Here at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I do a lot of science outreach with kids of all ages! Early in the summer, I had the opportunity to show 45 8th grade students fossils from all major times in Earth’s history and teach them how we can use fossils to determine how the Earth has changed through time. My advisor, Mark, was also there to help teach the kids!
The first thing Mark and I did was to gather fossils from the three major eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic (time), Mesozoic (~250-66 million years ago), and Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago). We created three major tables in a classroom, one table for each era. I then labeled each fossil by the time period in which it belonged (and each era was associated with a different color paper) and what the fossil was. There are three white boards in the classroom, so we assigned each group a white board to write down their observations on. When the kids arrived, we broke them into 3 groups each, and let each group observe the fossils at each table for about 3-5 minutes. Then the groups switched tables so that all groups saw each table of fossils.
We asked the group to make observations about their fossils from each era. Questions we had them consider were things such as: Where did they begin to see animals with teeth? In what era were animals mostly invertebrates? What kinds of animals did you see in each era (dinosaurs, mammals, etc.). The students wrote these observations on their white boards. Of course, some of our questions and their answers were biased by the specimens we had available (for example, we have TONS of Paleozoic brachiopods and trilobites, but no fish or other vertebrates with teeth).
After all the groups had seen all the fossils, we then asked them to assemble by their boards and think about the differences among the major eras. They came up with some great answers, such as that the land animals with big teeth (such as mammoths, horses, and bison) dominated the Cenozoic, and the majority of shelled animals were dominant during the Paleozoic. And of course, they were totally tuned into the fact that the Mesozoic was the age of dinosaurs.
At the end of this exercise, we then gave the students and their teachers a chance to ask us any remaining questions they had about geology or fossils. Both the students and teachers asked really great questions! One of the teachers asked if all mass extinctions were caused by major climate change events (they were, except for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which was caused by a major impact). My favorite question of the day was from a girl who asked why all geologists wore earth-toned clothes! It turned out that both my advisor and I were wearing forest green shirts, so we found this quite amusing 😊
All in all, it was an excellent day spent with the students! They really enjoyed being able to pick up and hold the fossils, and learn about how paleontologists use them to interpret changes in Erath’s climate through time.