FossilSketch: first results of classroom testing

Anna Stepanova
Senior Research Engineer I
Texas A&M University

Need: The microfossil remains that are preserved in sediments play key roles in determining the ages of geologic records, reconstructing paleoenvironments, and monitoring modern ecosystem health. However, training undergraduates to identify these microfossils is time-intensive and most students are not exposed to micropaleontology in their courses, which limits the breadth of students entering fields that use them. To enable training of undergraduates in the basics of micropaleontology by non-experts, we developed FossilSketch, an interactive tool that introduces students to micropaleontology through educational videos and exercises focused on their applications in geosciences. FossilSketch currently focuses on identifying benthic Foraminifera and Ostracoda from high-resolution photomicrographs and interpreting their fossil assemblages. Interactive exercises guide students through the characteristic morphologic features and the principles of genus-level identification for Foraminifera and Ostracoda, and morphotype identification for Foraminifera. The software integrates minigame activities to help students practice identifying individual features before combining their skills to fully identify common genera or morphotype. Integrating ecologically-relevant morphotype concepts allows beginner students to develop the skills necessary for making rapid environmental assessments from fossil data, thus reinforcing societally-relevant benefits of studying micropaleontology. The unique FossilSketch environment allows students to practice skills and receive individual real-time feedback without instructor supervision.

Guiding Questions: Is FossilSketch an efficient tool for teaching micropaleontology to undergraduate students? Does student comprehension and retention of micropaleontology knowledge increase after usage of FossilSketch?
To what extent does use of the FossilSketch allow instructors to increase student engagement with analysis and application of micropaleontological data?

Outcomes: The main research goal of this project was to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of an online learning tool for teaching micropaleontology in an interactive web application. We compared the data from the genus ID exercise in the lab assignment between Senior undergraduate geoscience students at Texas A&M who learned microfossil identification in Spring 2020 through traditional means involving diagrams, specimens viewed through a stereoscope, and hand-sized models, and our test group of Senior undergraduate geoscience students who learned microfossil identification using FossilSketch in Spring 2021. We found that breaking identification tasks into small, “minigame” tasks improved student comprehension, and that students appreciated being able to repeat online tasks for mastery. Comparison of student narratives where students described steps they use to identify a microfossil between control (2020) and test (2021) groups using Chi squared, revealed that students who used FossilSketch statistically performed better (p=0.007). Students also reported enjoying the laboratory activities more and expressed less confusion about the process of identifying the fossils.
Semi-structured interview with the class’ Teaching Assistant revealed that although using FossilSketch did not save time for TAs, it did significantly reduce TA workload and increased the amount of instructional material covered in the class. Students learned genus identification, and were able to apply their knowledge to reconstruct paleoenvironments.

Broader Impacts: Freshman students from TAMU College of Geosciences were exposed to FossilSketch in the class where they would not otherwise encounter microfossils, they learned about microfossil utility and how to integrate them as a tool in their disciplinary work.


Dr. Anna Stepanova, Texas A&M University, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, College Station, Texas; Dr. Belanger, Christina, Texas A&M University, Department of Geology, College Station, Texas; Dr. Raniero Lara-Garduno, Texas A&M University, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, College Station, Texas; Dr. Hammond, Tracy, Texas A&M University, Department of Computer Science & Engineering; Institute for Engineering Education and Innovation, College Station, Texas; Dr. Christine Stanley, Texas A&M University, Educational Administration & Human Resource Development, College Station, Texas; Dr. Sarah Raven, Texas A&M University, Teaching, Learning & Culture, College Station, Texas.