Fifth Grade Fossil Finders at the Gatún


If not for the blasting AC I would have been able to hear the crunching of fossils beneath the tires of our Smithsonian-issued Toyota pickup. We were arriving at he Gatún formation, one of the richest fossil sites in the world. It is easy to see why – they are literally everywhere. It’s hard to pick up anything that is not a fossil.

We had spent the previous evening frenetically developing a lesson for a group of 25 fifth graders that would be meeting us there. I say frenetically because a) the site was familiar to only one of us, b) we are 2 middle school teachers and 4 high school teachers (no elementary), and c) we were introduced to this task at 8:30 the night before. (Read more about this planning session HERE) It turned out to be one of the finest examples of collaboration I have ever been a part of. Jill stepped up with an idea and the rest of us jumped on it, letting go, perhaps, of some of our own ideas in order to further this one. As a result, the group remained engaged and focused on the task at hand, each of us drawing on previous experience and expertise as we made suggestions and revisions. Jill was gracious as she watched her original idea transform into one that we all owned. Stepping up and letting go, it occurred to me, are essential ingredients in successful collaboration.

Mike Lynch, Harbor High biology teacher, helps students identify their findings.

I was nervous as the bus arrived – the lesson seemed great to us, but how would Panamanian fifth graders respond? After a brief overview and introductions we formed groups and got started with the first activity, the scavenger hunt. Students were set free to find as many different kinds of fossils they could, using an identification guide to help identify their findings. They recorded their successes on the field guide with tally marks.

Jill (foreground with hat) and Catalina.

Catalina Pimiento, a PhD student at the University of Florida and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is finding and analyzing hundreds of shark’s teeth from this location as she investigates the extinct, school bus-sized Carcharodon megalodon. She guided the whole group through a demonstration of geologic time, using a ten meter line of rope to represent ten million years – the age of the Gatún formation. Each millimeter was 100 years, the age of a very old grandparent, and it would take a hundred-thousand very old grandparents to match the age of the fossils they were standing on.

Next was Jill’s One-Meter Hike. Jobs were delegated to each student (counters, identifiers, and recorder), and groups wandered off to select a site to lay down – north to south – a one-meter piece of rope that was marked in increments of 10cm. The task was to count and identify the fossils within the transect that lie along each 10cm marking. Heads were down, hands were busy with compasses and field guides, and science was happening.


Before most groups could finish the second part of their One Meter Hike (the east/west transect of the same spot), the rain came and everyone headed for the bus. You never know when it’s going to come, but it seems to have come at just the right time. It was hot, nearing lunchtime, and the students had been focused on fossils non-stop for two hours – we were destined for at least a few melt-downs. We gathered the whole group for a photo, and were impressed and I think a little proud of ourselves when a small girl with confidence and a big voice thanked us for the experience and the opportunity.

Then they loaded onto the bus again, and drove back over the fossils.DSCF0319


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