Transitional Fossils

Gaining insight into college pathways by looking at how evolution has handled things.

Photo of Emma Scripps
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When prompted to look at the world of transitions, I thought about the natural world.  What can we learn about how to make the college transition more seamless from the way nature handles transitions? And then I asked myself - what about transitional organisms?

Transitional organisms are ones that show in-between qualities between its ancestral forms and that of its descendants. In other words, it sort of looks like stuff that came before it and sort of looks like stuff that will come after it.

Researching these transitional organisms briefly, I thought of three lessons we might learn from how good ol’ evolution has handled things:


  • Test stuff out before you go all the way. Organisms transitioning from sea to land had hundreds of years (or more) to see if leg-like things might be beneficial to reproduction and survival. In other words, transitional organisms had lots of time to test out new features. That's a good insight for us. How might we help students test out and try new experiences that might come about when entering postsecondary institutions earlier? What if we designed test-like experiences - like a weekend students spend away from home in a college-like environment - to help students better prepare and imagine themselves in college? 


  • Harmonize with the environment. Evolution comes about thanks to random genetic mutations that just so happen to work better within a particular context. But that last bit - that’s an insight. What are the unique characteristics and needs of each student - and how can we help to better match those unique needs to a postsecondary institution that’s right for them? How might we track students in a more nuanced way so that we can more effectively match them with postsecondary institutions that best fit their unique needs?  


  • Er, transitions are imperfect. It turns out, if you look at some of these transitional organisms closely, a lot of them were sort of stuck in a long (i.e. several millennia) awkward phase. So it goes with transitions. They’re kind of awkward, clunky, and difficult anyhow. So - let’s get more honest about the narrative of transitioning into college. Most students don’t graduate in four years. But that’s the dream that’s often sold to them. How might we become more honest about the realities of going to college with students so they're more prepared and ready for what it's actually like? 
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Photo of George Schneider

I really like this idea Emma. When working with my students on their transition from one chapter to the next I used a similar example; The transition of a snake shedding its skin. This is a useful metaphor because the snake actually goes blind for a little while and becomes irritable because of its vulnerability. Its previous skin because to small for it to allow for future growth or movement. The transition can be painful for the animal and it often requires a 'partner' to undergo a successful transition. I got the students to map their transition themselves based on the snakes anatomy. I didn't cover the three lessons you listed there, I really enjoyed reading them because they add a different perspective. Thank you

Photo of Danny Scuderi

Emma, I like anything that bridges fossils and education. This idea reminds me of vestigiality--what part of the higher education process is unnecessary but is still around? What can we do away with in those brochures or campus tours? What elements of high school education do a disservice when students graduate?

Photo of Mark Carlucci

@Emma Scripps I really like your first idea about testing stuff out first. It seems all too often I run into former students that, after a year of post secondary education, are disappointed in the pathway they selected. 

Many of them looked at the school website or course catalog and where impressed with the pictures and course description. Those that went to campus tours were often shown all the fun things the school had to offer.

For the most part, they missed hearing about the course load, and time they had to put in to keep up.

I've talked to plenty of students that have been very happy with their choices, but that group that has found disappointment in their choices worries me. They really need the opportunity to experience what post-secondary is going to be like before venturing into what may be a frustrating and overwhelming experience.

My board runs a program, similar to many others in Ontario, where Construction students can participate in a full-day program that is very similar to a construction apprenticeship. While obtaining high school credits, students spend a bulk of their time actually building a houses in partnership with a local contractor. They to experience firsthand what it is like to pour foundations, frame, roof and drywall, along with many other aspects of home building. After a semester these students have a very clear idea as to whether the field is the right one to purse.

What if we could develop similar programs for all students to access that give them the opportunity to experience various pathways before committing to one. Perhaps blocks of the school year set out for students to have these experiences and not worry about their class and homework. Could they experience a full-time post-secondary experience in a small dose? Or connect with people involved in that pathway and learn what exactly is expected as they move forward?

Photo of Emma Scripps

Mark Carlucci awesome idea! Hang on to that for Discover. And glad you liked my zany post on learning from fossils. And in the mean time - try out one of our empathy exercises!!! 

Photo of Chris Good

I agree with Mark. I just learned of an innovative school here in the bay area  - one that is innovative by necessity not choice, & and touches some of the most challenged students. Remarkably their approach has led to an amazing college success rate (High 90%'s) - and mostly it is due to "Trying things out". Their students enter the real world for extended periods of each week. Their transitions are plenty imperfect - but they are gradual  - not sudden - and reinforced for success along the way. Stay tuned for more from this school soon!!!!!!!

Photo of Emma Scripps

Chris Good Interesting! Seems like they could be good inspiration.