What is Fossil Finders?

Fossil Finders is a collaboration between The University of Georgia and the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York. The project has developed curriculum and resources and an interactive website for upper elementary and middle level students and their teachers. The project focuses on learning about evolutionary concepts, through an authentic inquiry-based investigation of Devonian-aged fossils.

The Fossil Finders project is comprised of two main components: the Investigation and the Curriculum Unit.

The Investigation:
The Fossil Finders Investigation is a unique opportunity for students to assist paleontologists in answering the scientific research question: How did the organisms in the shallow Devonian seas change in response to environmental changes?

Students involved in the project will identify and measure fossils in rock samples sent to their classrooms. Students enter their data into an online database, and compare their data with the data of other schools. Analyzing this data will provide students an opportunity to engage in authentic research. Children will learn about how to engage in authentic science practices and learn core disciplinary concepts in earth and life sciences, and crosscutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  The most exciting part for students is that they will help scientists at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) reconstruct the geologic past of central New York. Education researchers from The University of Georgia and scientists from PRI will provide teachers and students with resources and online support for fossil identification. The Fossil Finders project staff and scientists will help in answering questions via the project website and fielding digital photographs of samples difficult to identify. This collaborative effort involves students in learning about how science is done and about the nature of science in the process of learning science content-matter.

Background Lessons:
The Fossil Finders Curriculum Unit guides teachers in preparing students to engage in the Fossil Finders Investigation. Its goal is to engage school children in actual paleontological research, allowing them to gain a better understanding of nature of science and evolutionary concepts, as well as stimulate geological and biological science interest in students from populations underrepresented in the sciences, including supporting English language learners. Students in grades 5 and 6 focus on big ideas, like the geologic record and that organisms change through time. Students in grades 7, 8, and 9 additionally gain mathematical tools to organize data and think deeply about geology and how scientists work. The curriculum unit is currently in its pilot phases and will include instruction in geological concepts, environmental change, and nature of science. The curriculum unit is structured around learning standards targeted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for students at the 5th through 8th grade levels. These standards focus on providing students with the background for understandings concepts related to environmental change over time and nature of science. In the document Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science (NAS, 1998), specific National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) are selected to support student conceptual learning about nature of science and evolution at various grade levels. The target NAS standards for students at the 5th through 8th grade levels are drawn from the areas of Life Science, Earth and Space Sciences, and History and Nature of Science. These standards include: 1) Reproduction and heredity; 2) Diversity and adaptation of organisms; 3) Earth’s history; 4) Nature of science; and 5) History of Science. Learning about geological concepts, environmental change, and nature of science will occur concurrently with students’ involvement in the Fossil Finders scientific investigation. The Fossil Finders curriculum also encourages classroom fieldtrips to outcrop sites or local natural history museums to supplement the curriculum; however, virtual visits will be possible through the project website.

Supporting Underrepresented and English Language Learning Students:
English-language learning (ELL) students, Latinos, Native Americans, blacks, and other minority student groups continue to be underrepresented in high school science classrooms, science-related majors in universities, and science-related careers in the U.S.  The Fossil Finders Project aims to develop these students’ capacities to learn science at the middle-school level by actively engaging them in doing science, rather than learning about science.  By providing students with an authentic context for participating in the activities of science, the Fossil Finders project seeks to motivate students to learn.  In addition, the project aims to engage underrepresented and ELL students in science by encouraging teachers to adopt instructionally congruent practice in their classrooms.

Adaptations to instructionally congruent strategies for ELL students developed by Luykx and Lee (2007) extend instructional support to underrepresented students in science learning through the Fossil Finders curriculum. These adapted instructional strategies include:

  • Integrating cultural experiences and materials from everyday life into instruction
  • Inviting the use of native, home, and everyday language during instruction
  • Scaffolding instruction for English language development, vocabulary development, and building literacy skills
  • Sharing scientific authority through the use of inquiry and explicit instruction in the nature of science (NOS), or the framework guiding science and its assumptions.

Whereas classrooms engaged in the Fossil Finders project will differ from one another, teachers involved in the project will be encouraged to adopt and adapt instructional strategies along the lines of these principles.  Each lesson plan of the Fossil Finders curriculum includes suggestions for instructionally congruent practices that may be implemented in relation to the lesson plan.  Examples of these practices are further described below.

Integrating Cultural Experiences:
We encourage teachers to rely upon their students and surrounding communities to introduce cultural experiences and materials into their classrooms.  We believe that integrating the rich funds of knowledge of students’ families and backgrounds will help validate their prior understandings.  This in turn, will assist students in building bridges between cultural understandings and science.  For example, a teacher might ask students to collaboratively respond to a journal question with members of their families or communities: What can tell us about the natural history of a place?  Students and their families may be able to integrate cultural knowledge into the classroom in this way.

Use of Native, Home, and Everyday Language in the Classroom:
Research studies show that students can be supported in learning both English and science when given opportunities of using their native or home languages in the classroom. Inviting the use of native and everyday language in classrooms is not the same as providing bilingual instruction. Rather, the use of native language in classrooms in this case supports students in content area learning in English. By using native and everyday language in the classroom, students are able to apply their already existing language skills toward science learning. An example of this would include students conversing in their native language while engaging in inquiry-based instruction.

Scaffolding Instruction for English Language Development:
In order to provide students with support in literacy and vocabulary development, several literacy strategies are employed in this science curriculum.  These activities are attached at the end of each lesson and include graphic organizers, K-W-L charts, and other literacy-building strategies.   However, they are just a start.  Many other instructional strategies may be integrated into science teaching and learning to support students with language development.  We will provide a list of resources toward employing these strategies for educators.

Sharing Scientific Authority:
The Fossil Finders curriculum engages students in an authentic scientific investigation.  The Fossil Finders curricular approach entails a shift from traditional teacher-centered instruction to a student-centered approach.  In this shift, teachers become learning facilitators rather than the primary source of knowledge.  In this way students and teachers can share scientists’ authority.   For example, rather that providing students with answers, teachers engage students with further questioning.  Part of sharing scientific authority also includes making nature of science (NOS) explicit during instruction.  By bringing the assumptions of science to the forefront through explicit instruction in NOS, students may better understand that scientific knowledge is tentative, socially constructed, and involves human inference.  Through better presenting the framework and process of scientific knowledge production, it is our hope that students will also see themselves as contributors.

Taughannock FallsMuseum of the Earth, Ithaca, NY

More on the Fossil Finders Project:
The Fossil Finders Project is unique in that it provides support for teachers and students through an interactive website. In the future teachers will be able to access videos of Fossil Finders Professional Development seminars, a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) and responses from scientists and teachers, step-by-step PowerPoint presentations that can be shared with students about how to identify and measure fossils, and a threaded discussion board for teacher-to-teacher tips, suggestions, and questions. Teachers are encouraged to contact the PRI scientists involved in creating the Fossil Finders Project through email.

Students will input data directly to our database, on the Fossil Finders website, participate in the “Ask a Paleontologist”, a future monitored and threaded discussion board between other classrooms, and a section devoted to Devonian fossils and links for students to continue their research.

Tangible outcomes of the Fossil Finders project, like the interactive website and an image database of Devonian fossils, aims to help teachers throughout the country incorporate learning about evolutionary concepts and geologic timescale in their classrooms. The project has been piloted for 3 years by selected science teachers throughout the US, who continue to give feedback and help grant investigators make revisions to the curriculum and website content. Eventually, this project will invite additional participation from teachers across the US through its interactive website.

Fossil Finders recruited its first cohort of teachers for the August 2008 professional development summer institute in Ithaca, New York. This cohort of teachers also attended a summer institute in August 2009, for a two-year experience. We recruited an additional 20 teachers from across the United States in the August 2009. This second cohort attended their first summer institute in 2009, and their second one in 2010. The professional development program prepares teachers to implement the Fossil Finders Investigation and Curriculum Unit in their classrooms by providing instruction in NOS, evolutionary concepts, inquiry, and conducting paleontological research. Many of our project teachers continue to involve their students in the Fossil Finders investigation during the school year.

During the professional development teachers visit several outcrop sites in upstate New York, find fossils, and learn to identify and measure them.

One teacher said, “The fieldwork helped to connect the information and make it more concrete.” Another teacher said, “ I would have never thought that learning about fossils could be so much fun.”

Another teacher wrote, “The Fossil Finders Program and professional development I received was extremely rewarding for both my students and me. With my students I saw increased engagement in learning and thinking.”

Taughannock FallsFossil Finder’s teachers exploring a rock outcrop in central NY

The Cornell Education staff developed the draft curriculum, in collaboration with the PRI.

When teachers implement the Fossil Finders curriculum in their classrooms, students learn how to will measure fossils in rocks collected by their teachers over the summer, enter their class’ data into an online database, compare their data with the data of other schools, and help scientists reconstruct the geologic past of central New York.

Cornell education doctoral students, Daniel Capps, Xenia Meyer, and Maya Patel have worked with teachers and student, and they have observed the curriculum implementation in classrooms at various times during the school year. PRI paleontologists Robert Ross and Trisha Smrecak have interacted with children in classrooms via Skype or if possible, with a classroom visit. We use a collaborative model and learn from project teachers about what is feasible and useful in helping children understand how to use data as evidence and develop explanations and help answer the authentic scientific question, “How did the organisms in the shallow Devonian seas change in response to environmental changes?” The newly developed Fossil Finders interactive website will provide the space for classrooms to share their analyses, results, and conclusions. In the future we anticipate providing virtual experiences through the use of video and images.