The Great Fossil Find - Working as a Paleontologist

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SWBAT use the scientific problem solving process to explore how paleontologists solve problems and answer questions about the natural world.

Big Idea

What we know and understand about the past can change as we discover new information.

The Need For The Lesson

Working as a scientist is a golden opportunity for middle school students. Students demand the relevance of what they are learning. How does this apply to me? Is this about the real world? 

This lesson provides a great simulation of the work done by paleontologist. Playing the role of paleontologists, students will be guided through a "dig" where they systematically uncover bones and try to determine what organism they have found. Even with the provided resource guide, the results are inconclusive and students will guess a variety of organisms. This experience mirrors the real world for students. The students are given the opportunity to grapple with the uncertainty of science. They will work together to generate multiple hypothesis as the number of fossils found increases.

Investigation Preparation & Summary

10 minutes

Investigation Summary & Standards

Students will work as a scientific team to uncover the identity of an organism as they progress through a "dig site". (SP2 Developing and Using Models and SP3 Planning and Carrying Out Investigations) Using the resource guide they may find the organism to be similar but not exactly the same as previously identified 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.)

Students are working as scientists, specifically paleontologists. Throughout the simulated dig students will experience the nature of science as increasing the number of fossils founds requires them to reevaluate their hypothesis about the identification of the organism found. (SP4 Analyzing and Interpreting Data) and (SP7 Engaging in Argument from Evidence(MS-LS4-2 Apply scientific ideas to construct an explanation for the anatomical similarities among organisms and between modern and fossil organisms, to infer evolutionary relationships.)

Fossils can tell us stories about the prehistoric past. Students may speculate that the organism found is a single organism. Students may be prompted to consider what they know about fossils from the lesson Getting into the Fossil Record. What situation may also be represented by the fossils found? (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.)

Students in Action

45 minutes

We begin this lesson by examining some museum photos of dinosaur fossil displays found on the internet via the projector. As a class we discuss several questions. Where do scientist find these fossils? Are the fossils typically found as a complete set? Why or why not? What happens when scientists do not find a complete set of bones? How are the fossil remains identified? These questions review what students learned about the fossil record in the lesson Getting into the Fossil record and helps me understand what misconceptions or misunderstandings might still be present as we move forward.

Students are told they will be working as paleontologists today with their elbow partner, the person sitting next to them at the lab table. Each team receives an envelop of fossils either the Fossil Sheet or Fossil Sheet Alternate. The fossils have already been cut into individual sections.

The fossil pieces are copied onto card stock paper in shades of white, gray and light browns. 

Student teams will also receive a Narrative and Worksheet. I use this Modified Student Narrative  and Modified Student Worksheet to remove the teacher instructions so I can handout a copy to each team. This allows teams to progress through the fossil find at their own pace rather than conduct the dig as a whole class activity. I have more time to work with struggling student teams when many teams can work through the fossil find independently. I have also retyped the student worksheet for my classes. The student worksheet prompts students to log their daily findings at the dig site and reflect about their discovery and the dig itself.

Additionally when the students complete Day 5 of the dig they are given a Resource Manual to assist them in the identification of the collected fossils. I keep the Resource Manuals in a central location and when students show me that they have completed all the digs, I direct them to the them.

As students progress through the dig, I circulate around the room and listen to the discussions. I am impressed with the thoughtfulness they exhibit as they carefully examine the fossils. It is interesting to listen to some of the proposed identification of the organism!

In this video I show what it looks like as students randomly select bones from their "fossil" dig. Every student experience is unique leading to a variety of speculation as to what it is they have found.

Sample Student Selections on "Day 1" of Their Dig

Connecting the Learning

5 minutes

Students seem to struggle with the following questions so we have a whole class discussion to answer or check our answers. In reality, students do know the answers to the questions but have trouble articulating their thoughts.

If this “Fossil Find” scenario is typical of the work of scientists, what features of the nature of science does it demonstrate?

Students express frustration that they were unable to determine the exact match for their fossils. This is great as it shows students that scientists often deal with uncertainty and continue to research, apply new information and develop hypothesis. The science process is iterative. How does science work? Like engineering it is most often not a one and done process. You as a scientist will make observations, form a hypothesis, communicate with others to share your ideas, and revise your ideas as you receive feedback from others.

Below, or on the back of this sheet, list what you see as the 3 goals of the experience.

I help students answer this question by leading a Plus/Delta discussion. First the Plus. What did you like about the Fossil Find? Generally their answers include, working with a team, feeling like a real paleontologist/scientist and working at our own pace. Then the Delta. What about Fossil Find would you change? Students want to know the "right" answer and have access to all the bones. The creator of this activity does not provide an answer either. We are left with the uncertainty of exactly what we have found.