ENSI Lessons

The Great Fossil Find

Authors/Adaptors: Adapted by Steve Randak and Michael Kimmel

Students are taken on an imaginary fossil hunt. Following a script read by the teacher, students "find" (remove from envelope) paper "fossils" of some unknown creature, only a few at a time. Each time, they try to reconstruct the creature, and each time their interpretation may change as new pieces are "found".

Lesson Concepts:

Grade Span: 5–12


Advance Preparation:

Time: One class period

Grouping: 3-4 per group

Teacher Background:
The "fossils" are based on the real fossil bones of Scaphognathus crassirostris, a ptersosaur ("flying reptile") that lived in the late Jurassic (around 150 mya) in the vicinity of present day Germany. Adults had a wingspan of about one meter.

Teacher Resources:
Do a web search for Scaphognathus and ptersosaurs. For elements of the nature of science that this lesson illustrates, go to the Nature of Science: General Background Information for the teacher. This will help you to dispel some of the common popular myths about science.

Teaching Tips:
This lesson provides an excellent biological alternative (or additional) example of the nature of science, in contrast to many other lessons for doing this, which are taken from the physical sciences. For this reason, you might want to include this in your introduction to the nature of science early in your course.

The lesson would also provide an engaging (and novel) introduction to fossil studies or anatomy. If you have students compare samples of hominid skulls, this lesson would be a useful preliminary experience, where you can discuss examples of structure and function suggested by the bones and teeth.

Build anticipation by announcing that the class will be going on a big fossil dig the next day. Be dramatic! The next day, if possible, come dressed in what you have that comes closest to what you might wear going to a dusty, hot, fossil dig, e.g., a grungy safari hat, sunglasses, geological hammer, camera, etc. When you do the lesson, be as dramatic as you can about your shared adventure. Be sure to snap some pictures of students working on fossils during the lesson.

The Great Fossil Find Worksheet is suitable for 6-12th grade students. For younger students, plan to engage in some follow-up discussion, e.g., "What do you think it was?" And, "How can you tell?"

Be sure to remind students to return all fossils back into the envelopes when they finish.

Vocabulary: fossil, skeleton, paleontologist, hypothesis


  1. Make a grand entrance into your room (wearing fossil-digging gear).
  2. Hand out worksheets and envelopes with fossils to all groups (or have them ready in trays for groups to get when ready). WARNING: ask students to NOT open the envelopes until instructed to do so.
  3. Begin reading with enthusiasm from the narrative script. Eventually, you may want to recount the "story" from memory, with a more natural and dramatic flair. Feel free to substitute other names for those used in the script. For example, for the "field in Montana, near the town of Randak" you can substitute "field in Germany, near the town of Solnhofen," which is actually more accurate. For "Kimmel College Five and Dime", you could substitute your school's name — as a college or university.
  4. At the appropriate time, hand out the Skeletal Resource Manuals to all groups, so they can begin to get clues about their creature.
  5. AFTER THE STORY: When all fossils are back in their envelopes, follow these directions described in AFTER THE STORY to reinforce how the students were essentially following the process of science in their search for an answer. They should recognize that their provisional identifications were essentially "hypotheses" — tentative and testable explanations to a question (what WAS this creature?). Also, point out that this was a simulation of one kind of real science: a search for answers about past events, in contrast to most science they've studied, which are usually the experimental type.
  6. As mentioned elsewhere, totally resist telling the class (or student) what the creature was. This is for two reasons: (1) in real science, we never really KNOW the ANSWER with finality. Scientists try to come sufficiently close enough to reality for all practical purposes. (2) don't spoil the adventure for later periods (word does get around!).


  1. For an interesting variation, cut apart the fossil bones in the sheet of the early 4-legged fossil whale skeleton Pakicetus. See the Pakicetus Fossil Sheet for this.
  2. Another similar experience (trying to reconstruct the past from clues) is the Checks Lab, or the Dogs and Turnips lesson. Also consider doing a forensic science lesson, e.g., ENSI's "Crime Scene: The Case of the Missing Computer Chip", which involves the same kind of science.
  3. Another variation you can try is Xenosmilus (adapted by Al Janulow).


From The Great Fossil Find on the ENSI website.
The S. crassirostrus Fossil Sheet used here is adapted from the Laboratory Manual for Scott, Foresman's text Biology (by Irwin L. Slesnick), 1985, page 75 (ISBN 0-673-22303-6).