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An Interactive Game Approach to Learning in Historical Geology and Paleontology

Robert L. Reuss and Anne F. Gardulski (Tufts University)
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: November 4, 2004 | Reviewed: March 2, 2023


The authors use a series of games to help students identify and answer questions about fossils. The game grows more complex over time as the instructors add rules and phyla to identify. The game begins as a simple "spelling bee" type competition to identify fossil arthropods. Each week, a new phylum and more kinds of questions are added, along with game pieces like dice, trilobucks, and a board that represents geologic time.

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Learning Goals

One trilobuck a prop used in the game This game is intended to:
  • Make memorization and assessment tasks fun
  • Encourage interaction among students
  • Through weekly practice, and gradual addition of new fossils into the game, enable students to expand their knowledge, rather than forgetting what they had learned last week to make room for the new taxa of the following week.

Context for Use

This game is a part of the laboratory session for a paleontology class.

Teaching Materials

The game "evolves" over time. New rules and are added each lab, as are new phyla. This keeps the complexity of the game from overwheming the students until they are already familiar with many of the rules and allows them to focus on learning their taxa (essential to winning!). Also suggestions from students were considered, which made students contributors to the game as well as players.


  1. The first iteration of the game is a "fossil bee", an identification contest.
    • Divide the students into two teams
    • Break out a collection of fossils for them to identify
    • Choose a randomly-chosen student to identify the first fossil.
  2. The next time, the students who answer correctly get to draw a Bonus Card, with a question about a particular fossil whose image is on the card. Questions include:
    • Naming a labelled part of a fossil
    • Identifying the time range of the taxon depicted
  3. Instead of having the instructor note wrong answers, allow the opponent to challenge a suspect answer and get the points if they can make a correct identification.
  4. Instead of selecting a fossil to be identified based on its position on the table, roll a die to determine which one is used.
  5. Eventually, break the class into teams of two and have them compete individually against the other member of the pair. Have each student keep score for their competitor.
  6. The instructors eventually add a game board based on the geologic timescale, and arrange the fossils in chronological order.
  7. After a student identifies a fossil, under the tray are clues to help them solve "puns and riddles" questions about specific geologic time units.
  8. The score can be tracked with "trilobucks". These can be spent to help students get around the board, now made increasingly difficult by "mass extinctions" at the end of each era.
  9. The addition of "orogeny" and "eustasy" pieces to the game board gives the students a chance to win more trilobucks by identifying orogeny events or sea level curves for a given time unit that they have reached on the board.
  10. The final rule added to the game: students must pay their opponents when they make incorrect answers.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This series of games would be very easy to modify. The rules can be cannibilized to create a new game, and the subject matter could include anything that had to be memorized: minerals, thin sections, microfossils, etc. The authors stress that since their students played the game every week, it worked well to reinforce memorization of fossilized taxa.


The game is intended to replace lab quizzes, with competition replacing grades as the motivating factor. The scores (eventually trilobuck totals) approximate what the students would get on those quizzes.

References and Resources

The game is described in Reuss and Gardulski, 2001 .