Engage & Explore Science Practices Through Fossils

By Karen F. Schmidt – Rolling Hills Middle School

Driving Questions for Unit: How do scientists do their work? What skills, practices, and tools are important to them? What can be learned from fossils?

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Intended Audience

Middle School
8th Grade Integrated Science

Time Frame

6 days (mostly 55 min periods, about 5 hours 15 min. total)


NGSS Performance Expectations:
Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity
The collection of fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., through the location of the sedimentary layers in which they are found or through radioactive dating) is known as the fossil record. It documents the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of many life forms throughout the history of life on Earth. (MS-LS4-1)

Relevant Science & Engineering Practices:

  • Asking Questions & Defining Problems
  • Developing & Using Models (diagrams)
  • Planning & Carrying Out Investigations
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information

Relevant Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Patterns
  • Structure & Function
  • Scale, Proportion & Quantity

Relevant Common Core Standards:
Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

Math Practices:
5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
6. Attend to precision.

Resources & Materials

Photos of a full set of fossils from one locality (e.g. Gatun), slide show of research trip
Map of locality where fossils were found (e.g. Panama and the canal zone), as well as a map showing Panama’s location in the Americas
Fossils in bags containing 8-10 specimens of one type of fossil, 10 bags for 10 groups (good to have 5 types of fossils with two bags of each type); also some bags of mixed fossil types from San Judas.
Fossil Guide: A Guide to Common Fossils of the Gatun Formation
Fossil Poster: Fossils of the Gatun Formation
Student science notebooks
Video clips
You Tube: NASA Metric & Standard Measurement Systems
Shape of Life: http://shapeoflife.org/mollusc clips on paleontologists Peter Ward and Geerat Vermeji
PBS Learning Media: Fossils
Informative websites:
Measurement tools: rulers, calipers, triple beam balances
Guest speaker: (if possible) a local paleontologist

Guiding questions

  1. What can we learn from a set of marine fossils from a locality in Panama?
  2. What kinds of data about fossils could be useful and why?
  3. How do scientists collect and organize data?

Key Academic and/or Scientific Language

Paleontology, fossil, data, independent variable, dependent variable, metric units, precision, data table, pattern, structure, diagram, rock formation, gastropod, bivalve


What knowledge and skills will students acquire?
Students will be able to:

  • Use a science notebook for keeping data tables and drawing scientific illustrations
  • Select appropriate data to collect and appropriate tools for measuring
  • Create a data table for organizing data
  • Explain the difference between independent and dependent variables
  • Find patterns in data and hypothesize the meaning
  • Calculate an average and a percentage
  • Use measuring tools and metric units for length and mass
  • Use a field guide to identify a fossil organism
  • Ask questions that could be investigated using scientific methods
  • Design an investigation for further study
  • Collaborate with a group of peers


  • Science notebooks will be assessed for complete illustrations and data tables
  • In the subsequent EXPLAIN lessons, students will closely read and interpret scientific diagrams and a science article.
  • Students will take a unit quiz requiring application of skills and knowledge to a new situation (open notebook).
  • Students will repeatedly be asked to reflect on which Science Practices they are using, and list examples, throughout the unit.

Teaching phase

What sequence of teaching and learning experiences will equip students to develop and demonstrate the desired learning goals? Include agenda and time estimates.

Day 1–Engage
Unit Driving Questions: How do scientists do their work? What skills, practices and tools are important to them?

  • Pair-Share Warm-Up: What do you know about Panama? Whole class discusses and teacher shows map of Panama. What might scientists be interested in studying there? What is a paleontologist?
    Teacher Slide Show, “My Research Expedition to Panama”
    Pair-Share: What are some examples of how the scientists and teachers used Science & Engineering Practices on this trip? Students fill in examples in notebook (SEP list already there). Whole-class shares examples.
  • Teacher shows students a photo of complete set of fossils found in one locality (e.g. Gatun) and photo of field site in Panama. Real fossils are laid out on front table. Student groups are assigned and given a picture of fossil set, and then they brainstorm: What could be learned from these fossils? Students write ideas in notebooks.

Day 2—Engage & Explore
Focus Question: What can be learned from a set of marine fossils from Panama?

  • Warm-Up: What would you like to know about these fossils? How could you study them? (Students read notes from yesterday, look at projected photo of fossil set, add more ideas.) Whole class sharing of ideas.
  • Video clip: Shape of Life: Profile of Paleontologist Geerat Vermeji, discussion
  • Activity: Exploring Marine Fossils from Panama—Teacher gives instructions for groups, goals, resources available, gives a bag of one type of fossil per group. Start with drawing of fossil and identification.

 Day 3—Engage & Explore

  • Student Groups use the Gatun Fossil Guide, finish making a drawing, answer questions about where fossils came from, age of fossils, identity of fossil, what kind of creature lived/ made the shell.
  • Mini-lesson: Importance of location (maps, GPS), scientific names, time line for age, creatures that made the shells.
  • Discuss: Which Science Practices did you use today?
  • Notebook stamp

Day 4—Explore (Cont’d)
Focus Question: What is data? What kinds of data about fossils could be useful and why?

  • Mini-Lessons: how to use tools, metric units
  • Student groups decide what to measure and how, record data in notebooks
  • Whole-class discussion: Which Practices did you use?
  • Notebook check for collection of data (teacher stamp)

Day 5—Explore (Cont’d)
Focus Question: How do scientists plan and conduct investigations? What is a paleontologist?

  • Students watch video clip from Shape of Life on Peter Ward, Paleontologist, discuss how he planned and conducted an investigation.
  • Student groups choose question to investigate and collect more data on fossil shells. Choose to answer: 1) How can you use data to confirm the identity of your fossil? Or 2) How can you use data to investigate the diversity of fossils found at San Judas?
  • Students groups use tools to investigate and collect more data. Some mixed bags of fossils are available for the diversity question.

Day 6—Explore (Cont’d)
Focus Question: How do scientists analyze and interpret data? What did your data tell you about the fossils?

  • Students read aloud to partners the textbook pages on how to organize data into a data table. Whole class discusses example given.
  • Mini-Lessons: independent vs. dependent variable, how to calculate average and percent.
  • Whole class uses one group’s data to organize in a Data Table, interpret and reach conclusions about identity of fossil. If time, interpret data on percent of fossils types in San Judas mix.
  • Video Clip: Metric System of Measurement (You Tube NASA). Students discuss and answer in notebooks: Why do scientists use the metric system of measurement?

Reading | Writing | Speaking | Listening Strategies

  • Reading to obtain information in Fossil Guide and textbook
  • Writing questions and answers in Science Notebook
  • Speaking practice while working with peers in group investigations
  • Listening for information in video clips, including stories about two scientists and about the history of the metric system
  • Listening to a guest speaker and writing/speaking up with good questions

Learning Progression

Prior Knowledge needed for this lesson (Or to be revisited):

  • How to use a science notebook
  • Generally what are the 8 Science & Engineering Practices (already listed in notebook)
  • How to use a calculator
  • How to use tools such as rulers, calipers, and triple beam balances
  • Metric units, including millimeters/centimeters and milligrams/grams

Current Knowledge/Skill
Same as objectives listed above

  • How to use a field guide
  • How to organize data in a Data Table
  • How to ask questions and use data to answer them

Future Skill Connections

  • How to read and obtain information from a science article
  • How to closely read and interpret scientific diagrams
  • How to construct explanations to answer scientific questions, such as, “How do fossils form?” and “How do scientists know how old a fossil is?”

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