Digging Into Science

By Berkeley Gadbaw, 8th Grade Science Teacher

For many years, I’ve taught about change over time and the history of our Earth without much thought as to how paleontologists, museum curators, and paleoartists gather their information about the geologic past.

That changed last summer after participating in the University of Washington’s DIG Field School, a graduate fieldwork course designed for teachers and run by the university’s Burke Museum. In the hot ranchland of Hell Creek, Montana, sifting through dirt in search of micro fossilized fragments, I learned firsthand how challenging it is to literally unearth clues to the past. Inspired by my experience, I was determined to communicate to students what I learned about the actual work of paleontology: how there is no answer key in the outcroppings for the type of unconformities that might exist between the layers of rock, nor any guarantee of finding anything meaningful to further one’s research.

I wanted students to feel the excitement and frustration of trying to place artifacts in the history of Earth with no answer key. My teaching needed to include experiences that put students in a position to observe, wonder, compare, and communicate while not always having the answers. I couldn’t bring my students to the dig site, but I realized that I could do the next best thing: bring the evidence to them.

With help from the Burke Museum, I secured a range of skeletons, photos of embryological development, and fossils, and created stations within our middle school science classroom that students could move through and explore. We drew sketches, shaped bones from clay, and discussed patterns in the rock layers, anatomy, and development that might help determine common ancestors of the past. Students were curious, patient, and persistent in their work, often slowing down to focus for most of the class period on a single artifact. Their writing reflected the wonder and frustration of the process.

As a culminating project, students applied their learning from the classroom stations in one of two ways; they chose to design a museum exhibit highlighting one or two of the fossils, or they could redesign Go Extinct!, a science board game with the objective of collecting closely related clades of organisms. In each of these tasks, students were asked to make sure that the audience walked away with a deeper understanding of the evidence that is used to understand Earth’s past.

Scouring the desert last summer on my hands and knees in what felt like 121F-degree heat was a stretch for me. Fortunately, it also allowed me to rethink how I teach thirteen-year-olds how we understand the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s life when they can barely grasp the “ancient” age of their grandparents.