Digging Fossils: Dinosaurs & Paleontology in the Classroom
It’s the rare child (or adult) who isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs. The ancient creatures capture the popular imagination in a way quite unlike anything else. Through the study of dinosaurs, students learn about what life on Earth was like long ago, and the many changes that have occurred in geography, geology, and climate since then.
Dinosaur fossils have likely been found for thousands of years. In one Chinese text written around 300 AD, the author describes “dragon bones” being excavated from Sichuan Province. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, however, that dinosaur fossils were finally recognized as something entirely different – a species of creature previously unknown to exist, and now extinct. Named Dinosauria (“terrible lizards”), the creatures became an instant sensation in the popular imagination, where they’ve been firmly entrenched ever since.
There are plenty of reasons to study dinosaurs and paleontology at all grade levels. Students can learn about why certain dinosaurs only lived in certain time periods, ponder how they lived and what caused their collective demise, and discuss how our theories of dinosaurs have changed over time. Older students can study the history of mass extinctions, and explore the role of genetics and physical mutations in producing new species of dinosaurs. Despite having been intensely studied for nearly 200 years, much of what scientists know about dinosaurs is still guesswork. Within the last 20 years, scientific thought about dinosaurs has greatly changed: instead of lumbering, tail-dragging, cold-blooded behemoths, conventional thought now depicts most dinosaurs as quick, warm and cold-blooded athletic animals that may have been covered in feathers. Recently, many researchers have concluded that dinosaurs were also likely to have been much lighter, and often smaller, than previously believed. Adult brachiosaurs, for example, are now thought to have weighed about 25 tons, rather than the 35-88 tons that had been commonly accepted. This new information helps artists, model makers, and filmmakers in producing more accurate dinosaur renderings, as well as paleontologists who study how dinosaurs lived and functioned.
This week I’ve selected three resources on dinosaurs and paleontology that go beyond the simple study of the creatures themselves. Throughout the week, we’ll also be featuring many more resources and materials on our Gateway Twitter and Facebook pages for keeping kids on track with their summer reading, so please be sure to check those pages often. Also be sure to check my colleague Peggy’s column (linked below) to read her suggestions for lessons.
Those Fussy Dinosaurs!
Subjects: Paleontology, Geography
This lesson introduces students to the idea that animals prefer certain types of habitats over others and, in fact, cannot live in places that are too different from what they prefer. In this case students will focus on dinosaurs. They will learn about the types of habitats and climates that scientists believe dinosaurs tended to prefer, and will conclude by drawing background scenes to use in a toy dinosaur's "home." I like how this lesson presents scientific concepts in easily digestible bits for young children, such as using the concept of “neighborhoods” when discussing suitable habitats for various types of dinosaurs. This lesson was produced by National Geographic Xpeditions, which offers interactive adventures, tools, and ideas relating to geography and the world around us.
The Science of Digging Up Dinosaurs
Subjects: Paleontology, Geography
Students need to know not only about scientific facts and discoveries but also about the processes by which scientists conduct their investigations. This lesson has students trace the steps of a paleontologist from determining where to look for dinosaur fossils to studying the completed dinosaur skeleton for clues about the dinosaur's behavior, diet, and anatomy. I love how this lesson goes behind the scenes to focus on the people who actually excavate and study dinosaurs for a living, and highlights the process of deciding where to excavate, how excavations are conducted, and what happens once fossils are found. This lesson is a product of National Geographic Xpeditions, which offers lots of lesson plans and other materials relating to geography and the world around us.
Dinosaur Evolution Project
Subjects: Paleontology, Genetics, Biological and Life Science
In this project, students explain natural selection by pretending to evolve two dinosaurs using genetics and predicting how the dinosaurs adapt to environmental change. Students will map out how mutations generate new traits in a gene pool, and use problem-solving skills to discover how a new species is formed. I really like the innovative way that this resource makes use of material that students are already familiar with (dinosaurs) and kicks it up a couple of notches by using that knowledge in an entirely new context. It’s a nice twist on a familiar subject, and a project that is sure to engage the students.