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Grades 6-8
Overview:
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.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, science
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 17: "How to apply geography to interpret the past"
Time:
Three to four hours

Materials Required:
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Writing and drawing materials
Objectives:
Students will
  • list and discuss the things they know about paleontology;
  • brainstorm what they think would be the most and least interesting aspects of being a paleontologist;
  • read about Paul Sereno's activities and discoveries, and list his dinosaur findings and locations;
  • read about the processes involved in paleontology, and explain why these steps are important; and
  • write and share with the class detailed plans explaining specific parts of the fossil location, excavation, transportation, and research processes.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Opening:
In a class discussion, ask students to contribute all the things they know about paleontology, and write their ideas on the board. Make sure students understand that paleontologists are the people who study geologic time periods and excavate the fossils of dinosaurs and other plant and animal species. They are different from archaeologists, who study the remains of people and their civilizations.

Either in small groups or as a class, have students spend ten minutes or so brainstorming what they think would be the most and least interesting aspects of being a paleontologist. If they do this exercise in groups, have them list their thoughts and share them with the class.

Development:
Have students go to some or all of the following Web pages to read about paleontologist Paul Sereno and his recent work. They should be sure to look at the pictures of a few dinosaurs he has discovered. As they go through the sites, ask them to list Sereno's dinosaur discoveries and the locations in which he has worked.

National Geographic: Explorer-In-Residence Paul Sereno
National Geographic: Spinosaur Discovery Press Release
Paul Sereno's Dinosaur Web Site
Project Exploration
Project Exploration: Jobaria

Have students read Thinking About Paleontology Processes , a list of six aspects of the science of paleontology:

  • Developing a question that can be investigated
  • Finding a fossil
  • Excavating a fossil
  • Cleaning, repairing, and conserving a fossil
  • Interpreting and reconstructing a fossil
  • Communicating about a fossil
Ask students to write sentences explaining the main purpose of each of these categories and why each of these categories is important.

Next, ask the class to imagine that they have recently been tipped off about a possible location for a new dinosaur fossil find. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following segments of the paleontology process (they are similar to the categories above, but slightly different). If you have a very large class, divide them into more groups and assign more than one group to the same segment:

  • Determining where to look for fossils. (Students should answer the question: How will you figure out if this might indeed be a good place to look?)
  • Conducting the search at the search site. (Students should answer the questions: What will the search be like once you are at the site? What steps will you take to look for fossils?)
  • Excavating the fossils and preparing them for transport. (Students should answer the question: What will you do once you find dinosaur fossils?)
  • Putting the fossils together. (Students should answer the question: How will you reconstruct the dinosaur skeleton once the fossils are back home in a museum or laboratory?)
  • Studying the reconstructed skeleton to learn about the dinosaur. (Students should answer the question: What will you do to learn about this new dinosaur, including its behaviors, diet, and anatomy?)
Have students use the following Web sites, plus the ones they reviewed earlier in the lesson, and any other Web and print material they can find, as resources for their reports:

National Geographic: DinoQuest
National Geographic: Dinosaurs of the Sahara
BBC: Collecting in the Field
Project Exploration: Building a Dinosaur
Project Exploration: Journals from Niger (click on "Journals")
Project Exploration: Sahara Connection (click on "Exhibit")

Closing:
Ask students to imagine a study that left out one of the steps. What might happen to the study? Would it still have scientific value? Why or why not?
Suggested Student Assessment:
Ask each group to create a presentation, showing the specific steps they will take to accomplish their assigned segment of the paleontology process. Their presentations should include both text and images. Every student in the group should participate by contributing to the writing and/or the artwork. (The presentations can be done traditionally or using multimedia, based on your resources.)

Have groups share their presentations with the class so that they all understand what their upcoming dinosaur research will entail. Every student should take part in his or her group's presentation.

Extending the Lesson:
  • Have students research and report on the ways in which paleontologists use modern animals, such as birds and elephants, to study dinosaur anatomy and behaviors.

  • Inform students that Sereno is particularly interested in dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period. Have them go to Geological Time Machine to learn about the Cretaceous period and the life forms that lived then.
Related Links: