Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

How to explain everything

When I’m not doing research, I coordinate a second year Science course at uni, ERTH2002 Palaeobiology. It’s essentially a course where we take the students on a journey through the 4.6 billion year history of life on Planet Earth. One of the things that I’m really keen on is making the class really engaging and hands-on. After all, life is pretty amazing as it is, but throwing a bunch of fossils into the mix can really spice things up.

Each of the prac classes are taught with real fossils and rocks. We would have literally hundreds of different types of things over the semester, from ancient stromatolites nearly 3.5 billion years old, through to Ediacaran fossils, beasts of the Cambrian Explosion, all the way down to the Ice Age megafauna of the last 50 thousand years. At the start of each class, we basically just run through the prac and the specimens, emphasising why this stuff is important for the students to know, and go from there.

Using Explain Everything in class

Using Explain Everything in class

I always found the intro bits a little static- just standing in front of the class, sometimes with a PowerPoint presentation, running through what the students need to do, then letting them loose on the fossils. I recently came across some new software that makes the class a lot more interactive, interesting, and definitely engaging. The software is called ‘Explain Everything’.

Explain Everything is kind of like a digital whiteboard for your tablet or computer, but really, it is much more than that. The teaching space that I have is a large room with a single data projector. I was able to download the software (only around $4!) from the Windows store and install it on my Surface Tablet (a Surface 2). To stream it through the projector without the use of cables, I had to buy a Windows wireless adaptor (around $100). It took a bit of mucking around with the adapter and computer settings, but we (with the help of someone a little bit more computer savvy than myself) were able to get it going.

Tallying up species counts of Triassic plants using Explain Everything

Screenshot tallying up species counts of Triassic plants using Explain Everything

With Explain Everything, there is just so much stuff you can do with it- from not only drawing on it and have it broadcast live to the class on the projector, to annotating pics of fossil specimens, browsing websites (and annotating them too), pdfs of papers, taking live photos and videos (and more annotating, of course!).

That last bit is especially the thing that I like the most. With some types of fossils, it’s hard to get more than one specimen. By necessity, that means that the students have to share them. With Explain Everything, if there is something particularly important or interesting that I want everyone to see, I would typically walk up to the fossil in class and either take a photo or video of it. There’s no need to pre-photograph or video anything as it loads into Explain Everything live. With the set-up that I’ve got, whatever you see on the tablet screen is what gets projected to the class. And having a wireless connection to the projector, I can easily move around the entire classroom to wherever the fossils are laid out.

It’s just so easy to then describe the specimen- draw all over it, flip it around the screen, whatever you need to do to convey the important bits. You can also even press the ‘record’ button and it’ll basically capture the screen as you’re photographing / drawing or whatever. It even records audio. You can then export this later and if necessary, upload it to the class teaching site so that the students can access it either during the class, or later for home study. Check out the video to see it in action:

In the prac session depicted in the images and video of this blog post, the students were required to identify a range of fossil plants (dating to the middle Triassic… so dinosaur food!), tally up the numbers to assess diversity, and a range of other things. We used Explain Everything here to write up a list of plant names and score up the tally, as well as take photos of representative species to help with the plant id’s. It’s just too easy to use. The final tally was saved and exported as a JPEG file, and later uploaded to the class Facebook group page so that the students could complete the prac in their own time. It’s just such useful software.

This blog post might sound like an ad for Explain Everything, but I can assure you that it is not. I was not invited by Explain Everything to write this post, and I’ve not received a dime or any incentive at all to talk about it. It’s just a nifty, and very inexpensive, bit of software that I think would benefit a wide variety of teaching, not just in palaeontology. I’ll definitely be using it in the years to come.