What’s the Difference? Activities to Teach Paleontology and Archaeology

In the article, Learning about Fossils through Hands-on Science and Literacy (Science and Literacy department), we featured integrated lessons about fossils. Though not a true cross-curricular connection, paleontology (the study of prehistoric life forms, including dinosaurs) is a related – and engaging – subject for elementary students and often included in lessons and units. We’ve highlighted two lessons that integrate art with the study of dinosaurs, two interactive pages that allow students to explore a virtual dinosaur exhibit and simulate paleontological digs, and two resources for simulating digs in the classroom.

A similar – and often confused – discipline is archaeology, which is typically included in social studies. As students come to understand how archaeologists locate and interpret artifacts from past cultures, they can also see archaeology as a way to explore the past of the Arctic region (see Geologic Time, Fossils, and Archaeology: Content Knowledge for Teachers in the Professional Learning department.) We’ve featured interactive sites that invite students to explore the discipline as well as lesson plans for simulating digs, interpreting artifacts, and making inferences about past civilizations and cultures.

Paleontology and Dinosaurs

Dig This! A Relief Sculpture of Dinosaur Bones for Elementary Students (Grades K-5)
This lesson plan details the process of creating a relief sculpture of a dinosaur skeleton in clay. The bones can then be buried and excavated as a simulated paleontological dig.

Dinosaurs (Grades 3-5)
This interactive page, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, provides interactive resources about dinosaurs. In addition to content reading about dinosaurs, fieldwork, and misconceptions, the interactive Virtual Tour allows students to explore a virtual dinosaur exhibit. The Virtual Dinosaur Dig simulates a paleontological dig and how the specimen is transported back to the museum and studied.

Paleontology: The Big Dig (Grades 3-5)
This interactive site, from the American Museum of Natural History, contains several activities that teach students about paleontology. The activity Layers of Time will complement lessons in the Science and Literacy department dealing with stratigraphy and how paleontologists determine the relative age of fossils. Other activities include explorations of Mongolia and the Gobi desert, and Beyond T. Rex.

PaleoCookie Dig (Grades 1-3; can be used with grades 4-5)
Students simulate a paleontology/archaeology excavation using bar cookies. Students are introduced to the grid system used in excavations and create a bar graph to represent their findings.

Layer-Cake Earth (Grades 3-5; can be modified for K-2)
(free for members, $0.99 for nonmembers)
This article, from the National Science Teachers Association’s magazine Science and Children, explains how to use a layer cake to create a hands-on activity in which students take core samples, locate fossils, and investigate concepts relating to geologic sampling.

Fossils Rock! Tales From the Field
What is it like to work as a paleontologist? In Activity 1, students listen to or read an interview with paleontologist Paul Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, to learn about his passion for science and his discovery of SuperCroc in sub-Saharan Africa. In Activity 2, students join a dig with paleontologist Mike Everhart to learn what happens when a scientist in the field suddenly discovers fossil remains. In the Closing Activity, students create a story or conduct an interview and present or record their work for an imaginary radio program.

How Do Scientists Find Dinosaur Fossils?
Students have probably already studied dinosaurs in school, but they may not have learned much about the process by which paleontologists locate, excavate, and study dinosaurs. This lesson asks them to find out about this process and to write journal entries pretending they are on a dinosaur dig.


Archaeology: Clues From the Past (Grades 3-5)
This interactive site, from the American Museum of Natural History, contains several activities that teach students about archaeology. Activities include: Inca Investigation, the Ancient City of Petra, Up Close With a Zapotec Urn, Tools of the Trade, Meet the “ologists,” and activities that don’t involve a computer.

Archaeological Institute: Lesson Plans: Simulated Digs (K-5)
This page provides links to four lesson plans for elementary appropriate simulated digs: a layer cake dig (K-2), a transparent shoebox dig (K-2), a shoebox dig (grades 3-5), and a schoolyard dig (grades 3-5). The page also includes photographs, record sheets, and a list of resources and national standards addressed in these activities.

PBS Arctic Journeys: Explorations (Grades 3-5)
This interactive site is based on an electronic field trip, but any class can use the site independently. Designed for students in grades 4-9, the site includes an Artifact Challenge where students guess the purpose of various Arctic artifacts. Searching for the Past challenges students to distinguish between observations and inferences.

Arctic Studies Center (Grades 1-5)
This site from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has an online collection of artifacts from various indigenous people of the north: Yup’ik, Alaskan Native, Viking, and Ainu. Students could view these artifacts and make inferences about Arctic cultures.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright April 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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