Using fossils to teach NGSS Science Practices works well!

Notebook with data 2I just spent the second week of school using my trip to Panama and the marine fossils from Gatun to introduce students to the 8 Science & Engineering Practices. Each day students surprised me–sometimes with fabulous questions and creative problem-solving and other times with interesting naive conceptions. By the end of the week, I feel my 8th graders have started to understand what it means to “do science,” and I sense they might be getting hooked. Telling the story of my trip to Panama and then asking students, “What can we learn from these marine fossils?” is turning out to be a truly authentic way to engage them in real-world science.

After watching the slide show of my trip, students identified examples of when I and the other teachers/scientists were using the NGSS Practices. It was not hard for them to connect the practices to what they saw us doing in the slides! Then we continued all week to add examples and reflect on how we were using the practices while engaging with the fossils. And at each step students were writing and collecting data in their science notebooks. Here are some examples of how the students used the practices:

  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems–After looking at a bag of 6-8 similar fossil seashells, students listed their own questions they were curious about. Great examples: How old are the fossils? How did they turn into fossils? What are the shells made of? How fragile are they, and can we measure that? Why is this little hole in the shell?
  • Developing and Using Models--Students recognized that they “developed a model” when they made a drawing of their seashells, and that they “used a model” when they looked at the Fossil Guide pictures and maps of Panama.
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations–On day 4 I allowed students to choose either to collect data to confirm the identity of their fossil, or to learn something about the diversity of shells at San Judas. It turned out to be a great way to differentiate learning, with advanced students choosing the second and others who wanted more time and depth choosing the first. They chose the data to collect, how to measure it, and which tools to use. I observed them and learned a lot about their science thinking and skills. Not all succeeded in answering the question they investigated, but they did get a good sense of this practice.
  • Analyzing and interpreting data–The students collected a variety of data, including length, mass, identity, and sometimes, proportion of the mixture. We’ll be looking for patterns and discussing what the data tells us this coming week.
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking–Some students calculated an average mass or length of their shells, and compared the length to the numbers in the Fossil Guide. That led some to change their identification. Quite a few students had trouble understanding the age information and we had to draw a time line and discuss.
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions--Next week we will practice explaining how fossils form. In their groups last week, students often solved practical problems, such as how to measure the mass of all the fossils together and account for the mass of the bag holding them. That also required explaining and collaborating.
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence–This practice was easy for students to recognize. It’s what they did while the group discussed and debated which kind of fossil they had!
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information--All of use were clearly getting information from the Fossil Guide, which students seemed to really enjoy using. It was a very rich resource because of the pictures, size measurements, text with age information, and map. Best of all, they discovered that there were three ways to name the shells–in common English, common Spanish, and in the language of science. What a great opportunity to show the value of scientific names for international collaboration. And yet they could still connect to their culture! My students sometimes liked reading the Spanish parts of the Guide.

Being able to use beautiful seashells and to watch some inspiring video clips about scientists also made this week of a real joy to teach.  (See Shape of Life website.) With this kind of content, who wouldn’t get hooked on doing science?

Rob's Gatun2   Students with fossils





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