Many young children are fascinated by dinosaurs. They can list of several different species. They pretend to be them on the playground and at home, they may have shelves and shelves of plastic models. Dinosaurs are an easy hook into the world of science and a paleo dig is a great way to include some hands-on scaled scientific work that models what real scientists do.
Fill a kiddie pool with sand while burying several different casts of bones, teeth, and shells at different levels. Have students then carefully go through the pool with paleontologists’ tools, such as wide brushes and fine brushes and trowels. Have them map out where they find each item and then help them to make inferences about what they have discovered. Which animals did they find at what depths? Which bones are the oldest? The bones at the greatest depths will be the oldest. When certain bones disappear at certain depths, then that probably means that the animal had gone extinct or evolved.
While finding bones can be an exhilarating experience, there are more than one type of fossil. Our students learned this when they were given playdough to build trace fossils with. Trace fossils are not fossils of the animals itself, but fossils of evidence of their existence. These can be a series of footprints, called a trackway, or even coprolite, which is fossilized feces. Trace fossils can give clues as to how big an animal was or what the surroundings were like where it lived.
Students love being able to create different creatures. To demonstrate what hybridization looks like, we had our students build creatures, both known and unknown, out of playdough. They were allowed to add sparkles and beads and toothpicks. The sky was the limit for what they could come up with. After they had finished making their creatures, we had the students pair up. They then had to chose three traits from their animal and combine it with three traits from their partner’s animal, creating a brand new creature. This activity showed hybridization as a fairly rare form of evolution. The creatures were changing drastically from generation to generation and students loved seeing all the weird new animals.