FOSSILS IN THE FIELD:
REAL AND "VIRTUAL" EXPERIENCES
SCIENCE IS a method of knowing and not a set of established facts. Even though this is
widely acknowledged in the literature of science education, it is not so in the perception of
the general public. Therefore it is little wonder that when a "scientific fact" changes due to
the discovery of new evidence, students raised on the notion of fact-based science may
become confused and begin to mistrust science. Involvement in actual scientific experience,
however, can make a difference. Once students participate in scientific endeavors, they see
science as an active process, something ongoing instead of something completed. Few
experiences compare with the paleontological field trip as an educational tool for
exemplifying the basic method of science. We believe the following reasons make frequent
fieldtrips worth incorporating into the standard science curriculum at all grade levels:
1) Students become more alert and enthusiastic when their ordinary realm of learning is
replaced by an outdoor setting. Students are free to move and interact more fully with each
other. Cooperative groups often spontaneously form during the exploration of a geological
2) Outcrops offer a greater potential for exploration and personal discovery than most
classroom settings. Such discovery generates many questions that are the root of all scientific endeavor.
3) Paleontological and geological data have a field context in which they become important.
Fossils in the lab are little more than curiosities without the temporal, spatial and community context.
Here we provide some suggestions for more effective paleontological fieldtrips, particularly
for students with limited science background and younger students. Unfortunately, it is
increasingly difficult for school systems to afford transportation costs for field trips to off-
campus sites. In addition, some school districts are located far from available outcrops. If you cannot take frequent fieldtrips for such logistical reasons, then consider the construction and use of "virtual fieldtrips" in the classroom as a less expensive option for teaching field
SCIENTIFIC STORYTELLING IN THE FIELD
Ask students how a fossil is collected and they will commonly describe scenarios worthy of
an Indiana Jones movie: scientist/adventurer braves wilderness and dangerous snakes to
unearth the perfect find, wrap it carefully in a labeled sack, and hop a plane to the museum of
choice. However, a paleontologic fieldtrip is much more than just collecting. Field research
requires recognition of patterns in occurrence of fossils (vertically and laterally), associations with other types of fossils and geological features, and conditions of those fossil occurrences, to name a few items.
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One simple way to introduce these aspects of field investigation and interpretation is
something we call "scientific storytelling". Paleontology is a historical science, so we
encourage students to treat each outcrop as a chapter in the big novel of Earth history. This
story, like any other, can be read by many people, and each person may have a different
interpretation of the overall meaning or message. Since learning the method of science is the
goal, learning how to read the rocks is more important than the particulars of the story.
Fossil-rich sedimentary strata are particularly useful in extending the story analogy. The
stacked beds are like individual pages of a book laid on its front cover. Higher beds are later
pages in the book. This is an easy way to introduce the concept of superposition.
Encourage students to explore with the goal of recognizing patterns. How concentrated are
the fossils at different horizons? Are the fossil concentrations laterally persistent? How
fragmentary or complete are the different fossils observed? Is there a consistent association of fossil type and preservation with rock types? Storm sedimentation and mass mortality events are relatively easy to understand when compared to the dynamics of a story. Just as the action in most stories is not constant, the beds in a fossiliferous outcrop can be seen as episodes of high drama punctuated by background description and character development. If the emphasis during such an outdoor excursion is on reading the rocks and not just seeing who
collects the biggest or best fossil, detailed data collection can become fun and relatively easy.
MAKE TEACHING COLLECTIONS
Standard rock, fossil, and mineral kits exist in many science classrooms. Commercially
assembled fossil kits, however, can only hint at the amazing diversity of life represented in
the fossil record, and are valuable primarily for demonstrating the anatomy of particular
groups of organisms. In part, this is due to the nature of commercially available fossils and
fossil collections. Outcrop data are usually absent or sketchy at best in these collections,
usually consisting of no more than a time period, and a city and state/province for location.
Also, fossils are commonly overprepared to produce more visually appealing results. For
example, many preparators remove fossil organisms that encrust other shells and "repair"
shell deformities or sedimentologically significant fractures. As a result, the study of many
ecological and geological processes are made more difficult.
In contrast, teaching collections made by the class or by the instructor can have enormous
value in a classroom setting. Each piece, however visually unimpressive, can be tagged with
relative stratigraphic data, geographic data, and are part of an assemblage of samples with
which a portion of Earth history can be reconstructed. Since the absence or poor preservation
of fossils in certain beds tells part of the story, students must also collect representative
samples from all beds and not just those with the best looking fossils. A commercially
collected fossil kit can then act as a reference collection to help identify more fragmentary
fossils in the class-collected samples.
What if your school has no money for local fieldtrips or outcrops are not locally available?
We suggest two options designed to act as "virtual fieldtrips". Instructors can recreate their
own fieldtrip experiences in the classroom using collected samples, photographs, and detailed
notes (classroom fieldtrip). Instructors may also access an on-line version of a fieldtrip
(website fieldtrip). Both types are detailed below.
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Classroom fieldtrip (1) Use tables and chairs in your room to position fossils and rock samples so that the room represents several closely spaced outcrops. For example,
individual stations could represent a transect across an ancient depositional basin. (2)
Vertically arrange fossil specimens, rock samples, and photos so that representative (or even
an imaginary) sequence exists at each station. Cover each fossil if you wish students to
"discover" the sample as if exposing it for the first time. (3) Present similar patterns of fossils in all locality sections, but vary the specific fossils and rock types laterally to represent downslope changes in environment. (4) Invite students into the room and set the scene: describe the general geography, the weather, etc. Challenge the students to explore the room and to recognize the patterns in occurrence between the separate "localities". Interpretations should follow the basic principles of earth science, as outlined in Allmon and Griffing (this volume). How does one know where good
collecting sites to accumulate such materials are located? A phone call to the nearest college
geology department, a visit to a college library (for local field conference guidebooks), or a
visit to college and paleontological sites on the World Wide Web are all good first steps.
Website fieldtrips The growing availability of high-speed internet connections in schools around the country and the user-friendly nature of the World Wide Web allow the
possibility of constructing effective on-line "virtual fieldtrips". The Paleontological Research
Institution (PRI) has constructed several "virtual fieldtrips" or EARTHTRIPS as part of our on-line
educational resources at http://www.englib.cornell.edu/pri/. We will not provide a "how to develop your own web fieldtrip cookbook" here because of the speed at which Web software and computer capabilities change. Instead, let us focus on the concepts that can be presented with the most basic of website applications.
Many museum websites offer field or locality photos as background information for
specimens in their on-line exhibits. This practice is useful but is not intended to replicate
what happens during a field experience. During a real fieldtrip a leader provides an overview
of the site and then allows the participants to explore the outcrop exposures. Participants
discover interesting features or fossils and then try to identify them and learn their
significance in the history of the area (or Earth in general). PRI's on-line fieldtrips attempt to
replicate this experience through the use of "image maps".
An "image map" is a document in a website that makes different portions of a graphic image
sensitive to cursor selection and which will link the user to other web pages based on the
particular area of the image selected. Any graphic image can be converted to an image map
with the use of several available programs. Any concept that can be illustrated by visual
means can easily translate into an exercise on a virtual fieldtrip. Image map graphics have a
distinct advantage over simple graphic images because a single photo can lead to a wide
variety of topics on many destination web pages. A single entry page for an EARTHTRIPS
fieldtrip leads to dozens of connected pages. Some present simple geologic concepts and
others require user decision making (For example, PRI's on-line fieldtrip to Kashong Glen, near Geneva, New York). Some of the topics incorporated on PRI's web pages include: comparison as a basis for taxonomic classification, fossil preservation as an indicator of environmental conditions, effects of weathering and erosion on rock exposures, rock-plant interactions, succession of faunas, cosmopolitan versus habitat-specific species, and recognizing three-dimensional fossil forms from two-dimensional exposures.
Similar to many real outcrops, the image mapped areas on EARTHTRIPS fieldtrips vary
from small, difficult-to-find portions to easily selected areas. There are no obvious "click-here" frames across the photograph to announce a particular destination. In fact, all
portions of the entry level photo have a destination. Since paleontology fieldtrips are often
best when all natural subject matter is included, even "clicking" the trees and plants leads to a separate destination page. Many of the destination pages have a theme or concept which they
attempt to teach.
A fossil identification book is a valuable item to take in the field, but often the illustrated
species are too few to be useful. PRI "virtual fieldtrips" are directly connected to an on-line
version of PRI's large fossil collection. The images and data of the on-line collection drawers
act as the ultimate reference book in the EARTHTRIPS fieldtrips. Each on-line locality also
provides real locality data and maps so that a "virtual fieldtrip" might be followed by a real
visit to the locality.
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Since any computer with a stable IP address and consistent connection to the internet can
become a website, building a class "virtual fieldtrip" is an excellent exercise. It requires a
regular camera, an image scanner (a digital camera would replace both of these), image
manipulation software, software to generate HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language the
language of web pages), as well as image map and server software. Some of this software is
directly downloaded from large university websites. Sharing information about your local
area over the web is a great way to increase interest in science!