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by Sara B. Coleman

Modified by Sara B. Coleman from Riederer, Joe. 'Book Bits'. The Science Teacher October, 1991.

Type of Entry:

  • class activity

Type of Activity:

  • hands-on
  • simulation
  • cooperative learning
  • reinforcement
  • nature of science

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Life Science
  • Special needs - gifted
  • Special Education


This activity is structured to allow students to experience the puzzle solving part of science. One of the largest puzzles in science is the fossil record. Students will be able to ask questions about the nature of science as they experience a 'Fossil Hunt'. Student are asked to reconstruct a book that has been literally destroyed, just as the fossil record has been changed by billions of years of geological processes. They will gain insight into the academic processes of piecing together bits and pieces of information.

The preparation for this activity is fairly simple. Acquire a paperback book and tear it apart piece by piece. First, remove the cover and the index. Then cut, burn, apply ink, and apply acid to the pages. Let your imagination be your guide as you destroy.

The requirement for students is to have an open mind and to work in cooperative groups.

The preparation time is minimal once the 'fossil pieces' have been prepared from a book. I recommend science oriented material such as 'Wonderful Life' by Stephen J. Gould. Any other of the Gould books would be fine as well.

One to two 45 minute periods works best as the introduction and group work takes most of the first day. The symposium where the students share their discoveries can take most of the second day.


Materials: pieces of a paperback book, cut up matches


The class will go on a imaginary field trip to Yoho National Park in the Canadian rockies to hunt for fossils. The objectives of this 'hunt' is as follows

1. To describe how fossils can be used to piece together geologic history.

2. To relate a cut up book to the fossil record

3. To give possible explanations for the incomplete nature of the fossil record

4. To describe some of the processes scientists use to interpret data and communicate with each other to describing findings


The teacher sets up the scenario of different research institutions all doing summer work at the same fossil field in Canada. (each group represents a different university) The winter work begins by taking the materials gathered and trying to interpret the information.

The book represents the fossil record, such as it is, destroyed in places, subject to interpretation, and with a story to tell. The burned pieces represent sections destroyed by natural geological processes. You may choose to burn some of the book pieces in front of the students until they say "stop". This reinforces the idea that some destroyed information may be very important.

Tell the students that each university is trying to justify funding for their program. Depending on the character of the class, at times I will tell them that their group will be graded on how well they interpret the book. Stress that a symposium will be held so that each group will have the chance to present their findings. Naturally, a conflict will occur where certain groups have information that others want, but if their funding depends only on their own performance they may not want to share!

The students should be given roles to play within their groups. Roles could include: The head scientist, the scientist in charge of the specimens, the doctoral student, and the graduate student. The head scientist is the leader of the group and assigns duties to the others. The scientist in charge of specimens keeps track of findings, the doctoral student records findings, and the grad student would take care of whatever the other students wanted him or her to do.

Here is a list of sample questions to help students structure their research:

1. Write down the observations of the material pieces.

2. In general, what is this book about? What evidence do you have?

3. How many chapters and pages are in this book? What are the names of each of the chapters?

4. Who wrote the book?

5. Name some of the people that are mentioned in this book. What part do they play in the book?

6. What is the theme of each chapter in this book?

Schedule the symposium. If needed, help generate a discussion between the groups as far to guide them in their presentations. Finally, lead the discussion toward comparing the classroom experience with what a real paleontologist might go through in the field. Discuss the reasons that the fossil record is incomplete. How might interpretation of the fossil record change as more information is discovered or rediscovered? Finally, you may change to discuss the nature of science. It is your choice whether to disclose the title of the book. Sometimes it is best to keep them guessing!

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Evaluation can be as simple are requiring a completed question sheet. Students could write essays on the experience or describing the relationship of the book to the fossil record (the book is the record, the chapters the sedimentary layers). I use this activity as a bridge between discussing the process of evolution and the evidence of evolution.

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