Lesson Plans > Module 1 > Lesson 4:

The Role of Subjectivity and Creativity in Science Using the Inquiry Activity “The Great Fossil Find”

Prep Time: 20 minutes     Class Time: 1 class period


In this lesson, 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 attempt to reconstruct the creature, and each time, their interpretation tends to change as new pieces are “found.”

Learning Goals

The student will be able to:

  1. Know that scientists are creative throughout an investigation (designing investigations and interpreting data).
  2. Explain that scientists can make different inferences based on observations because of their backgrounds and theoretical frameworks.
  3. Recognize that science is a human endeavor influenced by the society and culture in which it is practiced.


Misconceptions to tackle:

  1. Scientists are always objective, scientists make different inferences/conclusions with no justification.
  2. Science is procedural, scientists are creative but only when developing a way to collect data.



Historically in the U.S., the scientific method has been strongly addressed as the only approach that scientists use to conduct an experiment or an investigation.  Nonetheless, certain scientists do not necessarily follow all the steps of the scientific method or they may not follow the steps in a particular order. For this reason, students need to learn other ways of conducting science that relates more closely to the actual work of scientists.   If students become accustomed to doing science activities that do not follow a singular scientific method, then they will be more likely to question the process and become more creative in their scientific endeavors.


First, you will need to get printouts of the PDF files at the end of this lesson. Make enough copies of the “fossils” sheets so you will have at least one sheet per team in a period, plus a few extras in case of loss. For a class of 32, you should have a minimum of 8 envelopes, each with a set of fossils for use by a team of 4. Some teachers may prefer teams of 2 or 3, requiring more fossil sets.

Second, cut apart the bones on the fossil sheet. There is no need to cut along the outline of each bone, just cut enough to separate each bone (see the smooth “cutting lines” around each bone, shown below. Have lab assistants, your spouse, other faculty, or anyone else you can cajole into helping you assist you, as this is a labor-intensive task. Be sure to place the bones cut from one sheet all into one envelope. You should end up with enough envelopes so you’ll have one per team. It is a good idea to number or letter each envelope to match any team designation system you have. One classroom set of envelopes should be sufficient for all your classes, for many years.

Next, copy enough of the same number of copies of the Skeletal Resource Manual (so there will be one per team). They can be copied back-to-back to save paper, if you like. Put the title page on the front; sequence of others is not important. Staple them together, and number or letter them to match your team designations (as you did the envelopes).

Run off enough worksheets so there will be one per student (or one per team), for all classes doing this lesson.

    1. Have the envelopes (with “fossils“), “Resource Manuals” and worksheets ready near each team.
    2. Announce that you will be taking them on a fossil hunting expedition, and they will be working in teams of (2, 3, or 4). They should then get into their assigned groups, and get their assigned materials. Tell them not to open the envelopes until told to do so. Ask them to listen carefully and with “rapt anticipation” as you recount the adventure.
    3. Begin the story below.


The Great Fossil Find Narrative


In this activity, you and the members of your team will play the roles of paleontologists working in the field in Montana, near the town of Randak. One clear crisp afternoon in October, you find four well-preserved and complete fossil bones.

(Withdraw four fossil bones from your envelope. Make sure you take them out without looking at the ones remaining in the envelope!)

It is too late in the day to continue with the dig, so you return to camp with your find.

That night, in camp, after dinner, around a Coleman lantern, you and your colleagues begin to assemble the 4 bones you found earlier. Since the bones were all found together and in an undisturbed layer, you assume that they are all from the same animal. You spend the rest of the evening trying different arrangements of the bones in hopes of identifying the animal.

(Use the next 3-5 minutes to try various combinations.)

As the night wears on, you get weary and decide to retire and begin anew in the morning. (Before you go to bed, jot down on your worksheet the type of animal you think it might be.)

Montana mornings are marvelous. They are clear, cool, and clean. Just the kind of day you need to get work done at the dig. The rock layers that hold your fossils are very hard and only grudgingly give up three more specimens. With the day at an end, you make your way back to camp for another try at assembling this mystery animal.

(Withdraw 3 more bones from the envelope. Use the next 3-5 minutes to incorporate your new finds in your fossil reconstruction.)

It’s getting late, and you are getting weary. Maybe tomorrow you will find the answer to the puzzle. (Be sure to record on your worksheet your latest suspicion of the type of animal suspected.)

The next day is cold. It is the last day of the digging season. Winter lurks behind the mountains, and you must leave. Just as the day is about to end in disappointment and defeat, one member of the group cries out “I’ve got them! I’VE GOT THEM!

(Withdraw 3 more bones from the envelope. Use the next 3-5 minutes to incorporate these latest finds. Record what you think it is now.)

Back in the lab at Randak, you go searching in the resource library, and you find some partial skeleton drawings from another group working at a different location but dealing with the same geological period. They have found a skeleton similar to yours, but with some additional bones that you don’t have.

You use this information to add to your own data.

(Take the next 3-5 minutes to compare your findings with those of a team near you, looking for clues that might help you in your reconstruction, and possibly even suggest an entirely different animal than your earlier ideas. Apply these latest clues to the assembly of your skeleton as best you can Record the type of animal suspected now Be as specific as you can.)

Once you are back in your own laboratory at Kimmel College Five and Dime, you find a Skeletal Resource Manual with drawings of the skeletons of some existing animals. You notice some interesting similarities between some of the drawings and your unknown fossil.

(Use the drawings to assist you in your final assembly of the fossil skeleton. Record your final interpretation )

[To teacher: note any resourcefulness as you circulate amongst your students, e.g. using their texts, supply catalogs, etc.]

Answer the questions on your worksheet. When done, be sure to return all of the “fossil bones” to the envelope. 


Be sure that all envelopes (with their bones) and Skeletal Resource Manuals get returned to the team tray (or other holding site).

Now have every team share with the whole class what they figured the creature to be, and see how many were the same, and how many different interpretations were made.

You may want to discuss their answers to the questions at this time. Is there general consensus on what the creature was? If so, discuss what the most telling clues were, and what influenced them most. (Did the conclusions of others have any influence?) Is this the way that scientists work?

If there is NOT consensus, discuss what solution seems “best”, and why it seems best; what criteria are being used? What factors are influencing this decision? This would be a good place to consider what would make a “fair test”, and discuss the elements of what is involved in how scientists select the “best” hypothesis out of competing ones (see the General Information” page on this site).

In any case, if you happen to know, or even suspect, what the creature was, do NOT tell your students! They will clamor to know, but you have to tell them that science is NOT in the business of KNOWING; just coming as close as we can to the MOST LIKELY solution is the best we can do. (We have purposely not told you what the creature is for this very reason.) Tell them this is what really happens in science…we often don’t have all the pieces, and may never ever find them, so we simply rely on our “best” interpretation based on the clues we do have. Leave them with whatever they figured out (just as in the “Mystery Boxes” lesson). An incidental product of this mystery is that word does not reach other classes as to what the unknown creature is, and spoil the experience for them.

Below are some reasonable answers to the last few questions on the worksheet:

QUESTION 6: If this “Fossil Find” scenario is typical of the work of scientists, what features of the nature of science does it demonstrate?

ANSWER 6: Scientists must work together to share their knowledge on what they know; however, scientists do not always have the exact answer to questions and are always faced with uncertainty.

QUESTION 7: From looking at the fossil and the resource manual, what could you say about how and where this animal lived?

ANSWER 7: This animal probably flew because it looks like it has wings and looks like it lived on land since the animal does not have fins or gills.

QUESTION 8: Is it possible for scientists to do studies about things that happened millions of years ago? _____ Explain.

ANSWER 8: Yes, since we can find all sorts of clues, from fossil bones, pollen, leaves, ripple marks in sandstone, volcanic rocks, etc., and then find the age of all the data collected. [This is where the teacher can ask, “How do you think scientists can find the age of bones or other items found in nature?”]

QUESTION 9: Below, or on the back of this sheet, list what you see as the 3 goals of this experience.

ANSWER 9: 1) Scientists are creative throughout an investigation. 2) Scientists can make different inferences based on observations because of their backgrounds and they have different theories. 3) Science is influenced by society and the culture in which it is practiced.


Have students individually complete the questions on “The Great Fossil Find” worksheet and collect them after they are done answering all the questions.  Go over some of the students’ responses to the questions and have a class discussion on them while asking the questions from the exit ticket.

Exit Ticket

  • Do scientists always follow the same steps when collecting data?  Why or why not?
  • Can scientists make different inferences based on their observations?  Why or why not?
  • How does a scientist’s background influence how s/he thinks about designing investigations?

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