Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Putting on the Paleontologist Hat

By Sofi Kurtz
Coordinator of Lower School Service Learning; Science (LS)

As an educator, you always try to keep an eye out for your students’ passions. Last year, when the kindergarteners were in PreK, the class was infatuated by dinosaurs. Sarah [Bayzick] and I began collaborating on a dinosaur unit — then COVID hit. Fast forward to this year. As my two weeks with kindergarten approached, Katie Mack came to me, expressed the class’ continued interest in dinosaurs and we got working. We brainstormed for one month on what type of project we could do with fossils or paleontology. And then we had an idea: let’s do a simulated dig. 

We started the first day digging up dinosaur eggs so the kids could get an idea of how a dig is constructed. The eggs they opened had little dinosaurs inside and they excavated them using the tools paleontologists would use — magnifying glasses, paintbrushes, chisels, etc. 

In the days ahead, Katie and I set up lasagna pans to simulate a grid. It worked out perfectly because not only did the kids get an understanding of how a dig actually works, but it was safe and individualized. I knew the whole idea of digging and excavating was something that the kids could really get into and, metaphorically and in reality, put on the hat of a paleontologist. This led the linking behind our project — how do you involve the students so it’s their dig? Their project? 

Katie and I decided we were going to have to make a skeleton, taking apart my old Mr. Bones and a skeleton from an old Halloween decoration and put the pieces back together to form a Velociraptor. All we needed to add was the claws.

So the students dug, and they’ve found these bones. Now, we asked, what would scientists do? In our next steps, we’re going to clean the bones, transport them, weigh them, measure them, observe, and try to connect the dots to discover what it is. Katie and I thought, how do we set it up for them so that they’re discovering what it actually is?

As students excavated I heard, “Oh I have a rib, but there’s another rib over there. I think those two ribs go together!” But only when you look at the whole thing as a team, can you make those kinds of connections. So in the coming days, the kids will come together as a class to look at what we have.

Once completed, as a scientist, you take the information you have and then you have to convey it to the public! And they’ll do just that when they open their own dinosaur museum next week to show off the cumulative piece of the project. 

We really wanted to leave this part up to the kids and let them lead the way, so ultimately, we don’t really know what the end result is going to be. But what we will do is pose the question for them, “How could we make our room into a museum and show what we found?”

For the youngest ages, play-based and project-based learning are key. If you can build on their interests and passions, it makes the project that much stronger. We knew before going into it that we had some dino-enthusiasts — you can see from their clothing, their water bottles, their masks. 

The very basis of inquiry science is to pose a question and let them lead the way — to set them up with the tools they need and allow them to discover it on their own. That was the goal Katie and I had from the beginning. As we go, every day we’re texting each other something else that’s new and that they’re discovering.

Therein lies the beauty of how our two weeks as specialists are intertwined with other curricula in the classroom. For example, as a writing project, the students plan to do prompts on inviting people to the museum and make their own post office. When it’s in every subject, that’s integrated learning. 

When you think about your life, it isn’t science, it isn’t math — life isn’t subjects. Instead, you use the skills that you’ve learned to accomplish goals. The more we can get the kids thinking less about subject-based learning and more about how integrated life really is, the better. It’s why I came to a private school — I’m not confined to teaching to a test or to covering x, y, and z. Figuring out experiences you can create for the kids is the magical part of teaching for me. And if you can set up those experiences to explore their own passions, that’s even better. 

For photos from our weeks as paleontologists, click here.