Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > "It's Alive!" Fossil Activity

"It's Alive!" Fossil Activity

Peg Yacobucci
Bowling Green State University
Author Profile

  1. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

  2. This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Mar 21, 2014


This activity is the first lab exercise students do. Each student selects a fossil, describes and sketches it, and then must write out a "proof" that this object represents a once-living animal, rather than a mere rock or mineral formation. In addition to getting students comfortable handling fossils and encouraging them to observe closely, the activity leads students towards an understanding of uniformitarianism.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Upper-level undergraduate course in paleontology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is part of the first lab exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The types of features typically preserved on a fossil; the idea that "the present is the key to the past" – that comparing fossils to living organisms is a powerful approach for understanding fossils; the historical origins of modern paleontology

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Creative problem solving

Other skills goals for this activity

Touching and picking up a fossil specimen; observing fossil specimens closely; expressing these observations in both words and pictures; role playing

Description of the activity/assignment

The first lab activity for the course is called "Paleontology—Past, Present, and Future". In addition to discussing several documents related to present and future research directions in the field, students review a brief timeline of the historical development of paleontology as a science. Then they get their first opportunity to work directly with fossils.
Students are presented with a set of fossil specimens in boxes (with no identifying labels). Each student selects one fossil of their own. They are asked to make and record very close, detailed observations of the specimen, and to sketch the fossil. Then they are told to "think like it's 1600." Someone has brought this object, taken out of the local rocks, for the student to investigate. The student must write a "proof" that this fossil was obviously once alive, and is not just an interesting mineral or rock formation. They can use their observations, compare the specimen to other objects with which they're familiar, resort to pure logic, or apply any other avenue of argumentation they think will help make their case.

In the next lab, on fossil preservation and taphonomy, the students revisit their fossil specimen, and determine its mode of preservation. Indeed, the student's "pet fossil" could be used throughout the course to illustrate various components of the course content.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The exercise is evaluated on three components:
- Depth and level of detail in the student's description of the specimen
- Care taken in making the sketch (although artistic ability is downplayed, attention to detail is important)
- Thought shown in, and creativity of, the student's proof

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

New TTE Logo Small

Paleontology resources from across Teach the Earth »

Key Resources:

Join the Community:

or Search