Originally presented: NJSTA convention, October 1998. Repeat presentation: NJESTA conference, March 2002.

At the conclusion of this activity the students should be able to demonstrate the following;

See Procedure below

Prior to attempting this activity, your class should have already covered the following topics:
  • Geologic strata and the Law of Superposition
  • Scientific Nomenclature
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Geologic Time
  • Fossilization
  • Rock Types

    Middle School/High School

    Earth Science, Biology, Environmental Education

    3 class periods to 2 weeks depending on faculty involvement;
    preparation time for students and teachers extra

    Entire Class

    Classrooms, hallways, and other areas of the school building


    This large-scale interdisciplinary project involving the entire school community explores many aspects of modern paleontology. The halls of the school represent the layers of geologic strata. "Fossils" are taped to the walls throughout the school. Students search for, collect , and catalog the specimens. Students then set up a display representing the geologic story told by their research. Over the course of this unit the topics covered include, but are not limited to, Geologic Time, display preparation, fossil collecting, organizational skills, Federal, State, and Local law, and research and writing skills. This activity for middle school students requires a considerable amount of preparation, but has great rewards.


    The teacher must find, copy, or draw the "fossils". Heavy paper or laminated card stock is recommended and will last for several years. A one-to-one scale is encouraged. The instructor then determines the location of the "fossils". The halls and other common areas of the school represent public property. In order to collect fossils from these properties a permit from the school office must be obtained. The other classrooms represent private land which belongs to the teachers. Make arrangements with them about their duties. Have some teachers refuse to allow students to take fossils, have others let them be taken for free, and others charge what they want. Pick a time during a specific day that the students can go out and collect. Not only are they to collect the fossils but also any other data they may find. At the project's conclusion, students assemble their data, interpret their findings, and create "museum" displays of their discoveries.

    The HOWS, WHYS, & other ADVICE

    Cooperation is needed on the staff level, as administration, teachers, custodial staff and other students are all involved in this activity.

    I photocopied or drew about 70 different fossils representing all the different geologic ages. Each was reproduced on a scale of one-to-one. (The dinos were quite large!) Most of the images came from books in my collection. I have included a list of books below. Many images were found on the web. I have included some links to these sites below. In order to make the larger images life-size I would either increase the size on the photocopier or print them onto overhead film and project the image onto large paper I got from the art teacher. These images were then traced onto the paper at their true size. Some students came to my classroom during their lunch period to help out.

    The instructor then has to determine where to put them. A multi-level school is best, as each floor can represent different geologic strata, but if your school is only one level, then you can represent folded or tilted deposition with the placement of your fossils. The school I did this activity in is three stories high, and has an auditorium on the ground level. I determined that the auditorium represented an early Archean igneous intrusion underlying the strata. The next floor represented the Paleozoic, the next the Mesozoic, and the third floor represented the Cenozoic. At the very top of the wall on the third floor I placed artifacts representing the arrival of man. The halls and other common areas of the school represent public property owned by some government agency. In order to collect fossils from these properties a permit from the proper agency must be obtained. This is where the office staff is helpful. Supply them with an official permit (mine is included below) and have them issue them to the students that request one. Get them donuts or other appropriate gifts after to thank them for their assistance.

    I did this activity with my sixth grade classes, and had five or six trustworthy eighth-grade girls help out. They represented law enforcement officers with badges who checked to make sure that all students removing fossils from the public properties had the right permits. If they did not, the girls were to give them fines and take away the fossils. (I figured girls would be less prone to aggressive behavior than boys in the same role.)
    The badge I used is pictured to the right. You can copy this or create your own.


    The other classrooms represent private land which belongs to the teachers who teach in those rooms. Make arrangements with them about their duties. Have some teachers refuse to allow students to take fossils, have others let them be taken for free, and others can charge what they want. One teacher told the students in advance that her fee was one flower each for every fossil removed. Another had the students clean the blackboard, desks, erasers, etc. Let the teachers have fun picking out their fees.

    The fossils were put up about one week in advance of the collection date. This allowed the students to see where they were and to make arrangement to collect them. Most were placed in noticeable locations, while a few were hidden behind posters, doors or other objects. Expect some to be removed by students in other grades. This represents fossils lost to erosion or commercial collectors. (This can lead into a related lesson - The "Sue" case for example.)

    Pick a time during a specific day that the students can go out and collect. Mine was an all school study hall we have regularly on Tuesdays. Not only are they to collect the fossils but also any other data they may find. This includes:

  • The fossil's age (students are to figure out that each floor represents a different era)
  • The type of rock strata (posted on the walls are diagrams showing the symbols for the
    types of rocks; these were all covered in previous units. See examples below)

  • The other fossils in the same area (I left evidence of an ancient food chain)
  • Any other evidence of geologic processes (Post-it cards with symbols for lava flows,
    faults, sills, and other formations are also placed around the school.)

  • Together, all the information tells a story about the history of the earth in the made up area. I tried to represent the many varied events that really did occur in New Jersey, including rising and falling sea levels, advancing and retreating glaciers, various life forms (aquatic and terrestrial), and the occupation of native Americans.

    My students created an exhibit about the materials they learned. They decided to call their museum the "Institute of Geologic Research", and set up a display showing the types of fossils, rock formations, and events which occurred over time. They even created business cards for the "employees."


    When asked what was most enjoyable about the whole project, the students mentioned: finding the fossils, getting out of study hall, getting museum employee cards, having the Principal sign their digging permits, trying to reach the high fossils, and naming the new species found after friends. (Some fossils were variations on real fossils that had features unknown to modern science, or were drawn poorly. The students can give these fossils scientific names as their discoverer. Scientific nomenclature was covered in a previous activity, "The Dinosaur Name-Game".)

    One History teacher in the school had his students use their experiences in this activity as a starting point to one of his units, and two English teachers had the students write a paper about the activity.

    I truly enjoyed this activity, and I feel that any teacher crazy enough to put that much work into it will enjoy it just as much. If you like some parts of it please feel free to go with it. If you have something to add to it, e-mail me so that I too can add it as well.

    Below are letters and other supplemental materials that were used in preparing this activity.

    The following letter was distributed to the classroom teachers prior to the start of the project. It was intended to solicit their assistance.

    This year the sixth grade earth science classes will be participating in a school-wide activity that involves any teacher that wishes to participate. (Don't worry, the children do all the work!)

    The objective of this activity is to collect "fossils" that have been systematically placed all around the school building. These "fossils" will be paper cutouts and not the real things. It is up to the students to collect the fossils, keep records of their locations, note any clues that may be nearby, and assemble the materials at the end of the "digs".

    The job of the participating teachers depends upon your willingness to get involved. Since we are trying to represent a real dig, we will need to present some of the hazards involved in fossil collecting; the greatest being Private Property ! Since the fossils will be in your rooms (most are quite small), you can either let the children take them on the collecting day (To be Announced), ask that the students pay a price (I'll leave the fee up to you!), or even refuse to let them have them. (If you would like to participate please let me know so that the proper arrangements can be made.)

    If you can come up with a lesson in your classes that pertains to this premise please let me know so that I can help in any way.

    This letter was distributed to the students the day the fossils first appeared on the walls and in the halls!

    As you may have noticed, fossils have found their way into the classrooms of our school. Since this is a class in Earth Science it will be our jobs to collect them. But beware, fossil collecting is not an easy task. You can not just go and "pull them from the ground". Many important clues must be noted, and great care must be taken to successfully complete your task. So, keep your eyes open, the collecting day is soon to come.

    This was handed out the the students during class in preparation for collecting day.

    Things to look for when collecting:

    1. Surrounding terrain - What type of rock is the matrix?
  • Are there any indications as to the fossil habitat?
  • What other fossils are present?
  • Are there any inconsistencies to be noted?

    2. The fossil itself - What type of fossilization process occurred?
  • What part of the anatomy is preserved?
  • Are any other body parts nearby?
  • Is there any evidence as to how the organism died?

    3. Permission to "Dig" - Is the fossil on private property or public land?
  • Do you need to have a permit to remove it?
  • Do you have to pay the land owner first?

    Before you do anything, make sure that you have done your "homework" first!

  • The following form was created by a lawyer friend of mine to be distributed by the main office to students who apply for digging rights to "public" properties. I had them printed on school stationary so the address and seal were prominent.

    school seal

    (609) 555-1234

    Permission Form C-23: Removal of Antiquities from Property

    This form allows the bearer or organization listed below to remove antiquities (fossils, artifacts, minerals, or other natural resources) from the public grounds of the school property according to the Practices and Standards Act of September, 1972. (PS 4223-7209.17) In accordance with the aforementioned act, the bearer is also responsible for the maintenance of the grounds for future public and private use as outlined in the Grounds Use Act of March, 1977. (GU 67-7703.04)

    Bearer or Organization : ____________________________________________________

    Authorized Signature: ______________________________________________________


    Below is a sample list of the room assignments.
    The lower the floor, the older!

      Music Room
      Office Hall
      1st Floor Hall
      Little Gym
      Dining Hall
      Math Room 1
      Math Room 2
      English Room 1
      English Room 2
      2nd Floor Hall
      History Room 1
      History Room 2
      Math Room 3
      3rd Floor Hall

      Rock Strata
      Lava Flows





    New Jersey Geological Survey
    United States Geological Survey
    American Museum of Natural History
    Smithsonian Institution
    The New Jersey Paleontological Society
    The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
    New Jersey Fossils
    NJ Colossal Fossil Site
    New Jersey State Museum
    Geologic Symbols
    Hadrosaurus foulkii
    Paleo Links of Interest
    Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education (ANJEE)
    First Families of Chicago (Nice images!)
    Maryland Geological Survey Pamphlets
    Dinosaurs of the East Coast

    For even more, just go to Google and type in "Fossils" in the Image Search.
    In Advance Search, specify Greyscale or Black and White.


    The Cretaceous Fossils of New Jersey (Parts 1 & 2), by Horrace G. Richards
    NJGS Bulletin 61, 1958
    Available through NJDEP Maps & Publications

    A Golden Guide to Fossils, by Rhodes, Zim & Shaffer
    Golden Press, 1962

    Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States, by Jasper Burns
    Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991
    Excellent drawings!

    Simon & Schuster's Guide to Fossils
    Fireside Books, 1986

    Building Your Own Nature Museum, by Vinson Brown
    Arco Publishing, Inc., 1954

    Dinosaurs of the East Coast, by Weishampel & Young
    Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

    When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey, by William Gallagher
    Rutgers University Press, 1997

    Eyewitnes Handbook: Fossils, by Walker & Ward
    Dorling Kindersley, Inc., 1992


    Varies depending on grade level and how involved in this activity your class will become. I imagine a rubric would be an effective way of measuring the effectiveness of the activity, based on involvement of each student to their assigned tasks. Follow-up with a written or oral test is possible. Students can also journal thier recollections.


    I'll leave that up to you. Please send me your ideas. Credit will be given for any follow-up lessons posted at this site!

    Marc L. Rogoff
    Environmental Education Specialist
    NJDEP Office of Communications
    PO Box 402 Trenton, NJ 08625

    NJESTA Board member, webmaster, former earth science teacher and museum educator, Marc Rogoff is the Environmental Education Specialist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). His duties include creation and maintenance of the SEEDS website and the Earth Day-New Jersey website, assisting with educational programming within the various divisions of the DEP including the New Jersey Geological Survey, the Bureau of Recycling and Planning, the Division of Parks and Forestry and the Division of Fish and Wildlife. Marc served as a member of the Executive Board of NJSTA and was the '05/'06 President of the Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education (ANJEE).

    Marc was the recipient of the NJESTA Presidents Award in 2004, and received the New Jersey Audubon's 2012 Environmental Educator of the Year award.

    Copyright 2005
    Sky Above/Earth Below
    Environmentally friendly web design!