The Science Behind the Paleontology: Students Appreciate Asynchronous Course on Dinosaurs

Last fall, Mount Madonna School (MMS) began offering its first asynchronous elective course for high school students. Titled The Dinosaurs, the class is approved by the University of California as a college-preparatory elective in life sciences. Four students took the three-unit class and shared some feedback on their experience.

Asynchronous learning describes a process where learning does not occur in the same place at the same time. It is increasingly more common in higher education course offerings, and allows great equity for students, as individuals can approach classes on their own terms and at their own pace, taking as much time as needed to study and respond to material.

I have always wondered about the truth behind the stereotypes of dinosaurs and was curious to get to know them a little more personally,” commented sophomore Jacob Sirk-Traugh. “It was my first asynchronous course, and I liked the weekly assignment structure, but thought it could have focused more on the actual dinosaurs and less on scientific names and archeological expeditions. I learned how closely related dinosaurs and birds really are (some dinosaurs even had feathers). I would take another asynchronous course and would be interested in learning about investing, chess or something strategy related, and possibly a Big Bang study course.”

“I was extremely grateful to hear that MMS was offering a new asynchronous science course as I was itching for some science other than physics to occupy my time,” shared senior Kira Kaplan. “I was thrilled to take a course about dinosaurs of all subjects! I loved telling people I spent my time learning about T-Rex’s and triceratops. I appreciated the structure of the class, relying mostly on the textbook for reading and comprehension questions, as well as a few discussions and research projects. I think the coursework was pretty manageable and didn’t feel like too much or too little along with other homework. Given the opportunity I would definitely take another asynchronous course and advise others to do the same if they’re looking for some extra challenge or even an interesting topic!”

MMS Science Department Chair Lisa Catterall began considering the possibility of a fully online science elective five years ago to begin the school on the path of sharing electives with other independent schools. When some students were asking for more to study at the close of the 2019-20 school year as they were sheltering in place, the time seemed right to seek approval for a course in this new format. Several topics were considered, and dinosaurs seemed to be the most relevant in relation to the pandemic.

“Some may wonder, why not a course on virus dynamics or germs?” said Catterall. “While the content would be relevant, it is covered thoroughly in the high school life science program already. Freshman biology students at MMS already learn this topic in depth, and this year, instructor Nicole Silva is teaching an entire unit on the science behind viruses and vaccines in our senior honors course, Science with Humanity.

“There is no better story than the history of dinosaurs for showing students how science updates and changes with new techniques and new information,” Catterall continued. “The backlash against science in the U.S at the moment is in part because the story people hear on the news about the coronavirus changes frequently as new research is made available. When we look back on this period in history, we will see a worldwide shift in research towards a complete focus on this virus, and an unprecedented speed of acquiring new scientific information. There was never a more important time for citizens to understand why the story changes and gets closer to the truth with every study, every new technique, and every discovery scientists make.”

Mount Madonna School may offer the class again in summer 2021.

“This course was pretty easy to handle,” said junior Liana Kitchel. “There wasn’t too much of a work load and it had a very flexible schedule.”

“Embedded in this course is a very important message about how new data and new discoveries change the story,” said Catterall.

“The dinosaurs are no doubt incredible animals, but for me what made the class great was the science behind the paleontology,” commented sophomore Sam Kaplan. “Excavating and preparing fossils is a much more detailed process than one might think and there is so much precision and calculations that go into finding these fossils. I took the class to expose myself to a new field, and although I went into it wondering what paleontologists were so excited about, I came out realizing that the field comes with many benefits, including a good dose of the outdoors!

“This was my first asynchronous course and I would love to take another,” continued Kaplan. ‘I would be interested in computer science, programming, psychology, microbiology and astronomy.’

“Mount Madonna is continuing its rich tradition of providing innovative learning opportunities by strengthening and diversifying the course offerings in our learning program,” commented Head of School Ann Goewert. “We are excited to provide students with the opportunity to dig deep into Earth’s geologic record and learn the science and story of dinosaurs as informed by fossils, trace fossils, and geochemistry.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.