5 Fun Ways to Use Fossils in Your Classroom

Fossil activities and ideas for your classroom

Middle School/High School

October 16th is (drum roll, please) …  National Fossil Day! We’re celebrating National Fossil Day for the 10th straight year since its inception by the National Park Service and various partner organizations.

Maybe you don’t have a background in geology, which can make it challenging to know how to incorporate fossils into your classroom lessons.

If you’re looking for fun ways to use fossils in your classroom, then read this (yes, fossils can be fun. We promise):

  1. Use fossils to show your students evidence of evolution.

Plants and animals didn’t exist when the Earth was formed. How do we know when these species first appeared, as they decayed so long ago? Exhibit A: fossils!

Fossils are the remains of plants and animals in rock form. When geologists look at older rocks, they see species that are less complex than fossils found in younger rocks. This succession of fossils suggests that life slowly evolved from simple ancestors to the diverse types of organisms that now inhabit the Earth.

The result of this evidence? Your students’ minds’ blown!

With the 45 fossil specimens in our Student Stratigraphic Fossil Collection, students can observe a variety of species (trilobites, bryozoans, brachiopods, cephalopods, and more) from the Cambrian (540 million years ago) to the present and compare how each species became more complex over time.

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Fossil collection for students that represents a wide range of fossiliferous horizons

Student Stratigraphic Fossil Collection

An excellent introduction to the Stratigraphic Record.

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  1. Use fossils to show your students what ancient environments were like.

Did you know Western New York (where Ward’s Science is located) used to be the bottom of the ocean floor? The face of the earth has been slowly, continuously changing since its early days. Fossils—and the rock types they’re found in—paint a picture of these ancient environments.

For example, crinoids, brachiopods, and trilobites have always lived in the sea, so when we see them in New York today, we know this geographic region must have once been marine rather than terrestrial.

For an “old-school” activity, students can study 28 fossils and complete three activities in the GEO-LOGIC Plants and Animals of the Past Topic Set to figure out the geography and climate of different ancient environments on Earth.

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Plant and animal fossil set for students.

GEO-logic Plants and Animals of the Past Topic Set

Students review various types of fossils that existed in different geologic time periods and explore the connection between the fossils and the environments in which they lived.

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  1. Use index fossils to help your students date the rocks they’re found in.

Index fossils are fossils that allow us to date the rock units they’re found in and correlate those rock units with others in different locations. Index fossils must be distinctive, easily recognizable, and abundant—and must have a wide geographic distribution in a short range of time.

Ward’s Science offers a variety of trace fossils from around the globe. In our Microfossil Mystery: The Conodont Conundrum Lab Activity students study microfossils to characterize different biozones and important biostratrigraphic relationships so they can solve a simulated real-world problem they’ve uncovered (or you can check our individual trace fossils, such as the Jurassic ammonite Perisphinctes species or the Devonian brachiopod Mucrospirifer thedfordensis).

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Ward's® Microfossil Mystery: The Conodont Conundrum Lab Activity

Ward's® Microfossil Mystery: The Conodont Conundrum Lab Activity

Teach your students about the role of a forensic geologist as they study the concepts of biostratigraphy, index fossils, applied geology, and problem-solving.

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Perisphinctes sp. fossil

Perisphinctes sp.

Matching halves showing calcified chambers.

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Mucrospirifer thedfordensis fossil

Mucrospirifer thedfordensis

Winged Spirifer.

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  1. Use fossils as evidence of plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics is the theory that the outmost layer of the Earth is divided into several continental and oceanic plates. These can crash into one another to build mountains, move laterally past one another to generate earthquakes, subduct one another to form volcanoes, and spread apart from each other to create oceans.

While there are a bunch of indications of where these plate boundaries are today, fossils reveal where and how ancient plates were constructed. For example, 225 million years ago all the continents on the Earth were together and formed a mega-continent called Pangea. Since then, the continents have been spreading apart from one another to form the Earth we see today. We can observe the exact same fossils across various continents, indicating that those continents used to be together and have now spread apart.

Glossopteris sp. is a great example of a Permian terrestrial plant fossil that has been found in South America, Africa, India, Australia, and even Antarctica. It’s obvious today that those environments are radically different and could not ecologically support the same plant species. So this fossil is excellent evidence of how the continents must have drifted apart since the Permian.

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Glossopteris sp. fossil

Glossopteris sp. (Permian)

Leaf impression on matrix, widely used in correlation studies.

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  1. Use fossils to demonstrate mass extinctions.

There have been five mass extinctions throughout the Earth’s history, in which at least 20% of all species on earth have catastrophically died. The greatest mass extinction was the Permian extinction 252 million years ago, where approximately 90% of all species on the Earth vanished.

Fossils are the best evidence of mass extinctions because successive rock layers with abundant fossil diversity abruptly disappear, signifying that the once-living creatures suddenly and collectively died off (major bummer).

Here are three kits demonstrating (a) the succession of life in these time periods, (b) examples of fossils that show evidence of mass extinctions, and (c) how new life evolved after every mass extinction (eventually leading to the biodiversity we observe today):

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Paleozoic era fossil set activity for students

Ward's® GEO-logic Life of the Paleozoic Era Topic Set

Studying fossils from the Paleozoic Era and their evolutionary development with our GEO-logic collection will help students interpret the history of each Paleozoic period.

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Mesozoic era fossil activity for students

Ward's® GEO-logic Life of the Mesozoic Era Topic Set

Students outline the environment and the life forms of each Mesozoic period by utilizing the materials in our GEO-logic activity set.

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Ward's® GEO-logic Life of the Cenozoic Era Topic Set

Through the study of the fossils in our GEO-logic collection, students can reconstruct what the Earth was like during the Tertiary and Quaternary periods of the Cenozoic era.

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Teacher's guides included, so your job is easier!

From evolution to earthquakes to mass extinctions, fossils can teach your students about several different aspects of our planet’s exciting history. And we can’t think of a better time to do that than National Fossil Day. Even if you don’t have a background in geological science, these ideas and activity kits can engage your students and even stimulate some interesting discussions (or debates).

As always, if you have any questions about fossils or anything else, just ask the Ward’s Science Plus Us team at sciencehelp@vwr.com. Our in-house scientists and technicians are ready to answer even the toughest inquiries.

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