When questioned about fossils, the first thing students share is about dinosaurs. In museums, news stories and films we see many representations of dinosaur bones. Young children often develop a fascination with dinosaurs and can even expertly identify each of these prehistoric creatures by name. But dinosaur bones are not the only fossils we consider when exploring the prehistoric past of out planet.
That there is a fossil record that includes shells, plants, and many other living creatures is not the only potentially new learning. Often students harbor the belief that humans are responsible for extinction. Exploring the fossil record will expose students to organisms, including dinosaurs, that lived and became extinct before humans.
Investigation Summary & Standards
Students build a foundational understanding about the creation of the fossil record. They will understand which organisms are likely to become fossils. (MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.) The crosscutting concept of patterns is well supported with the exploration of the fossil record.
Fossils tell us more than what organisms lived on the planet but where they lived and students can use this evidence to further support their findings about plate movement is a previous lesson - Pangaea - Wegener's Puzzling Evidence. (MS-ESS2-3 Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and sea floor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.)
The students will be asked to draw conclusions using a map and legend.
Students will be prompted through the website using a series of questions to insure they dig deeply into the content and are not simply clicking through the pages. (WHST.6-8.10 Writing routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.)
Students in Action
In this lesson, the students have the independence of researching questions using an interactive website format.
Prior to beginning their research, students are given a list of vocabulary suggested by the website - Benthic, Biological/Biotic Factors, Body Fossil, Cast, Compression, Coprolite, Decomposer, Erosion, Fossil, Fossil Record, Groundwater, Ichnology, Igneous Rock, Inorganic, Impression, Intertidal, Metamorphic Rock, Mineralization, Mold, Paleontology, Paleontologist, Plate Tectonics, Rock Cycle, Scavenger, Sedimentary Rock, Trace Fossil and Uplift. Students add the vocabulary list to their science journals. Research supports the act of hand-writing as a tool to help students remember the words and definitions longer.
The student section of the website (Getting into the Fossil Record) provides a link to the vocabulary words and definitions. I ask students to use this link rather than Google the definitions. We want to be certain that we are using the most appropriate definition for the unit we are studying. I use the examples of wind/wind or sink/sink as a reminder that words can have surprisingly different definitions depending on the context in which they are used.
Students are guided through the website (Getting into the Fossil Record) in search of answers to questions suggested on the teacher section of the website. The answer key is there as well. I have copied and adapted the questions in a document, Getting into the Fossil Record Focus Questions, I give to students electronically.
Additionally, I create my own Getting into the Fossil Record Focus Questions key with screen prints where the answers are found. I use this 'cheat sheet' so I am able to assist students quickly when they are certain that the answer is not on the website and try to convince me that they need to use Google to search for the answers. Also, the Special Education teachers and English Language Learner teachers appreciate the quick reference sheet because they typically do not have the time to search the website to help students with content area questions.
In this video I share some how the website helps support the NGSS Cross-cutting concepts of patterns. You will also see some of the strategies used by the site to engage students.
Supporting NGSS Crosscutting Concepts - Patterns, Student Engagement
I share a few instructions with students to help them navigate the website.
First, the website will not allow students to advance until they have seen all the information connected to the current page. This feature creates the expectation that students will need to read and evaluate all information provided in order to fully understand the content and answer the questions.
The next button does not appear until the student has viewed all parts of the page.
Second, the website will not simply have a line item to copy. For example:
4. Why are the mouse and the jellyfish being compared?
Students need to use the information provided in the text to infer why the mouse and jellyfish are being compared.
And finally, there are questions throughout the website to check for understanding. These questions must be answered correctly before the website will allow students to move forward.
My suggestion to students is, to read through the list of scavenger hunt questions once to have a general idea about the type of information they are looking for on the website. then go back and read the first two questions to keep fresh in your mind what information you will need. After you answer a question, read the next two questions to prime your mind for what to look for next.
What happens in Connecting the Learning depends upon how the students answered the questions. Students have submitted their answers electronically via the classroom Moodle course. This allows me not to have to take home stacks of papers and I can quickly peruse their answers to look for any misconceptions or misunderstandings and address them before we progress too much further.
This website - Getting into the Fossil Record has proven to be at the appropriate learning level for my students. It is not so easy that students already know the answers but also not so hard as to frustrate them in finding the answers.
What we need to address.
If the questions asks for two examples, then why do some of the answers contain only one?
The instructions state - Bonus question is NOT optional, why was this question not answered?
These problems are general housekeeping questions and not content specific. The purpose of this discourse with students in to set expectations for the quality of their work.
As a class we review the questions and expected answers to be sure students have an understanding of the terms used. For instance in the second student sample answer paper, the term mineralization is used but not in a way that lets me know if the student can explain the process. Also this student does not explicitly explain the representations of colors and letters found on the map. As scientists, it is important that our answers are complete.