Gray's Dinosaur Class
Brings Prehistoric Era to Life

New Course at SBCC Uses the Scientific Method to Learn About Dinosaurs

Movies like Jurassic Park and the documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs broke ground when they visualized extinct animals for a big audience. Now dinosaurs have found their way to the curriculum of City College.

"If the universities can teach this as a freshman course, we can teach it," said Professor Robert Gray, who instructs his second class on this particular subject at SBCC. The purpose is that "students will learn scientific method," he said. UCSB, UCLA, and UC Berkeley were among the first to offer dinosaur classes in 1998.

"ERTH 122 — Dinosaurs" is offered during fall, spring and summer, and only basic English (ENG 103) is required.

Eileen Bernard, geology major, is one of Gray's students. She took this class because she has always been interested in dinosaurs and wanted to learn more.

Another student who is taking the class is Philip Lindner. "He's awesome," Lindner said. "He knows so much that you just want to learn more."

City College has "a good fossil collection," which can be used for teaching, Gray said. The collection was partly built from donations, but the professor dug up some of the bones himself a few years ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

"That femur is as tall as I am," he said, pointing to a dinosaur thighbone on a shelf. The department of earth and planetary sciences also has a Tyrannosaurus Rex foot, dinosaur eggs, saber-toothed cat skulls and mammoth bones.

A collection of small dinosaur fossils was donated by LA County Museum of Natural History after a fire destroyed the information about the fossils. The bones could no longer be used for scientific purposes but could be used for education, Gray said.

Last year, Gray received the Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologist. Gray believes that a good teacher has a "consuming passion for the subject." He said a teacher should also have the ability to allow students to raise their levels. "They should take the ball, go to the base and hit a home run."

Raptors, which make up the family Dromaeosauridae, are Gray's favorite dinosaurs because of their supposed intelligence. They were small to medium-sized, feathered meat eaters that flourished in the Cretaceous Period, which immediately followed the Jurassic era. Gray is especially fond of a group of species called Deinonychus, which he said evolved into the birds we have today.

"It looked like a small ostrich," Gray said. "Birds are avian dinosaurs."

The professor pointed to similarities between drawings of different skeletons and explained how this species evolved so it could fly.

At least five theories explain why dinosaurs became extinct, Gray said. One of the most popular is that an asteroid hit the earth. The problem with that theory is that it doesn't explain how one bad day could drive a group of animals that had been around for so long to extinction, while only 75 percent of all other animals were killed, Gray said.

Some scientists instead believe the plants evolved so the dinosaurs had nothing to eat, a theory called gradual extinction, Gray said. Another theory is that volcanic gases poisoned the air. The dinosaurs also could have died from a disease or that the ice at the poles melted and flooded the land, according to the professor.

After Gray received his doctorate in Paleontology from the University of Arizona in 1965, he wanted to continue digging for fossils but could not live on it.

"Who pays for digging the bones?" he said. "I continued my interest for fossil bones here at SBCC."

©Torgny Lilja/The Channels (2009)