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Can You Dig It?: Mapping the Squirrelasaur Site

W. O’Neal, Jefferson Middle School, 101 N. Gammon Rd., Madison, WI




Overview of Lesson: 

This lesson will permit students to work in cooperative groups as they investigate a “fossil” site and construct a site map. The lesson is designed to be part #2 of a one to two week simulation activity where they plan and participate in a “Dino Dig” in their school’s backyard. During the unit on fossils and dinosaurs they will participate in a schoolyard paleontology simulation.


Students will be told that they have the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to plan and go on a dinosaur dig. They need to work in groups of 4-6 people as they complete the following tasks:


1)      Each group needs to write a proposal to submit to an appropriate company or agency to acquire the funds necessary to do their expedition. Their proposal should outline the equipment and costs of a viable expedition, the benefits to the sponsor and/or society and the need for this scientific research (what scientific questions they seek to answer). (1 to 2 days)


2)      While on the expedition the students should produce a general map of the area, search for fossil evidence, record on collection cards any site located with needed data, use the classroom GPS to document the site location, find a stratigraphic reference to describe the position of the fossil, use compass and metric tape (or meter stick) to map the site. (1 to 2 days)


3)  Students will choose and safely use appropriate tools and techniques to stabilize, extricate, and transport their find back to the lab (class). They will use surface collecting, plaster casting or plaster peeling to best protect their specimen. (1 to 2 days) (See Roger Evans’:  Paleontology: A Simulated Field Experience”)


4)  When back in the lab, each group will prepare their specimen for display. The display should be presented to the class and. then placed into the school’s yearly paleontology museum with appropriate documentation and signage. (2 to 4 days)


Suggested Time:      
Each of the numbered tasks listed above may be done as part of the simulation or as an individual lesson. Task #2 (The Site Map) will take 50 min. in the field and 50 min. in the class to convert data and sketches into a finished product. Task #2 is the focus of this plan.


The entire project could take one or two weeks, depending on the detail required and the enthusiasm generated while completing the simulation.


Students' Prior Knowledge:

Students need to have an understanding of the geologic time scale, what a fossil is, and a general view of stratigraphy and the fossil record. They should have participated in an orienteering activity using a magnetic compass, a cartography activity, and have been introduced to the basic information that a GPS can provide. In math class, social studies, and industrial technology they should have made scale drawings and maps. The entire simulation could easily be a culmination activity or performance assessment activity at the end of a paleontology unit.



Background Information:

Paleontology is a science that involves careful data collecting, accurate record keeping, clear communicating, hypothesizing, model making, measuring, and inferring. Students need to understand the importance of site maps and scale drawings as a method of preserving the record of a fossil find. The stratigraphic location, type of preservation, completeness of specimen, and skeletal orientation all are important pieces of the puzzle.


Each student group will need a clip board, orienteering compass, 360 degree protractor, GPS access, graph paper, surveying flags, camera with film, meter stick, access to 100 meter tape, notepaper, and pencil.


Student Activity:

The activity below is to guide the students through part #2 of the “Can You Dig It?” simulation.

Mapping the Site
Purpose:  Now that you have received funding, your team is ready to go into the field. It will be your group’s task to locate a dig site, map to scale the general area, take appropriate photos with linear scale and directional references, and use the GPS or other system to accurately identify the site for future reference.

Materials: Each student group will need a clipboard, orienteering compass, 360 degree protractor, GPS access, graph paper, surveying flags, camera (digital, Polaroid, or standard with film), meter stick, access to 100 meter tape, notepaper, and pencil.


1        Gather your team’s equipment together and pack for the trip outside to the site.

2        Walk around the site area (be careful not to walk on or damage any possible fossils) and look for surface evidence that may indicate a good location to dig. Mark this spot for your group with a surveyor’s flag (or cairn).

3        Produce a map of the entire area including all of the sites marked by the different groups. This should be scaled to fill most of a piece of graph paper, include a title, legend, scale (meters), compass rose (north should be pointing to the top of the map), and a GPS reference. Use photographs where appropriate.

4        When back in the class use your field notes and sketches to prepare a more presentable product. The use of computers is encouraged.


            (map and photographs with any needed information and notes)



1        Explain why scale drawings are important to the paleontologist.

2        Compare and contrast the information communicated by scale drawings and photographs.

3        Tell how the GPS has revolutionized location identification.

4        What would you add or change to better present and preserve your data?


If done as an isolated assignment, the data (map and photographs) will be used for evaluation.

If done as a part of the full simulation, the group project presentation and museum exhibit will be the vehicle for evaluation. A clear and detailed rubric should guide the groups through the process.


Teacher Notes: 

To have a better understanding of what a dig involves, this activity should be done as a part of the larger project. Items like grant writing, trip planning, site management, fossil preparation, documentation, and exhibit presentation make the experience more complete and more like real life. For a successful project you need a space in the school yard that will not be disturbed by normal activities and the materials listed in the activity above.



paleontology, paleontologist, fossil, GPS, site map



Interdisciplinary Connections:

       The language arts classes may help with the grant proposal (persuasive writing) and the presentation phase of the project.

       The computer laboratory teacher may help students with web sites and computer cartography applications.

       The LMC director may help with resources and museum space.

       Math class may help with and reinforce measurement, ratios, and scale.

Extension Activities

       Students may visit a local museum to see how exhibits are put together and what information is presented.

       To go wider and deeper groups may examine their find and draw inferences about the life of the animal by comparing it to animals present today (like teeth and diet).

       Students may build a web quest or related web resource page.

       Those interested in documenting the expedition may create a Power Point type  presentation for the LMC.



Wisconsin State Science Standards:


Identify questions they can investigate using resources and equipment they

have available



Identify data and locate sources of information including their own records to

answer the questions being investigated



Use inferences to help decide possible results of their investigations, use observations to check their inferences



Explain their data and conclusions in ways that allow an audience to understand

the questions they selected for investigation and the answers they have developed


Use computer software and other technologies to organize, process, and present their data

Discuss the importance of their results and implications of their work with peers, teachers, and other adults


Analyze the geologic and life history of the earth, including change over time,

using various forms of scientific evidence

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