Creating a Short Course on Dinosaurs

by Kathleen Julicher

Build a unit study on a science topic!  It is easy to do and fun to plan.  Follow these instructions for a unit on dinosaurs or on any other topic you would like to study.  This article will tell you how to go about designing a science unit for your homeschool, or how to turn your literature based unit into one based on science.

First, you will need a topic and a goal.  As an example, we will use dinosaurs as a topic and the goal will be the construction of a Dinosaur Notebook.  Because we want this to be a learning experience, as well as a fun unit, we will choose some science skills to go over during the unit: drawing maps, making scientific drawings, and analysis.  When you choose a set of science skills, you should choose about three for the unit.  Remember you don’t need to cover all the skills in one unit.  For ideas about science skills, see the sidebar.  Some parents may wish the students to write a research paper about some aspect of the topic and if so, plan to spend several extra hours on research.

Begin your research with a trip to the library or to the internet for one or two foundational resources about the topic.  For dinosaurs, I would choose a book like The Dinosaur Encyclopedia by Dr. Benton.  In this single source, you have a summary of everything from the definition of dinosaurs, to more specific information on the kinds, types, habitats, and habits of dinosaurs, giving us a running start.  If you come home from the library with 25 books (or more) about dinosaurs, you will quickly be overwhelmed by the volume as well as by the repetition of the information.  By using a summary book you will be able to plan easily for the unit.

Planning for the unit study means considering several things: vocabulary, major sub-themes, and projects or activities.  The vocabulary of a new topics is probably the first, most important thing to cover because knowledge of the vocabulary is the key to learning a new topic.  Of course, there are always many new words in a new topic, so it is a good idea to limit your vocabulary list to about 40-50 words.  If your child is writing or typing well, you should have him look up the words and write down the definitions in the first section of his Dinosaur Notebook.  He can do this while reading the reference book on dinosaurs.  This reading and vocabulary activity can be done first, even without another trip to the library.  The major advantage to doing the reading first is that you and your student learn about some of the more interesting aspects of dinosaurs.  These will be the sub-topics which you will use for the next step in planning.

You may choose about 5 major themes within the area of dinosaurs (or your own topic).  They can be about any aspect of the topic, for example, a student may be interested in duckbilled dinosaurs, foot prints, dinosaur anatomy, dinosaur habitats, and whether or not men saw dinosaurs.  Each one of these sub-topics is a study in itself, but each will also be mentioned in the general book of dinosaurs you already have read.  So, you will list the sub-topics and make a divider for each one.  In the sections, the student will write down information he already knows about this sub-topic.  If possible, a drawing is good.  For example, under dinosaur anatomy, your student might make a scientific drawing of each of the two types of dinosaurs: the bird-hipped and the lizard-hipped, the two major classifications of dinosaurs.  The reptiles are named according to the structure of the hip bones.  Note: little knowledge exists of the internal anatomy of the dinosaurs because the evidence we see is mostly skeletal.    You can see how a drawing will show the two types better than a written description.  Other anatomy activities might be to create a clay model, build a plastic model, draw up a classification chart of dinosaurs, or make your own classification of dinosaurs based upon the illustrations in your book. in each sub-topic, you will write, report, illustrate, or type the major concepts in a summary fashion.  Later on, you will return to the library for more information, more books, and more resources.  Using the new more detailed resources, you will elaborate on the information already in your notebook.  This distinction is important.  Start out with few, but general ( not necessarily easy) references, then as the student assimilates the information in the first books, he will be better able to choose follow-on references.  He will also know more about what he is interested in and this will aid his next choices.  By starting out with a general reference, you will also be better able to eliminate certain books because they offer no new information.  By doing this, you will end up checking out fewer, better resources.

You have some goals for each major sub-topic: define, explain, elaborate, and experiment.   

The goal for vocabulary is complete when you have listed and defined the major terms which are keys to the sub-topic.  (There are always more words to learn, so you should limit the list.)  The student should explain the idea(s) behind the sub-theme.  This might take a paragraph or two from a younger child, and more from an older one.  In the sub-topic of anatomy, the student should know that bone structure is the key to identification of the dinosaurs and should be able to explain how.  In the sub-topic of habitat, the student should be able to describe the environment or a model of a habitat the dinosaurs lived in.  He may wish to create a diorama, a painting, a mural or a model of a habitat.  See the list of resources for a set of paper dinosaurs and background.  The student should be interested in each sub-topic (since he choose each sub-topic).  He should be allowed to read freely on the topic, doing activities as desired.  He should be encouraged to talk about them, too, as that is how a child shows and builds his interests.  If you are trying to also teach some organization skills, then I suggest that you keep him on the already planned sub-topics for a specific time or for a specific activity before allowing him to move on to a new area.  Always remember that too much regimentation stifles curiosity and interest.  One of the benefits to using units is that the student can learn freely and not according to someone else’s plan.

Elaboration means putting in the details.  The elaboration of a topic is best done through the use of activities of every sort: drawings, maps, collections, etc.  This is the time to go back to the library for more materials.  This time you may be looking for details instead of the big picture as before.  Now, your student can draw maps showing where the duckbills lived or at least where they have been found.  If you live in an area where dinosaur fossils have been found, you may enjoy looking for some yourself.  The Golden Book of Fossils is a good resource and includes details about how to start and maintain a fossil collection.  It is in this elaboration step that the student really becomes an “expert” in the area.  When a child finds a topic he is very curious about, you should encourage him to investigate that topic even if it means taking some time away from a more traditional subject.  It may also mean scheduling time for individual research if your days seem to fill up quickly.

In science, experimentation is important.  Not all subjects are conducive to experimentation, but there are usually some things you can do along this line.  When studying dinosaurs, a student might make casts of animal footprints in plaster. (or human)  You might study ways to preserve bones (like petrification) or weather patterns, or meteor strikes.  So, while we cannot study and experiment upon dinosaurs directly, we can do some work on secondary topics.  If you have chosen a topic like butterflies or oceans, there are many experiments you can do.  Search for some of these in books like Janice Van Cleave’s Earth Science for Kids.  You might also try some of the back issues of Homeschooling Today for some great ideas for experiments in many topics.

The last section of your Dinosaur Notebook will be the resources and references you have used.  This is important especially if you ever intend to return to this topic.  You might consider making it an annotated list and make little notes about each resource and how  you used it.

If you follow this method of planning a science unit study you will create a truly scientific study, individualized for your own child, and based upon the actual topic, not on literature.  Note: Although, you may wish to have your child read some good literature on the topic to round out the science unit.  By using this method you will also be in control of your library books and not be overwhelmed by the huge number of resources available.  You will plan your study based upon a goal, a general reference, a vocabulary list using only 50 words or less, and a few specific resources.  Your student will define, explain, elaborate, and experiment in his own areas of interest.

Science Skills

Scientific Drawing
Record keeping
Asking questions
Brainstorming ideas
Organization skills
Communication skills
Making and reading graphs
Drawing conclusions
Problem solving

Dinosaur Vocabulary

armored dinosaur
natural selection
meteor strike
sedimentary rock


The Dinosaur Encyclopedia by Dr. Michael Benton.  A good general book on dinosaurs and an excellent book to begin your studies on these reptiles.  It includes a discussion of dinosaur, types, and classification of dinosaurs.  The geologic eras of dinosaurs are explained and the habitats they lived in.  Evolution is assumed to be true but this brief part can be easily skipped or adapted.  There is a long section on the different kinds of dinosaurs, including their sizes, habitats, classifications and foods.  After the story of early dinosaur finds, the author gives directions for hunting for your own dinosaur fossils.  There is a glossary and an index, both evidence of a general resource book.  Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon and Schuster), 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
ISBN 0-671-51046-0

Dinosaurs of North America by Helen Roney Sattler.  This book has more specific details about dinosaurs, their living conditions, and their habits (as much as we can tell).  It, too, is written from an evolutionary standpoint, but that is no real problem.  Included are continental drift, climate, and classification.  Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books (a division of William Morrow & Company) 105 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; ISBN 0-688-51952-0

Make These Model Dinosaurs is a great little punch-out book for the visual kid.  Usborne Pulishing Ltd., 83-85 Saffron Hill, London EC1N 8RT, England.; ISBN 0-7460-1320-5

Digging Dinosaurs by John Horner is his story of finding the baby dinosaurs (duckbills).  This is the expert and the technical advisor for the film, Jurassic Park.  A very interesting story, it tells about Mr. Horner’s discovery of the baby duckbills and how he found their nests.  Definitely evolutionary, but very interesting.  HarperPerennial (HarperCollins), Special Markets Department, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022; ISBN 0-06-097314-5

Dinosaur: An Interactive Guide to The Dinosaur World.  This box has lots of great activities for your unit from making a stegosaur skeleton, a full color poster, a timeline diorama (which you would adjust for a creationist model) a wallchart, some actual drawings from a paleontologist’s notebook, and six dinosaur detail cards.  This box of stuff will round out your study of dinosaurs.  DK Publishing, 95 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; ISBN 1-56458-683-9

Dry Bones … and Other Fossils by Gary Parker.  A Master Books publication, this one is written from a creationist’s viewpoint.  It is a dialog between Dr. Gary Parker and his family on a typical fossil hunting trip in Indiana,  Dr. Parker covers most of the bases in the creationist story of the Earth from creation to the big flood, explaining fossils and how they are made.  This book also comes in a read-along tape version for your little ones.  Creation-Life Publishers, Inc.: Master Books Division, P.O. Box 1606, El Cajon, CA 92022,1979.  ISBN  0-89051-056-3

Dino-trekking:  The Ultimate Dinosaur Lover’s Travel Guide by Kell Milner Halls.  This is a traveling book, but you’ll use it before you get in the car.  Well-known and not so well-known dinosaur sites are listed and described here.  In the margin are the details like address, admission prices, and facilities available.  There are side boxes with interesting notes from the curators of some of the museums and parks.  There is aneat section with addresses you can write to for catalogs and information.  Use these to get things like birthday party favors with a dinosaur theme, T-shirts, and model dinosaurs.  The last section is a description of many dinosaurs plus a few non-dinosaurs.   John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158-0012:  1996    ISBN 0-471-11498-7

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