Capitalizing on Pre-Existing Student Engagement with Fossils: A Gateway to Generate Student Interest, Participation, and Learning

By Hunter, Jeffrey C.; Behrendt, M. E. et al. | Education, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Capitalizing on Pre-Existing Student Engagement with Fossils: A Gateway to Generate Student Interest, Participation, and Learning


Hunter, Jeffrey C., Behrendt, M. E., Breithaupt, B. H., Scotchmoor, J. G., Education


Children are drawn to fossils. Bakker (1986) lightheartedly identified "dinosauritus" as a childhood illness. Kids love to hold and play detective with fossils, as they try to interpret the fossil's secrets (Clary & Wandersee, 2008). Borgerding (2015) suggested that preschool students enjoyed exploring fossils and interpreting what they mean. Goldfisher et al. (2015) recognized that English language learners excelled when working with fossils. Fossils present a gateway to interest and meaningful learning with reluctant learners (Clary & Wandersee, 2008; Clary, Wandersee, & Carpinelli, 2008). "The history of science and the introduction of interesting fossils can pique the curiosity of students and transform them into interested learners (Clary, Wandersee, & Carpinelli, 2008, p. 262). While working with fossils, students learn that not all scientific investigations are experiments (Goldfisher et al., 2015). Fossils provide the medium in which students enthusiastically and directly engage in scientific exploration and thinking, enhancing their interest in future science curricula, and provide an avenue to develop scientific literacy (Gano & Kinzler, 2011).

Fossils provide a "gateway for learning and engagement about a diversity of topics and concepts" (Moran et al., 2015, p. 62). Teaching science requires thoughtful consideration of different ways to address biology, earth science, chemistry, physical science, and engineering standards. The National Research Council (2012) stated that students should have authentic experiences with natural phenomena to develop an understanding of how science is explored, while developing skills necessary in science related careers (Moran et ah, 2015). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) emphasize the importance of integrating conceptual knowledge, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices throughout the K-12 curriculum (National Research Council, 2011).

Through experience and casual conversation, the authors have noted the significant potential that fossils provide for meaningful learning, and that by providing actual, authentic specimens, students may experience how science is really done (Moran et ah, 2015). Fossils provide students an opportunity to develop an appreciation of scientific practices in a variety of contexts, while simultaneously constructing knowledge of the natural world. It is well documented that students learn science concepts more meaningfully when they first experience a natural-world phenomenon before constructing scientific explanations (Brown & Abell, 2007; Meyer & Crawford, 2011). However, finding a unique real-world phenomenon for every science concept can be challenging.

The purpose of this article is to describe how science teachers can use fossils as a natural-world phenomenon to support students' learning of multiple concepts and scientific practices throughout a K-12 science curriculum. Described are three activities. Each targets a discipline standard, scientific practice and crosscutting concept-(alignment between activities and standards can be found in Table 1). Although fossils are commonly used to teach earth science standards, this paper focuses on activities involving biology, chemistry, physical science, and engineering standards, with the intent to develop science teacher awareness of these connections, in which fossils can serve as a bridge for students to connect concepts and practices to natural phenomena

Activity #1: The Flexible Fossil Sea-bottom Slab

A fossil sea-bottom slab with shelled and or trace fossils provide a range of activities and explorations aligned with life science standards. Students may explore concepts such as classification or fossil formation, but the slabs can-also be used to create critical thinking activities regarding paleoecology.

Sea-bottom slabs can be collected from most marine fossil localities; local or national fossil club members are often happy to help educators acquire fossil material for educational purposes. …

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