Awesome Fossils

Activity Source: 

National Park Service.
Adapted with permission.

Any evidence of past life preserved in a geologic context, such as within rock or sediment, is called a fossil. In this activity you will work as a paleontologist — a scientist who studies fossils to understand ancient landscapes, climate, and life on Earth — to find and identify fossils.

The National Park Service preserves fossils of many types of organisms and traces evidence of their living behaviors, such as making tracks and burrows. Fossils provide visitors with clues or hints of spectacular landscapes of the past. Because fossils are irreplaceable, it is important to protect them. If you find one in a park, leave the fossil where it is and share your discovery with a park ranger.


Set up

  • Plaster of Paris
  • Sawdust or soil
  • 1 small paper cup per student
  • 1 small chicken bone or shell per student

Class activity

  • Fossil notebooks or note paper and pen or pencil
  • Construction paper
  • Craft sticks
  • Small paintbrushes


Set up: A day or two before beginning this lesson, the teacher must prepare “fossils” for students to excavate:

  • First, put on a mask to protect your nose and mouth. Mix Plaster of Paris with soil or sawdust until the consistency is almost as thick as mashed potatoes.
  • Pour this mixture into paper cups until it covers the bottom of the cup (one cup per student).
  • If possible, add scratches, breaks, or chips to the bones and shells that you will add to the plaster.
  • Drop in the chicken bone or shell and cover with more plaster mixture. Many fossils are discovered because a small part sticks out of the ground. If possible, try to model this.
  • Allow to dry for a day or two, then remove paper cups.

Class activity

1. Take one “model rock” that your teacher has prepared and place it on your construction paper. Do you see anything sticking out of the rock? What do you think it is? What makes you think that?

2. Your job as a paleontologist is to carefully remove the rock from around a fossil inside. What do you think would be the best technique for excavating the fossil? Using craft sticks as picks, pick away at the rock to reveal the embedded fossil, taking care not to damage it. Use paintbrushes to remove smaller particles of plaster from the fossils.

3. Illustrate your fossil in your fossil notebook or on your note paper and label your drawing as best you can. Be sure to label anything you notice. If you notice anything surprising on your fossil, what do you think it might tell you about what happened to the animal which left behind this fossil?

4. Discuss: What did you enjoy about the process of “digging out” your fossil? Was there anything you did not enjoy? What qualities should a paleontologist have to be successful at finding and excavating fossils? Can anyone look for fossils in national parks? Why or why not?

National Fossil Day

On the Wednesday of Earth Science Week, celebrate the National Fossil Day! Events are being held nationwide to encourage people to explore and appreciate the animal, plant, and trace fossils in national parks and other public lands. Paleontologists and park rangers are sharing fossil discoveries and explaining the importance of preserving fossils so everyone can share a sense of discovery!  Learn more at:

NGSS Connections

Science and Engineering Practices - Planning and carrying out investigations; Engaging in argument from evidence

Crosscutting Concepts – Patterns

Disciplinary Core Ideas – The history of planet Earth; Biogeology