Science in the Classroom: What Our Kids Need to Know

Sean smith is a science writer for and also writes on taking free online courses

Just like you don’t give an elementary school kid a copy of Ulysses and expect them to enjoy it, you don’t teach them about particle physics or organic chemistry. Younger kids learn science by focusing on things they can readily observe around them, like stars and planetary systems, the weather, or animal life cycles. There is one relatively easily understood topic, however, that isn’t making its way into younger kids’ science curriculum these days, and that’s the existence of fossils and the fossil record.

The existence of fossils is not only easily explained to children, but it’s also interesting and exciting. What kid do you know that isn’t intrigued by the idea of dinosaurs? And, while children might not be able to fully understand all the implications of the fossil record now, it gives them a solid foundation for more complicated scientific topics that they will learn later on in life. Here are some more reasons why it’s important to teach paleontology in public school.

Understanding Evolution: The teaching of evolution has certainly been under attack in public schools in the past few years. One good teacher who properly introduces kids to fossils is likely to receive complaints for placing the seeds of questioning about intelligent design into that child’s mind forever.

Besides fighting the good fight for the existance of natural selection, fossils also help kids understand the process of evolution and how organisms evolve over time. Seeing a fossil rendering of archaeopteryx, the dinosaur-to-bird transitional fossil, is an easy way to imprint the awesome explanatory powers of evolution into a child’s mind forever.


An artist’s rendering of archaeopteryx.

Intuiting Geological Time: No human can truly understand the earth’s geological time frame; it’s way too huge. With children, to whom ten minutes can feel like an eternity, it’s even harder. Fossils are a great introduction to the principle of geological time, which is key for understanding climate change, mass extinctions, and other scientific happenings.

For example, how are you going to understand how important the earth’s current mass extinction is, if you don’t understand that the last big one happened 70 million years go? And that 70 million years is the same as you living until 70, a million times? Teaching fossils is a fantastic way to introduce the concept of time on a geological scale to children. In emphasizing this huge time frame, kids are better able to put current scientific changes into perspective.

grand canyon

Fossils help kids understand geological time, and the geological processes that formed our current earth.

Learning About the Earth: To teach fossils to children, you also have to teach them about the earth’s geological processes, which allowed the fossils to form. Through fossils, children are introduced early on to the idea of plate tectonics and an earth that is constantly moving, though infinitesimally. And, through an introduction to geological processes, children also learn about carbon dating and how Darwin used geology to formulate the idea of evolution in the first place.

Geological processes, geological time, and evolution are all obviously very interconnected principles. Fossils are an easy tool that can be used to give kids a basic understanding of these closely related, key scientific concepts. While kids might not put all the pieces together now, you can bet that later on in life they will draw on their knowledge of fossils as a way to interpret more sophisticated phenomena.

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