Feb. 7, 2013 Ask a college student to sketch a Tyrannosaurus rex, and he or she will probably draw an upright, tail-dragging creature with tiny arms. An 8-year-old will draw something similar. They're wrong, of course.
The terrible T. rex, an agile, dynamic predator, never went upright. In fact, T. Rex tarried horizontal. Since the 1970s, this has been the view of most dinosaur scientists and has increasingly been represented in textbooks and popular literature.
So why are students' perceptions of the T. rex stalled in the early 1900s, when the dinosaurs were depicted as upright, somewhat slow-moving tail draggers? A Cornell University research team sought answers after years of anecdotally observing students drawing the T. rex incorrectly.
The paper, "The posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why do student views lag behind the science?" will be published in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Geoscience Education. It was authored Warren Allmon, Cornell professor of paleontology and director of the Cornell-affiliated Paleontological Research Institution (PRI); Robert Ross, Cornell adjunct assistant professor in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and PRI's associate director for outreach; and Don Duggan-Haas, a PRI education research associate,
Despite decades of up-to-date dinosaur books, the imprinting of bad dinosaur anatomy at the earliest ages from unscientific sources, whether they are children's shows like "Barney and Friends," or dino-shaped chicken nuggets, is nearly impossible to overcome. This, combined with the general populace's fascination with dinosaurs, has led to what the researchers call a "cultural inertia" in which outdated science remains in the public consciousness.
They found that 63 percent of pre-college and 72 percent of college-age students drew the upright T. rex. To quantify the observations, they measured the angle of the drawn T. rex spine from a horizontal surface, and found that most students drew it at an average angle of 50-60 degrees, falling within about 5 degrees of the incorrect posture.
The researchers first surmised that popular media, such as children's books, had failed to catch up to the correct T. rex posture. Not quite so. "They were a little slow on the uptake, but not in sufficient degree to explain what we saw," Ross says. So the researchers looked at representations in pop culture: toys, cookie cutters, T-shirts and other things small children would be exposed to early.
Think Barney the purple dinosaur, or the nervous Rex from "Toy Story" movies. "Our conclusion was that maybe students are imprinted with this image from their very earliest years. Even after they've seen 'Jurassic Park,' it doesn't change," Ross says.
The bottom line is that people aren't blank slates, Allmon says. Science educators increasingly recognize that students carry preconceptions, often undetected, into the classroom.
Says Allmon: "You have to meet students where they are, and start where they are … This is just another example of that. It's one that still boggles my mind."
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