"It's Alive!" Fossil Activity

Peg Yacobucci
Bowling Green State University
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Initial Publication Date: March 21, 2014 | Reviewed: June 24, 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.

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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

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