Middle school students at the Shenendehowa Central School District can now hold items millions of years old in their own hands, thanks to a large donation of fossils to be used in science classes.
The donation comes from a local performer who used the fossils in a traveling educational show. Shen's 18 middle school science teachers at Shen, each of whom teaches five class sections, will now have access to dozens of various types of fossils to play a part in a new, hands-on and student-focused science curriculum.
The donation consists of at least 150 different fossils worth a total of $5,000. Included were sand dollars, brachiopods, a preserved shark jaw, fossilized ferns and multiple Spinosaurus teeth.
Jean Lorch, high school science administrator at Shen, explained that whenever a donation over $2,000 comes into the school, the board of education must pass a resolution approving the donation prior to items being used in classrooms.
The fossils were a unique opportunity, she said, and after detailing how the fossils could be used to enhance the hands-on curriculum, it was a quick process of getting them into classrooms.
Often, Lorch added, students have to leave the classroom to see things like fossils, which can be difficult to organize, especially at a school district as large as Shen.
“You’d have to go on a field trip, and that’s not easy at Shen,” Lorch said.
“This is way better, because we can get it to them,” Brenda Moses, who teaches sixth grade earth science at Acadia, said. It’s where the kids are engaged all the time. That’s the main word here: engaged.”
The fossil donation has made it possible to complete a shift in teaching the science classes that attempts to go beyond textbooks and lectures, and to get science into the hands of students directly.
“It was perfect timing,” Lorch said. “It’s a complete shift in how you teach it.”
Laura Picardi, who teaches seventh grade life science at Acadia Middle School, said the new unit with the fossils, which will take place at the end of the year, focuses on students utilizing tools such as magnifying glasses to examine fossils, take note of the unique characteristics and try to chart a prehistoric timeline.
“They’re doing most of the explaining,” Picardi said. “This is much more focused on evidence. It’s more like an exploration.”
Some of the fossils that are older than others, and native to New York, are a crucial foundation in developing the lesson plans.
“The index fossils are really important,” teacher Laura Ryan said, citing the donated brachiopods, which are almost 500 million years and can be found in upstate New York.
“A lot of what I see is teachers training kids to ask questions. They’re becoming better investigators,” Lorch added.
For Ryan, who teaches sixth grade earth science at Acadia, and Crystal Perno, who teaches accelerated high school earth science to eighth graders, the fossils help students learn about the history of their own region, but also are a valuable tool in helping students develop other life skills, such as asking questions and conducting research, that will serve them throughout their educational careers.
“I think the kids really like it, and it’s still science,” Ryan said.
When students are able to come up with their own questions, it opens the door for a new dialogue between the teachers and students that isn’t restricted to a textbook lesson plan, the teachers noted.
The fossil projects force everyone to think outside of the box, they added, which isn’t something teachers always have the opportunity to do.
“That’s what makes it so much fun for teachers, too,” Moses said.
For Perno, the fossils provide an early opportunity for students to dive into uncharted territory sooner than they might have been able to in the past.
With the rarity and significant financial expenses surrounding many types of fossils, especially the larger and intact fossils, it can be difficult for schools to simply get the artifacts into the classroom despite teachers crafting lesson plans around fossil studies as Shen has.
“Usually they just see the fossils in a drawing,” Perno said. “I don’t think I experienced anything like this until I was in college.”