The hhe biology of dinosaurs began as a small class in a small classroom, but every year it has doubled in size and has had to roam the campus in search of lecture halls to fill. The mammoth popularity is hardly surprising. It is, in a sense, a Barney of a college course, with obvious entertainment value and kid-like appeal. And it was designed with this in mind: intended for non-majors who, it was thought, might take to the world of science with greater ease if they didn't think of it as "science."
" The idea," says Gregory Wray Ph.D. '87, associate professor in the department of biology, "is to use the dinosaur as a vehicle to teach non-science students about how science works and how scientists think about and solve problems." For example, Wray says, "I could ask you, 'How old is the Earth?' I could give you a number, and you could go off and memorize it, and you would know how old the Earth is. But that's not my goal. My goal is to get you to question the sociology of it: How did people begin to wonder about this; how did they start to tackle it?"
Class begins with the big-bang theory; charts the evolution of the Earth and its earliest vertebrates; examines the two chief branches of Dinosauria, Theropods (T. Rex) and Sauropods (Brontosaurus), as well as avian origins, dinosaur diets, biomechanics, and sex (logistical complications galore); and much--enormously much--more.
Wray, a bearded man in his mid-thirties, is animated, with an almost childlike exuberance. "I walk the walk and talk the talk," he says. "Students seem to get a kick out of seeing a professor pretending to be a dinosaur. We don't actually know what kind of sounds dinosaurs made, but it is plausible to imagine some forms of vocal communication. Honks, grunts, and roars are all likely."
The Complete Dinosaur, by James Farlow and M.K. Brett-Surman, Indiana University Press, 1999.
Final grades are based on three exams and one three-page paper.
Gregory Wray earned his B.S. in biology and philosophy at the College of William and Mary. He taught the biology of dinosaurs at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1993 until 1999, when he joined the Duke faculty.