Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized Board Game - High School Edition

Rowan Martindale, The University of Texas at Austin
Enrique Reyes, Akins Early College High School, Austin Independent School District
With input from Estefania Salgado Jauregui, Kathy Ellins, and Anna Weiss, The University of Texas at Austin

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"Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized" can be used as an active learning tool in a class or lab to promote understanding of Earth processes (Geology), deep time, fossils, and the history of life on Earth (Paleontology). Through competitive gameplay and the associated learning module, students will:

  • Learn how physiology, chemical, physical, and environmental factors, as well as discovery biases can influence an organism's preservation and collection potential (Taphonomy).
  • Analyze and conceptualize the interaction of different Earth systems
  • Play a board game! Students can become innovative problem solvers through engagement, enjoyment, and collaboration.

All game material (Print-at-home version) and High School teaching materials are available in the Texas Data Repository. Click here!

The University version of this activity is availableat this SERC Link

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The board game has been modified for use in high school science classrooms and has been tested with 11th and 12th-grade students. The content of this game is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS); it can be adapted for several Earth Science classes, including Earth & Space Science, Aquatic Science, and Environmental Science. The game works well with class sizes of 26-40 students (a "player" is a pair of students).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Before gameplay, students should have a basic knowledge of the evidence of evolution, including fossils and geologic time. The game is most effective in a group of students who are excited about paleontology/fossils or board games.
This module was created with the intention of being plug-n-play. There are various learning "scaffolds" included in the module, including cheat sheets, a rulebook, a glossary, and formative assessment activities. The lesson accompanying the board game prepares students with the knowledge necessary to understand the content within the board game.

How the activity is situated in the course

This module is intended to be used as a stand-alone module, though it can fit into any unit that discusses deep time or Earth Systems processes. This module may take 2-4 classroom days to complete (2-3 class periods for 90-minute blocks or 3-4 class periods for 45-minute blocks).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Earth Sciences

High School (Earth Systems): HS-ESS2-2 Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)

Earth and Space Science Chapter 112.36 (High School): (c8) The student knows that fossils provide evidence for geological and biological evolution. Students are expected to:

  • (A) analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and alignment with scientific explanations in light of this fossil data.
  • (B) explain how sedimentation, fossilization, and speciation affect the degree of completeness of the fossil record.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

During gameplay, students will be challenged to use their critical thinking skills to win the game. The objective is to create the best fossil collection: a large, diverse collection of pristine fossil specimens. Through gameplay students will use their critical thinking skills in a cost-benefit analysis for each of their turns. As a points-based game, students are challenged to:

  • Analyze informal data (points left on the gameboard)
  • Predict future outcomes
  • Compare and observe models and strategies for fossil preservation
  • Interpret the feedbacks caused by Earth-system interactions

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity is competitive and so supports active student learning and engagement through competition. It is also great for team-building (collaborative learning) as students are encouraged to investigate gameplay content in groups as well as play together as a team. In assessments, students are expected to communicate their learning in various modalities, including writing and diagramming.

Description and Teaching Materials

A print-at-home version of the board game and High School module materials are available in the Texas Data Repository

Before implementing this module, please plan to prepare the game materials ahead of time. All game board materials listed below are located in the link above (both color versions and black and white versions, for printing on colored cardstock); it is recommended to have students help with the cutting and organizing. Once the game pieces are cut and bagged, you may group all materials in a small cardboard present box. Game pieces are labeled by their file name and include:

Teaching materials are labeled by their file name and include:

There are also several teacher-facing documents, including an EQuIP Rubric, a Day-by-day lesson plan, and a Teaching notes document. There are also other miscellaneous files in the Data Repository like a Box Label and Stickers.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The time required for set-up varies and we recommend preparing for this board game module 1-2 weeks before implementing. Once all materials are prepared, the module is recommended to be taught across 2-3 class periods (for 90-minute blocks) or 3-4 class periods (for 45-minute blocks). Please reference the teacher lesson plan and the teaching notes document that are provided in the Texas Data Repository (specific documents linked above).


The pre-game assessment activities will help students learn the rules (i.e., scaffolding learning and activity onboarding) and help students strategize for gameplay. Formative and Summative assessments have been created for this module to assess student learning. The assessments are intended to evaluate the conceptual learning and critical thinking of the student, as they will analyze and reflect on earth-systems interactions and the cause-and-effect patterns related to Taphonomy.

It is encouraged to evaluate the students formally or informally, as time permits. The assessments can be shortened or presented as whole-class in a Socratic seminar so that students complete the learning process and reflect on their board game learning.

References and Resources

High School-level game and teaching activities based on the University-level lab (https://serc.carleton.edu/teachearth/activities/231524.html) described in Martindale & Weiss, 2020, "Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized": A new board game designed to teach college undergraduate students about the process of fossilization.

The game was assessed as an active learning tool to teach fossilization and Earth systems thinking with rising 12th-grade learners in GeoFORCE Texas, a summertime outreach program of the Jackson School of Geosciences. The results are presented in Salgado Jaureguí et al., 2022, Learning outcomes of the educational board game "Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized," evaluated with high school learners in a summertime program

All game material (Print-at-home version) and High School teaching materials are available in the Texas Data Repository