Paleontologists for a Day

Tuesday 2:50pm-3:10pm
Teaching Demo Part of Tuesday


Mattie Horne, Western Washington University
Robyn Mieko Dahl, Western Washington University


I will be demonstrating a portion of the middle school version of the activity at the Rendezvous. As this activity is meant to take up an entire class period (45-60 minutes) when implemented in a classroom setting, I am choosing to demonstrate the parts of the activity in which students are intended to think about "big ideas" through open-ended questions and interact with 3D modeled fossils, make observations, and come up with hypotheses or potential explanations for those observations. For a 20-minute demonstration, I'll spend ~2 minutes explaining the context for the activity, then give participants ~3 minutes to talk through the "initial thoughts" questions, and then move on to the bulk of the activity. I'll ask participants to spend ~3 minutes with each model jawbone (4 different stations for 4 different fossils) making observations and hypotheses about the animal's diet, and will then end with ~3 minutes to discuss the last "big idea" question.


This activity uses hands-on interaction with 3D-modeled fossils to guide students and educators through an exploration of critical geoscience concepts (deep time, paleoclimate, functional morphology, and extinction). I have adapted three different versions of the activity to address a varying range of competency levels – from middle school through college – but each targets similar outcomes at grade-appropriate levels, including:

- gaining confidence in tackling big-picture questions about the importance and relevance of paleontology and geology,

- identifying potential stumbling blocks when defining a new species based on fossil remains,

- using critical thinking to discuss new ideas and concepts with peers,

- collecting, plotting, and analyzing numerical data relating to the dental morphology of the fossils, and

- proposing hypotheses based on the trends they recognize in quantitative data as well as qualitative observations.

The middle and high school versions of the activity also address age-appropriate Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts from the NGSS guidelines for both Life Science as well as Earth and Space Science.


I created, and am currently evaluating, three different grade-level versions of this activity for my master's thesis in geology. At the time of the conference, I will have tested the highest level of the activity in undergraduate Geology 101 (introductory-level) lab sections, and I will be testing the other two levels in high school biology or environmental science classes and middle school Earth science or general science classes in the 2024-2025 academic year. I plan to present the middle school adaptation of this activity at the Earth Educators Rendezvous this year, as it is the best fit for the time limit of Teaching Demos (see "What will be demonstrated at the Rendezvous?," below). This activity is designed to appeal to all types of students, especially those who self-identify as anxious or unwilling STEM learners, by centering exploration and celebrating the act of questioning.

Why It Works

This activity is particularly worthwhile because of its emphasis on exploration, experiential learning, and open-ended questions. I designed the activity using a combination of hands-on learning with 3D modeled fossils and inquiry-based learning to ensure that it would appeal to a broad variety of learners. The intent of this specific combination is to recreate the atmosphere of geoscience fieldwork in the classroom: when utilizing the activity, educators will be able to cultivate an environment that naturally encourages their class to explore. Students will move their bodies, work in teams, discuss new ideas in response to open-ended questions, and use the worksheet as a field journal to sketch samples, take measurements, and document their methods and observations. This activity is also innovative because of its built-in educator support, including:

- an educator's guide that contains facts about each fossil, explains key concepts and topics, and outlines learning goals (and, if applicable, NGSS guidelines) for the students,

- a set of slides that educators can use to introduce their students to the activity and provide paleontologic and geologic context for the concepts being learned, and

- a sliding-scale grading rubric that can also be used as a self-assessment.

This ensures both 'plug-and-play' functionality as well as adaptability, providing incentive for educators to integrate the activity into existing frameworks (e.g. a biology course at a public school). The activity and all of the supplemental files and materials will be open-source and free to download, which will help eliminate financial, academic, and institutional barriers to geoscience education.