Fall Teaching Changes, part 1

September 12th, 2016

Now that we are a few weeks into the semester, I have a little time to reflect on how my course has changed. I have tweaked the Introduction to Physical Anthropology course in a few ways to further make the experience for students more comprehensive and ultimately more memorable. Two of these ideas were started when I was teaching a six-week course over the summer, but refined a little more:

  • A Related Media page accessible from Blackboard. Rather than use Blackboard’s system (as the school is switching to Canvas anyway), I set up a Google Doc that has an organized list of online media related to each class topic. The most frequent sources of these media are SciShow episodes on Youtube and BBC documentaries on Netflix. A future change may be to move to a spreadsheet format for its sorting ability, though this might look more sterile and actually less inviting for students.
  • A professional Twitter feed, accessible from that site or viewable in Blackboard. This change solved a nagging problem for me: I see a lot of interesting articles online that are directly related to class topics, but I can only share so many in Blackboard announcements and at the beginning of class. While I still share some choice discoveries in these places, now I have a place to share the many other links I find. I had several followers of the Twitter feed during the summer session, but only a handful across my three classes now. I never mentioned the feed to my summer course and I have not brought it up to my current classes. Perhaps the greater focus on Blackboard allowed more online students to find it on their own.

One unexpected wrinkle that came up during the implementation of the Twitter feed was the dilemma of whether I should follow my student followers back. In general Twitter subculture, following back would be the polite thing to do, but I chose not to do so to keep some distance from my students’ personal lives.

Another complication of this Twitter account changed a secondary goal I had at the start: to give reminders for class deadlines. This idea became unusable because my three classes this semester do not go by the same schedule: I have Monday-Wednesday classes and Tuesday-Thursday classes. Also, the Labor Day holiday threw these two schedules out of sync, so the Tuesday class is first new lecture I give each week. Tweeting deadlines for these two class setups would probably cause mass confusion with me and my students, so I opted to save deadline reminders for in-class and twice weekly emails. While this systems works, it means that the Twitter feed is more for fun and not as critical for students to view.

Next time, I will bring up some other changes I have made that were inspired by reading Small Teaching by James Lang (2016), a very rewarding and inspirational book.



Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.

Why We Need Zoos

June 27th, 2016

I have seen a distressing anti-zoo sentiment linger in social media so I wanted to make a few points about why zoos are absolutely necessary in modern society. To be clear, I am arguing against the stance that all zoos are unethical. I am not defending the for-profit freak show type of zoo, especially those with no conservation program. Instead, I am explaining my support for the many zoos I have had the pleasure of visiting: San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, St. Louis Zoo, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, Memphis Zoo, and Parque de las Leyendas in Lima. I focus on the importance of zoos as a way to bring the public and animals together, how this purpose fuels conservation in the wild, and also the idea that life in the wild is inherently better than life in captivity. I then end with ideas for making the best zoos even better in the future in light of recent events.

As an attraction for the public, zoos uniquely bring animals from distant places to visitors who otherwise would have little opportunity to witness in person. While zoos may not impart factual information to the public as well as they should, the experience of being in the presence of animals is profound. As part of my physical anthropology class, I have students watch the San Diego Zoo ape cam to observe unfiltered primate behavior. Some students opt to go to the zoo itself to do the assignment. Either way, though especially in person, I have had many students express how seeing non-human primate behavior live really showed them our common relations as primates and living things. My instructions state a minimum observation time of twenty minutes, but some students spend hours watching primates. I can show my students as many diagrams, photographs, and video clips of primates as I can fit in the semester, but those media pale in comparison to just being present near other primates.

My students’ experience that watching primates live is more impactful than learning about primates that live on another hemisphere is just one example of how people care more about what is close and less about what is far. Zoos cannot simply switch to an all-wild conservation plan because the funding depends on people engaging with and thus caring for the zoo representatives of these distant animal populations. If zoos did not exist, their associated conservation programs would also vaporize as most critically endangered organisms are out-of-sight-out-of-mind. This is why the biggest zoos place millions into renovation plans (besides updating their enclosures for the benefit of the animals): the hope is that the investment will bring in even more money to do the things that visitors cannot see out in the wild. A high profile zoo with ever-expanding exhibits can bring in money through attracting visitors from all around the world.

Regarding the unethical nature of keeping animals in captivity, I present another point of view just as unprovable as the idea that any captivity is mistreatment: being cared for in captivity is the best thing to happen to most animals. Considering the many dangers of living in the wild that are removed by living in a zoo: predation, habitat loss, environmental hazards, poaching, starvation – living in captivity has great benefits to one’s well being. Furthermore, the concept of wild versus captive is a human concept that other animals may not have. While it is impossible to probe the opinions of non-human animals to gauge their philosophical stance on captivity, from my point of view it seems that animals just deal with the situation they’re in without discriminating between free or not. It follows that animals would have no stance that being in the wild is naturally a better state of being than living in captivity, especially if being in captivity alleviates so many of their usual hardships.

Zoos can be improved to make them even more effective at their goals of education and conservation. The zoos that have lagged behind in updating their enclosures to the latest standards of providing comfort and stimulus the captive animals need to put the resources into upgrading. This includes certain parts of otherwise top tier zoos, such as the Center Street of the San Diego Zoo, where bears still live in concrete pits. To limit the harassment of animals by misbehaving visitors, dedicated security guards may be necessary at hot spots. I think of the art museum model of visible professional security who take no crap when they see someone breaking the rules. These and any other solutions need money, and the money comes from either direct or indirect public support of zoos. Being unilaterally anti-zoo will bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy of crippling our zoos and making them worse at caring for the animals in their care and worse at their conservation efforts.

Putting Together eFossils’ Life-Size Skeleton Printouts

May 23rd, 2016

While the classroom has an extensive collection of replica fossils, there was nothing that conveyed a sense of the full stature of our ancestors. I found some cool life-sized printouts at the eFossils site for Lucy, Nariokotome Boy, modern human skeletons. While the layouts are fantastic, the graphics have been enlarged a great deal. This means that the lines are very blurry and would look odd up close. Having access to Adobe Illustrator, I used the Live Trace tool to smooth out the skeletons. I used the text tool to replicate the copyright statements and some of the instructions. The results look great at any distance now:


Turning the graphics to vector also shrank the file size by over half. Yes!

The printouts were intended only for a temporary use, such as taping to a wall or laying on a table, but I also wanted a more permanent construction. I cut cardboard pieces to fit the individual sheets, used a glue stick to attach each printout to a cardboard sheet, and taped them together with transparent packing tape. I taped key joints both front and back to allow some flexibility: the Lucy skeleton printout actually folds up into just one sheet’s area!

{ Hominins in disguise. }

{ Hominins in disguise. }

The Nariokotome Boy printout is larger, so there were some complications. Since it was three sheets in width and around six sheets tall, it was too thick to fold into one sheet. Instead, one column has to be the oddball and stick out and make the folded version two sheets wide and an irregular height. The bottom sheets, for the foreleg, are uneven and have to be cut to match for the obsessive. The right sheets, for the Boy’s left side, are also printed smaller than the other sheets so they have to be trimmed separately. They do not look noticeably thinner than the left sheets, which s good.

{ Nariokotome Boy hanging in the classroom. To-do: make two blank sheets to fill out the lower right corner. }

{ Nariokotome Boy hanging in the classroom. To-do: make two blank sheets to fill out the lower right corner. }

For an added layer of protection, I sprayed Krylon Protect It! on Nariokotome Boy before taping. It did slightly color the sheets slightly, and curled the unglued edges, but it should offer some protection for the ink.

My class this semester was mildly impressed (whelmed?) as I unfolded them with a flourish by holding the head sheets and letting the rest drop out. Some students did remark that they help convey the sense of scale which does not otherwise get across in lecture.

Since these skeletons will see the outside world only two or three days out of the year, they should last forever. Many thanks to eFossils.org for making these files available.

Let the Games Begin!

April 25th, 2016

The ‘Games’ part of my blog’s title gets very little attention, but a new game came out this year that is of great anthropological interest. I’m surprised that it has not gotten much attention at all in the hip anthropologist community. I mention it now as a possible start for a future project here.

The latest Far Cry game takes the open world faction shooter gameplay to Mesolithic Europe. While this could have come out very poorly in terms of reflecting what anthropology knows, the game developers did their homework and added some nice touches, such as basing the languages of the game on Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed language of that time. This link has a nice interview with the linguists hired for this job, Andrew and Brenna Byrd.

That is not to say that liberties are not taken on what we think life was like back then. The player can befriend a number of animals, from saber-toothed cats to owls, and even ride a wooly mammoth. And while humans were definitely in a lot of danger, they were not “the bottom of the food chain” as the promotional material says.

I have gotten into live streaming myself playing video games on Twitch, and one of my dream summer activities would be to play Far Cry: Primal and talk about anthropology while I do it.

Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 2

February 10th, 2016

A little while ago, I received a present that I secretly wanted: an excavation and model kit of Australopithecus afarensis. After a short break to rest the fingers, the next field season continued the amazing discoveries of the first. One surprise from last time was the existence of a hair in the gypsum matrix. Further excavation revealed more hair in separate locations.

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }



Could this be one giant hair? Interested scholars quickly formed into single-hair and multi-hair camps with no room for a middle ground. Revealing more and more of the hair(s) showed that it led into one of the foot impressions that was being preserved. With a heavy heart, I broke through the impression to see where the hair went. The single-hair camp won out in the end as it became evident that we are dealing with one rather long piece.


{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }


{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }

From there the project got a bit old so excavation proceeded more quickly. While the documentation showed that the skull had to be assembled from three pieces, it was found whole. While convenient, the skull did have to be partially separated into its constituent parts in order fit it to the vertebral column.


A wash in the sink removed the bulk of the gypsum matrix from the skeletal remains. The parts easily fit together into a complete skeleton with little effort. Pegs on the feet went into the display stand. (I tossed the hair: it’s gross). One surprise was that the shoulder and hip joints were rotatable and the skull was very possible due to the ball joint.

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

As you can tell, this model kit was a lot of fun to excavate and produced a good looking model for the price. I wouldn’t be opposed to checking out more of the Geoworld line, though I may speed up the excavation in the future.

A Little More Keeley: Comic Hero Extraordinaire!

January 19th, 2016

My comic got a little attention this break as I finished two pages, bringing the total to 10 (out of 20 for this issue). Pages 7-10 are new to the web. To be continued spring break, perhaps?

Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 1

January 15th, 2016

As December rolled around, I found myself on Amazon browsing for good gifts. I settled on a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for my brother (which looks amazing) and was ready to shut the browser window, when Amazon dangled another model in front of my eyes: an Australopithecus afarensis (e.g. Lucy) model! I had already gotten myself something so I begrudgingly surfed away without buying it. As luck and a great significant other would have it, I got one for Christmas even though I told no one about it! It has been a long time since I was on an archaeological dig, so I wanted to do this block of plastic bones justice. First, the unboxing:


The model is branded “Cave Girl” since it is ostensibly a female afarensis, not because the toy was made for girls. In fact, as Megan McCullen pointed out, the metadata for this model states that it was intended for boys. Another bit of marketing sexism: there is a “Cave Man” model, of a Neanderthal. “Girl” versus “Man,” :/.


{ Brochure of the different models. The sea, flying, and ice age sets are especially neat. }

In any case, the cover is a flap that opens to reveal the actual block of stuff that encloses the model pieces, as well as three plastic tools.


The tools are sturdy, much hardier than what comes with a Halloween pumpkin carving kit. There is a hammer/scraper, chisel, and brush. The brief instructions state that the hammer and chisel are the way to go, but I found the scraper to be much more accurate and effective at removing the gypsum matrix. As a good archaeologist would do, I started at the surface and slowly dug away as evenly as possible.


{ The newspaper was very worth it. Dust got everywhere, including my hands and phone. }

A few pieces appear! The light brown piece was puzzling until I realized that it was the display stand, upside-down. An excellent find, since the stand should have lots to say about the bipedalism of this species.



A hand emerges, and to the right of it, another plastic bone and a hair! Maybe we can DNA test the hair and do an isotope study of the keratin for any dietary clues.


The display stand has text imprinted on it. Early language?!


Taking the stand away reveals an impression of an impression of the feet. They may be worth preserving so I started excavating around them.


As I wrap up after around three hours (I went slow over two days), a lot of skeletal elements can be identified. All limbs are visible, as well as the pelvis, sacrum, and ribcage. I am definitely getting my money’s worth out of this kit. So far, I highly recommend getting one for yourself or the young person in your life. Who knows what future excavating will uncover!

Anthropomotron 2.1.1 is Out!

October 29th, 2015

My now-yearly update to Anthropomotron should be rolling out on iOS, Android, and this website today! I spent a few weeks here and there getting the app updated for iOS9. While I was staring at the code, I added two new sources of stature estimation formulae from adult limb bone length. One, Sjøvold (1990), is one of my personal favorite sets of formulae as it was the first to use a global sample (making them ‘race-less’) and also use a form of the reduced major axis type of regression, which is less biased at the extremes compared to linear regression. Someone’s attempt to bring both of these innovations back to stature estimation a few years ago went down in flames, but we’ll always have Sjøvold.

Sjøvold, T. (1990). Estimation of stature from long bones utilizing the line of organic correlation. Human Evolution, 5(5), 431-447.

Skeletal Voltron: An Activity to Teach Introductory Human Osteology

August 12th, 2015

Possibly, Skeletal Voltron was the highlight of my summer class. I had thought of it back when I first heard that I could be teaching physical anthropology back in January, though it did not come to pass until the summer session.

The goal of Skeletal Voltron is to combine many ideas about teaching anthropology to liven up a topic that can be dry*. Kristina Killgrove (2014) has students draw or mold bones out of clay in order to experience their morphology. Megan McCullen (2010) has her students do a class-wide random mating event to learn the forces of evolution. From great ideas such as these, I thought it would be fun for the whole class to get together and embody a giant human skeleton outside. Each student would be in charge of bone, or part of the skeleton. While I had thought of having the students lay down to form the skeleton, I settled on having each student make a small poster of their assigned bone, held aloft by a stick like a picket sign so that it is visible. Everyone will then present their part and some memorized facts to the rest of the class. Here is what I did with the class to make Skeletal Voltron happen at its inaugural outing.


I went shopping for some crafting materials. Big Lots and dollar stores had all of the following for good prices**:

  • 35 14 x 22″ white poster boards: $7
  • 50 sticks (irregular bamboo sticks for gardening): $9
  • 3 sets of markers: $6
  • 1 roll of packing tape: $2

I asked the class to bring their own markers and other art supplies. Some brought extensive collections of markers to share, being non-traditional students with young children.

I also took some time to divide up the skeleton into as many parts as there are students in my class, 28. Some students were responsible for several bones, such as each half of the pelvis. With more students, I could break up each half of the pelvis into two or three parts for students to represent. There are many parts of the skeleton that could be consolidated or expanded to fit the size of the class.

The parts were further organized into sets of four related regions, to fit the teams I had made early in the semester. I wrote each set of four parts on a notecard, producing as many notecards as there were teams (seven). For example, these were the parts grouped for each team:

Cervical vertebrae
Thoracic vertebrae

Left femur
Right femur
Left tibia, fibula, and foot
Right tibia, fibula, and foot

Left humerus
Right humerus
Left radius, ulna, and hand
Right radius, ulna, and hand

Left pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Right pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Lumbar vertebrae
Sacrum and coccyx

Left true ribs
Right true ribs
Left false ribs
Right false ribs

Left scapula and clavicle
Right scapula and clavicle
Sternal body and xiphoid process

Right patella
Left patella
Hyoid bone
Inner ear bones

The Activity

Just before Skeletal Voltron, I gave my lecture on the human skeleton, moving from the cranium inferiorly to the feet. For each bone or part, I had a slide explaining its function and notable features. One side note: I found that asking for stories about breaking bones kept the class interested during this fact-heavy lecture. Lots of stories were told about clavicles, forearms, and ankles!

To start the activity, I showed the following video to set the mood:

Only the older students were familiar with Voltron. Others related the concept to Power Rangers. I had the class form their teams then asked a representative of each group to come up and pick up a notecard with their four skeletal parts. I explained theft of the activity. It seemed like the class wanted an example, so I sketched a quick mockup of a poster on the white board:

{ Ta-daa. }

{ Ta-daa. }

From there, the students had forty-five minutes to make their own sign based on their skeletal part. Some students kept working right up to the stop time, but I think a half-hour would work as well. I patrolled the class to answer questions and keep people working.

{ Hard at work. }

{ Hard at work. }

When time was up, I had the students all go outside with their creations. Since it was an evening class, it was dusk, but there was ample lighting in our part of campus. I indicated generally where the head and feet of Voltron should be on the ground and asked the class to find their place in the skeleton relative to each other. The completed Voltron in place, I started with the student who made a sign for the skull and asked her to explain the main features of that part. I then went down the skeleton, mimicking the earlier lecture, asking each student to talk a little about the bone they worked on. As the activity wrapped up, I had the class pose with their signs in class:



I heard in the end-of-course comments that the Skeletal Voltron activity was the highlight of the past six weeks. Maybe a third of the students kept their poster-on-a-stick. I had a great time seeing it come to life and I will definitely do it again in future classes.

Update (October 27, 2015)

I have had two more opportunities to do this activity and learned a few valuable lessons to make Skeletal Voltron go as smoothly as possible:

  • 30 minutes is the bare minimum time for devote towards making posters. I had to cut the time available in one of my classes to get caught up with the previous lecture. Some students declared that it was asking a lot to make a poster in a half hour and everyone seemed too rushed.
  • The sticks are actually important! I had not realized that cheap bamboo sticks were a seasonal item in the spring, so by the time my fall classes rolled around, I only had enough sticks for one of my two classes. The sticks were extremely valuable for making the posters visible when standing as a group outside in Voltron formation. The stickless group’s Voltron dissolved as students had to move around to see each other’s posters.


Killgrove, K. (2014, February 21). Hyoidkus – 17 syllables about the hyoid [Weblog post]. Powered By Osteons. Retrieved from http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2014/02/hyoidkus.html

McCullen, M. (2010, September 18). Encouraging college students to mate randomly: teaching population genetics in the classroom [Weblog post]. Great Lakes Ethnohistorian. Retrieved from https://ethnohistorian.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/encouraging-college-students-to-mate-randomly-teaching-population-genetics-in-the-classroom/



*All puns definitely intended.

**The federal tax deduction for teaching supplies unfortunately does not extend to community college instructors. If it did, I would get at least Target-level supplies. Write your legislators!

How I’m Spending My Summer Vacation

July 30th, 2015

When I was making Powerpoint presentations for the summer class, I had to put them together in a hurry. For illustrations, I pulled from the Internet, but I did not like many of the ones that I had to use. Since I have a few weeks before the next class starts, I started making my own illustrations to replace the ones I liked the least. For example, I found this simple diagram showing how genotype relates to phenotype:


{ From https://epfb.wordpress.com/genotype-vs-phenotype/ }

The issue is that the illustration leaves out a critical part of the cause-and-effect: environmental conditions play a role in phenotype as well. For the lecture, I slapped together a quick edit to show this concept:

Genotype to Phenotype

{ Ta-daa }

Now, with a little more time, I made my own version that is tailored to a physical anthropology class:

Genotype Plus Environment

I used Affinity Designer, a new Mac vector graphics program, to make the illustration. I have used Illustrator before, but vector art is more unfamiliar to me than pixel art. It has been a good learning experience seeing what I can do in Designer!

So far, I have made a few simple illustrations. The genotype plus environment one is the most complex work so far. Drawing the double helix took several hours to get the fake depth right, since it is actually all two dimensional (well, with layers I guess, but not a true three-dimensional structure). The final DNA was the fourth one I made, using various techniques to draw the strands and base pairs to avoid any Escher-esque gaffes. I settled on having each curve (colored light or dark blue) be its own object, pasted end-to-end into a strand. The landscape and the sifaka took less than an hour each.

I have been uploading the illustrations to Wikimedia Commons. I like venues where it is basically impossible to be rejected! Maybe one day I’ll see my own illustration in some other work.