Known for its expansive collections, the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History is also building an impressive collection of educational classroom kits. The portable fossils and new archaeology kits provide state standards-based curriculum and real or reproduction artifacts and fossils offering hands-on learning experiences for 4th grade classes across Colorado.
Anyone who has walked the halls of the CU-Boulder Museum of Natural History can attest to the museum’s wealth of educational resources. Its collections number nearly 5 million objects, and its exhibition galleries are free and open to the public seven days a week. Yet even with more than 40 thousand visitors annually, the museum and its offerings are no longer confined to campus, thanks to an ever-expanding assortment of portable fossil and archaeology kits free for Colorado classrooms.
When the Colorado Department of Education adopted new state standards in 2009, it included for the first time the study of fossils. The Fossils in the Classroom project was created in response to requests from schools in need of fossil information.
Museum education staff partnered with paleontology curators, collection managers, and local teachers to develop and refine kits that contain standards-based curriculum and real and cast fossils. The backbone of the kits’ contents is based on the work of Jaelyn Eberle, curator of fossil vertebrates and assistant professor of geological sciences, and collections managers Talia Karim and Toni Culver. The different activities in the kits encourage students to describe, measure, predict, and record fossils, and they can compare their observations to the work of other students and CU-Boulder paleontologists.
Jim Hakala, senior educator for the museum, continues to shape and grow the fossil kits since the first prototype was developed in 2010. Under his direction, there are now more than 275 fossil kits in 33 school districts and 266 schools in locations such as Fort Morgan, Durango, Canon City, Trinidad, and more. Nearly 20,000 4th graders have used the kits in their classes, and the teacher network continues to expand since the early days when Hakala first began contacting school districts.
“Once the teachers realized I was not kidding, they welcomed us,” Hakala said. “Evaluation data supports the success of the kit. It has become something they embrace very strongly and want to bring to other teachers and students.
“I am trying to nurture those relationships to strengthen the ties, not just between me and the teachers, but between them and the museum and potentially CU-Boulder.”
Leveraging the popularity of the fossil kits and the loyal teacher network, Hakala has developed archaeology kits as part of the Colorado Archaeology in the Classroom project. Like the fossil program, the archaeology project has been supported by CU-Boulder Outreach Awards. The archaeology kits contain the Federal Bureau of Land Management’s respected curriculum and fire-starting tools, casts of stone projectile points , pottery fragments, and more. The materials are based on the cutting-edge ancient southwest research of Steve Lekson, professor of anthropology and archeology curator for the museum, who helps identify authentic and replica artifacts for inclusion in the kit.
The materials are based on the cutting-edge research of Steve Lekson, professor of anthropology and the museum’s archaeology curator. Lekson’s work focuses on the ancient southwest, and he helps identify authentic and replica artifacts for inclusion in the kits.
Lekson was co-author on the Federal Bureau of Land Management’s curriculum “Intrigue of the Past,” which, along with “Discovering Archaeology in Colorado,” is included in the kit. He also helps identify authentic and reproduction artifacts for inclusion.
“This is what I do for a living, but it’s still exciting for me,” said Lekson, examining a piece of pottery from a kit. “It’s always a thrill for me to handle these (artifacts) and it’s even more thrilling to share them with 4th graders. I hope it inspires. It’s the tip of the iceberg for what they can learn.”
Nearly 45 archaeology kits are in residence in school districts, free of charge. The feedback from teachers is immensely positive, with 100 percent of teachers indicating that students initiated novel discussions about Colorado prehistory, and 100 percent said they intend to re-use the kits.
With the support of the educators, museum faculty and staff, and a recent outreach award, Hakala aims to increase the archaeology resources by another 25 kits this year while continually updating the fossil kits as well.
“This is certainly a labor of love for me, but there are a lot of other factors that really make a difference,” Hakala said.
“The support that I’ve gotten from the museum curatorial, collections, and administration staff is tremendously important. That’s made all the difference in the world. I don’t have the expertise, but I do have curators like Steve and Jaelyn that enable this project to go forward and expand into Colorado classrooms.”