Stories from the Fossil Record

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SWBAT explain how fossils share information about the past.

Big Idea

Fossils are much more than fun collectibles. They are clues into the past!

The Need For This Lesson

Students have explored how fossils are formed, where fossils are found and the work of paleontologists, but fossils are more than just fun to look at in class. Fossils provide us with clues about the prehistoric past if we know what to look for, and how to read them, when we examine them. 

In this lesson students find out what stories of the past can be found using fossils as evidence. 

This is a powerful lesson for middle school students. They are examining fossils beyond the concrete identification to a more abstract analysis of the stories found within.

Investigation Preparation & Summary

10 minutes

Investigation Summary & Standards

Fossils are a tool for understanding the past. Students examine fossils to learn about prehistoric biodiversity, how the Earth has changed over time, what biotic and abiotic factors made up ecosystems of the past, predator, prey relationships and adaptations.  (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.) This lesson supports the crosscutting concept of patterns.

Students are working as scientists, specifically paleontologists. What does a paleontologist learn about the past by examining fossils? (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 the fossils found may also represent? (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

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 (Stories From the Fossil Record) - Abotic, Biodiversity, Biotic Factors, Climate, Index Fossils, Marine, Mass Extinction, Paleoecology, Terrestrial,and Uplift.  I provide the students with the list of words without the definitions to be added to their science journal using the Cornell Notes format. 

The website (Stories From 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 in search of answers to Stories From the Fossil Record Evidence Chart. In this lesson students are given a PDF version of the file electronically. They must copy the table into their science journal and fill it in as they find the answers. This lesson is where we will pull it all together. We have learned how fossils are formed (Getting into the Fossil Record) and what it is like to work as a paleontologist (The Great Fossil Find - Working as a Paleontologist) but why do we do it? We are scientists. The process of science includes making observations, forming hypothesis, communicating and sharing ideas as well as making revisions based on feedback from others. This lesson will be recorded in our science journals to summarize our understanding. We are not just learning to identify fossils but applying what we know to make sense of Earth's history.

This document is a powerful tool for students as it guides them through not only the identification of the fossils but what information or story does the fossil share with us. A key is provided by the website - (Stories From the Fossil Record). Additionally, I have created my own Stories From the Fossil Record Evidence Chart key with links showing 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.

Sometimes students struggle to find answers on a website and even though I previewed the website before sharing it with my students, I did not have the time to memorize where they will find the answers they are looking for on the site. In this video, I share how to use the Stories From the Fossil Record Evidence Chart key with links so I can quickly help students locate the page where they will find the answers.

How to Use the Evidence Chart with Links


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 complete the Evidence Chart.

Like the previous lesson, Getting into the Fossil Record, the next button does not appear until the student has viewed all parts of the page.

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 Evidence Chart section they are currently investigating a couple of times. 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.

Connecting the Learning

10 minutes

We engage in a discussion of our evidence chart. Students look over their notes to make generalizations about each category of Stories from the Fossil Record Evidence Chart.

What did we learn about biodiversity in this lesson? Students should explain how organisms are related and what they learned about extinctions.

What did we learn about geological time in this lesson? Students should explain how the location of fossils helps us understand the geological events of the past.

What did we learn about paleoecology in this lesson? Students should explain that fossils can tell us about abiotic and biotic factors of the past including how organisms interacted with others.

What did we learn about past lives in this lesson? Students should explain that fossils can provide evidence of behaviors of organisms.