Human Resources and Education

Dale A. Springer (Dept. of Geography and Earth Science, Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA 17815 USA)

Fernando Alvarez (Departamento de Geologia, Universidad de Oviedo, Oviedo, SPAIN)

Sandra J. Carlson (Department of Geology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 USA)

David MacKinnon (Department of Geology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NEW ZEALAND)



We have identified a number of issues facing academic paleontologists now and into the next century. The list is certainly not exhaustive. Many of these items are interrelated, and it is, therefore, often difficult or impossible to provide a simple solution for any single issue. In some instances, there may be more questions presented than answers offered. We hope these paragraphs will at least provide a starting point for further discussion.

Critical Issues.

We divide the issues, perhaps artificially, as follows.

  • Those issues that involve the selling of paleontology to various constituencies.
  • Those issues that involve curriculum and teaching.
  • Those issues that concern maintenance of paleontology in both applied and pure research forms) in academia.
  • Those issues that involve support of the lone paleontologist in academia.

Each of these items is discussed in more detail below. Under each item heading we have tried to describe some of the specifics of the issue as well as provide some possible solutions to problems raised during the discussion.



We can identify two general constituencies in education to whom we must sell the value of teaching and learning about paleontology: faculty members and students. Faculty members include both university and precollege teachers; students include graduate, undergraduate (geology majors and nonmajors), and precollege students. Each of these groups presents different challenges.

Obviously, the future of our discipline depends on maintaining a supply of interested students who are prepared to take on the challenges of a college science course, in particular, an introductory geology or paleontology course. It is from this population that we recruit majors and encourage students to consider graduate work and a career in paleontology. Perhaps the most fundamental educational sales issue, therefore, is one of recruitment: where can we begin to instill in students an understanding and appreciation of the historical sciences?


Precollege education.

  • Primary Level, roughly ages 5 to 12 years.

Paleontology has a ready-made audience in children at the elementary level. We usually do not need to do much sales work at this level. Dinosaurs and other creatures of prehistory fascinate children. This curiosity can be used by teachers and professional paleontologists to foster interest in a wide range of paleontological topics, such as evolution, extinction, paleoecology, biomechanics, geologic time, and taxonomy, to name but a few.

The sales problem at the elementary level lies mostly with the teachers. Many if not most elementary teachers have little expertise in earth science, let alone in paleontology. Science and scientists intimidate many. Even those with a background or interest in science may not see the value or importance of historical science as a teaching tool. Improved teacher training at the university level may correct this problem in the future. In the meantime, outreach by professional paleontologists can help at the level of the local school district. We can visit classrooms to talk about paleontology and what paleontologists do. We can volunteer to help teachers incorporate paleontology in their lesson plans. We can team with precollege educators to create hands-on paleontology workshops for elementary teachers faced with incorporating science in their lessons. All of these activities on our part improve the image, accessibility, and accuracy of earth science taught at the elementary level and reinforce the value of historical science as a component of elementary school curricula.

  • Secondary Level, roughly, ages 13 to 18 years.

Some teachers at the secondary school level are usually specifically educated in one or two branches of science, but many are still unfamiliar with all but the most rudimentary earth science. Thus, they may fail to see the value of paleontology for teaching students not only about the history of the Earth but about the nature and process of scientific enquiry.

Professional paleontologists can play a role at this educational level, too. Not only can we volunteer to be guest lecturers; we can go to such events as career days and talk with students preparing to choose a university and considering career choices. We can work with secondary school educators to create teacher-education workshops to help teachers bring hands-on historical science into the classroom. Again, involvement of paleontologists in precollege classrooms helps neutralize the negative stereotypes of scientists in general and paleontologists in particular as socially inept intellectuals with an odd set of personal habits and a bizarre fashion sense.


  • College and university level, ages 18 years and older.

Students and faculty members at the university level may represent the hardest sell among academic constituencies. Neither group has probably ever thought much about our discipline and what it has to offer them. By the time students reach this level, their perceptions of science and scientists are often well established and difficult to change. They often see paleontologists as little more than stamp collectors, mumbling over old bones in some dusty basement. At best, they may view us as adventurous souls out to find the oldest, biggest, or fiercest dinosaur that ever lived.

Faculty members in other subdisciplines of geology and in other academic departments also commonly have only a superficial knowledge of paleontology. They may believe that paleontology lacks qualitative rigor or a strong theoretical framework. Moreover, they often view members of our discipline as mere collectors and catalogers of dead things. It is critical that we find ways to impress upon both our students and our colleagues that paleontology is a rigorous and exciting science that can inform other earth sciences and the general public about the history and future of our global habitat.

Reaching students is accomplished most efficiently through the courses we teach. It is particularly important for paleontologists to be involved in the planning and teaching of introductory level geology courses (see item 2 below), as these courses are most likely to reach the largest segment of a department's student contacts. Involving students in paleontological research (one's own or small class or individual projects) can also be a very effective means of engaging student interest in our discipline. Team teaching with colleagues in geology or other academic departments or divisions is also a way of increasing the visibility of our discipline.

Most academic paleontologists are the only representative of our discipline at their institution. They may find themselves in the unwelcome position of defending their right to exist in the face of tighter budgets and uninformed assessments of the value paleontology to the curriculum. Interaction with nonpaleontology colleagues can help establish the importance of paleontology to faculty both in other subdisciplines of geology and in other academic disciplines. Multidisciplinary research projects enhance our stature with colleagues. Cooperative research efforts can lead to publication of articles in journals outside of our discipline. This increases our visibility. It also fosters a better understanding of what we do and of the contributions paleontology can make to research in biology, chemistry, physics, oceanography, and Earth systems science.


Action items for selling paleontology.

  1. Volunteer to speak about paleontology and careers in paleontology in your local primary and secondary schools.
  2. Work with local precollege educators to develop teacher-education workshops in hands-on paleontology for primary and secondary level teachers.
  3. Volunteer to teach introductory-level geology classes for nonmajors.
  4. Develop interdisciplinary research projects with colleagues in earth science or other academic departments; publish results in journals outside of paleontology; present results at meetings other than those oriented strictly toward paleontology.
  5. Initiate contacts with the local media; volunteer as an expert on the history of life, fossils, dinosaurs, etc.
  6. Publish articles in publications intended for a general or nonscience audience.



The great diversity of curricula worldwide makes it difficult to talk about specific solutions for these challenges, but we feel that many of the suggestions below can easily be adapted to most educational systems.


Precollege education.

  • Primary Level, roughly ages 5 to 12 years.

Some elementary school curricula contain specific courses in earth science; many do not. An effort is underway in the United States to institute an earth-science component in the elementary school curriculum. Similar efforts may exist in other parts of the world. It is not necessary, however, to have specific earth science courses in the curriculum in order to teach students to enjoy and appreciate paleontology. Teachers can create lesson plans around dinosaurs, Pleistocene mammals, and invertebrate or plant fossils when designing units in general science, biology, mathematics, or even language arts. Some such units are already available.


  • Secondary Level, roughly, ages 13 to 18 years.

By the time students reach the higher precollege grades, disciplines are usually represented in the curriculum by specialized courses. There are classes in biology, geometry, physics, languages, creative writing, history, and so forth. There may also be earth-science courses available to secondary school students in an educational system. Again, however, paleontology can be used to cross traditional discipline boundaries to illustrate and inform many of the basic concepts of science. For example, a physics teacher could use pterosaurs and early birds to discuss the mechanics of flight; biology teachers can discuss the evolutionary history of various groups of organisms or compare the current local ecosystem with those that existed in the same area in the past; and chemistry students could study the carbon cycle or the origin and evolution of the Earth's atmosphere.


College and university level, ages 18 years and older.

We have four main student audiences to consider at the college or university level: nonmajors, geology majors, and students who intend to pursue careers in paleontology, and preservice education majors. The needs and requirements differ somewhat for each group.

First, there are the students who will take a science course either because of interest in the subject or because there is a science requirement in the general core curriculum of the college or university. This is commonly the largest constituency. It is also the population from which many geology and paleontology departments recruit their majors.

This is the audience for which so-called sexy science courses work particularly well. Dinosaurs, mass extinction, and history of life courses, for example, can be used to excite students and entice them to sample more courses in geology and paleontology. Such courses also provide a platform from which to teach students some of the transferable skills that they will need to make informed decisions on complex scientific issues that have personal, political, or social ramifications.

Upper-division courses and some introductory courses, as well, can be team-taught. Paleontologists can develop interdisciplinary courses with colleagues in our own or other academic departments. These could be full-fledged courses or shortcourses offered in the summer, during term breaks, or in so-called winter or January terms. For example, a paleontologist could team teach a history of life course with a sedimentologist, a plate tectonics course with a geophysicist, a paleoecology or evolution course with a biologist, a biomechanics course with a physicist, or an evolution of the hydrosphere course with a chemist. Look for ways to connect with humanities and social-science faculty members: teach a course in how to recognize pseudoscience with a psychologist or anthropologist; teach a landscape-evolution and appreciation course with an artist.

Such courses not only help paleontologists reach a broader audience of students, but make our discipline and research known to our colleagues. Team teaching will enhance the general quality of the academic experience for students and faculty members alike.

Create short-courses that can be offered to the public during the summer. Dinosaurs and local fossil-rich sites are good topics to consider. Elderhostel programs for senior citizens are popular in the United States. Similar programs for nontraditional students can be found in other countries as well. The goodwill and positive publicity that such courses generate for paleontology cannot be underestimated.

At the graduate level, work to teach or team-teach courses in other academic disciplines, such as biology or chemistry. One must try to get paleontology courses accepted for credit towards degrees in other majors, as for example by cross listing courses in other departments or divisions of the institution.


Action items for teaching and curriculum.

  1. Make an international database of educational resources (cataloged by age or grade level) located at a major paleontological web site; link this to other web sites.
  2. Work with local or regional educators to create lesson plans or units on paleontology appropriate for primary or secondary students.
  3. Develop hot-topics introductory geology courses for nonmajors, for example courses on dinosaurs or the history of life courses.
  4. Team-teach courses with biologists, chemists, physicists, and even artists.
  5. Crosslist courses or work to have paleontology courses count for credit in other departments (for example: paleontology courses could count as undergraduate or graduate credit for biology majors).
  6. Create summer or interterm courses for the lay public, such as courses on dinosaurs.



This issue, perhaps more than any others discussed, seems to engender the greatest concern among academic paleontologists. It also seems to raise more questions than we have answers. Faced with increasingly tight budgets and the impending retirements of faculty hired during the expansion years of the 1960s, how do we justify maintaining paleontology positions at their current numbers at our colleges and universities, much less argue for increasing the number of positions? And how can we maintain the diversity of our field? That is, how can we continue to provide a place for pure paleontological research as well as the applied aspects of paleontology often seen by administrators and, alas, by some of our colleagues as the only possible justification for paleontology in a bottom-line-driven academic environment?

Science is expensive. Even paleontology, although it may not cost as much as experimental geophysics or genetic engineering, requires investment in laboratory space and equipment. How can we emphasize the value of science over its cost? Can we investigate ways to do paleontology with less money? Should we do so? Grants are often the measure by which academic success and merit are calculated. If we are able to do more with less, will this have a negative impact on how paleontology is perceived within our institutions?

We have no simple answers. Certainly, many of the suggestions in the discussion of selling paleontology and teaching and curriculum issues can help to increase our visibility, give us credibility and stature, and develop the next generation of professional and avocational paleontologists. Moreover, we can try to anticipate and capitalize on new ideas within and across disciplines as academic structure change, but are there any concrete items on which we can take action?

Perhaps one thing to do is to collect recent success stories, case histories of departments or institutions that have been able to replace or create new faculty positions for paleontologists. We can also encourage departments other than geology to hire paleontologists. Biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physiology, anatomy, botany, and marine-science departments, among others, are logical candidates for paleontology positions.

Finally, many of our Ph.D.s spend several years in postdoctoral positions before finding a permanent job. Postdoctoral positions are often treated as second-class jobs. There are commonly very few fringe benefits, and wages are often near the poverty level. Formalizing and standardizing the postdoctoral system internationally or by country could create reasonable job opportunities for our Ph.D. students while they apply for faculty or other positions.


Action items for maintaining paleontological diversity.

  1. Implement those action items discussed in earlier sections that increase our visibility, credibility, and utility to our departments and institutions.
  2. Develop personal ties with administrators and take the time and the opportunity to discuss the nature, costs, and benefits of science in general and paleontology in particular to the mission of the institution.
  3. Develop a database of strategies used successfully by colleagues to maintain or increase the number of paleontology positions at their institutions. Post this database on a web site linked to other web sites.
  4. Send advertisements for paleontology positions in departments and divisions other than earth sciences to paleontology web sites.
  5. Develop a database of trends in student and faculty numbers in earth science and paleontology that includes countries outside the U.S.
  6. Set up conferences to investigate ways to improve the situation for postdoctoral associates.
  7. Encourage departments and divisions other than earth sciences to consider adding a paleontologist to their faculty.



As mentioned above, most colleges and universities employ only one paleontologist. That person may not have adequate research facilities or financial support from their institution. Lack of time for research can also be a critical concern for faculty at colleges or universities whose primary mission is teaching. The situation is even worse in developing countries. We need to find ways to the support professional development, teaching, and outreach efforts of colleagues in less than adequate academic situations.

Promotion usually depends on some combination of teaching evaluations, research productivity, and institutional service. We can help our colleagues achieve recognition in a number of ways. We can encourage our professional societies to issue position papers on the value to institutions of intellectual activity and attendance at professional meetings. Professional development keeps a paleontologist abreast of current research trends and important topics in the discipline. Participation in meetings of societies and in research enhances teaching, which, in turn, enhances the learning environment of the institution in general. Networking at meetings creates opportunities for collaborative research that may be unavailable at the person's home institution.

Perhaps major paleontological societies could investigate setting up a small-grants endowment fund or establishing a line item in the societies' budgets designed specifically to help fund research by faculty at nongraduate-degree-granting institutions or institutions with less than some designated number of students. Perhaps such a fund could also be used each year to help defray the cost of attending a professional meeting for paleontologists at several small institutions with little or no financial support.

Those of us with in-force grants can consider ways to include colleagues from small teaching universities in our research projects. When writing proposals, we can contact colleagues at small institutions and discuss ways of incorporating their expertise in our projects or consider joint research efforts.

Solitary paleontologists often face evaluation of their work by people at their institution who have little familiarity and no expertise in our discipline. We can volunteer to write letters in support of promotion or grants applications for faculty at less well-financed or less well-known institutions.

We can continue to build international databases and research interest groups accessible online for isolated paleontologists. Databases could be established both for paleontological research categories and for cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary research areas.

Teaching collections and laboratory equipment are generally scarce in developing countries and probably in many smaller institutions in many other countries as well. We need to find ways to collect extra materials, identify colleagues in need of these materials, and get the materials safely to them in a cost-effective manner. Similarly, many small institutions lack money for guest lecturers. Can we identify people who are willing to travel or who have plans to be in another country, city, or region for some reason and who are willing to give lectures in their area of paleontological expertise? Can we find ways to help defray the costs of these lecturers? Often even a very small effort can mean a great deal to the isolated paleontology faculty member. Such visits by outside paleontologists also increase the professional network for the lone paleontologist and may increase the stature of the faculty member in the eyes of his department and institution.


Action items to help the lone paleontologist.

  1. Request that paleontological societies consider drafting a position statement on the value and importance of professional development.
  2. Investigate with societies possible ways to help fund travel or research grants at small, financially poor institutions.
  3. Develop electronic research databases aimed at helping isolated researchers establish contacts with colleagues both in paleontology and in related disciplines.
  4. Establish perhaps the web pages of paleontological societies, a clearinghouse for requests from paleontologists and geologists in developing countries and small colleges anywhere for paleontological materials, books, fossils, and lecturers.



We would like to thank all of those who participated in the education discussions, particularly those who attended the topic session: M.-P. Aubry, R. Bambach, D. Briggs, D. Bruton, S. J. Coker, K. Flessa, P. Koch, R. Mawson, V. Pillar, N. Schmidt-Kittler, M. Simmons, J. Talent, and S. van Heck.

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