich trail where I unearthed resources for my own education and for use in the classroom.
Students have asked if Jurassic Park is real, and if we really can bring dinosaurs back to life. Jack Horner answers this question in his book How To Build A Dinosaur. How To Build a Dinosaur initially describes the way that the field of paleontology is changing and focuses on how it is intimately connected to laboratory biology. It summarizes the application of techniques such as PCR (p88-89), protein analysis, cladistics (p124-125), and genetic engineering in modern paleontology. The second half of the book gets into the nuts and bolts of Horner’s lab’s research. This includes looking for gene switches that would activate existing genes in chicken embryos. The book gives a great look at the marriage of two seemingly separate disciplines that have come together in the new research field of evolutionary developmental biology
You may be asking how do you use this book in the classroom?
I use sections of the book when I teach gene expression. The descriptions and applications are interesting for students while being at a reading level that is appropriate for most 10th graders. Another section of the book, chapter 5, I will use to show common ancestry and cladistics when I teach evolution. As you read How To Build A Dinosaur you will find connections that are appropriate for your students. Referring to sources and examples outside the text book can be a way to enrich your curriculum, expose students to current research, and build excitement about reading. Some of my students will ask to borrow a book I happen to drop into a class discussion or conversation. This in itself is a reward beyond good test scores or graduation rates. I feel that I may have helped create a lifelong learner.
Dr. Jack Horner is a paleontology professor at the University of Montana as well as being the curator of paleontology at the Museum Of The Rockies. He tells his story in the TED talk “Building a Dinosaur From a Chicken”. Here I learned that like most kids, Jack was fascinated by dinosaurs and that the hardest thing he does in daily life is not genetic research but reading. See, Jack is severely dyslexic but he has not let that become an obstacle in the pursuit of his passion—higher education—and eventually he gained respect as a leader in the science community. When I showed this video to my students I saw many eyes refocus and I am sure some were thinking that they too may have the ability to do more than their limitations suggest.
When our students ask us “why do I need to know this” or say they don’t want to study chemistry and physics, we must remind them that the world is becoming more connected. Science is dependent on using all the tools we have available. Many labs now incorporate biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers and computer scientists as well as mathematicians on a single project. I think this is illustrated beautifully in How To Build A Dinosaur. Who knows, maybe one of your students will read the book and see endless possibilities or at least spark an interest in the world around them.
Resources I use with students:
Carole Tanner, teacher
HM Jackson High School
Biology, AP Biology, Biotechnology
NBCT- Science, Biology