Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Paleontology - Dinovember STEAM Program

Dinovember, dinosaur STEM STEAM program, dinosaur activities

Well, I will start off by saying that I was overly ambitious in planning this Dinovember program, and it was more labor intensive than I expected it to be. We didn't get to do everything I planned, and it took both more prep and clean-up time than expected, BUT I had a great turnout and everyone seemed to really enjoy it. [As always, click on any image to see it full size.]

Ages: 5-10

Time: 1 hour (clean up time was an additional hour)

Number: 18 participants (for more than 12 I highly recommend an additional staff member)

Budget: Approximately $45 (but had leftover consumables, as well as reusable items)

Activity #1 - Making a Plaster Cast 

Since it is difficult to remove fossilized footprints without ruining them, and preferable to leave them where they are for others to see, paleontologists often make plaster casts of them instead.

  • some type of clay (I used salt dough)
  • plastic dinosaurs (9"-12" figures work best)
  • cooking spray
  • plaster of paris
  • salt*
  • water
  • flexible plastic strips (I used a laminating pouch) stapled to make circles about 2-3" in diameter
  • measuring cups & spoons
  • craft sticks that have previously been dipped in plaster and cured*
  • flat trays or waxed cardboard
  • small disposable cup
  • small disposable plates
    Plaster cast of dinosaur footprints
  1. Give each child or group (I had them in groups of 3) a tray and some clay to flatten on the tray (or do in advance). Then give them plastic dinosaurs to "walk" through the mud to make footprints (you can also leave skin impressions). Lightly spray with cooking spray.
  2. Instruct the participants to place their flexible plastic circle around some nice footprints.
  3. Measure out 1/4C plaster powder into a small cup and add 2 good pinches of salt, then add 2 T water and stir with the "dirty" end of the craft stick until smooth, and pour into the plastic circle. Let set for at least 20 minutes (the longer the better).
  4. Once the plaster is set, remove the plastic ring and VERY carefully remove the plaster cast from the clay and set on the paper plate. At this point it is still fragile and will break easily. Carefully clean off any clay sticking to the cast.
  5. Leave the plaster cast on the plate and let it cure for 24-48 hours. At this point it will be hard and able to be handled. In the finished cast pictured are footprints from three different dinosaurs, as well as some skin impressions.
*Plaster is normally mixed 2 parts plaster to 1 part water and takes about an hour to set. Adding salt to the mixtures speeds this up (but adding too much also weakens the plaster). In addition, stirring the mixture with sticks that are coated with cured plaster provides crystals to seed the reaction, further speeding it up so that it will set in 10-15 minutes. 
Activity #2 - Excavation! 

There are many different ways to do this, but this worked really well (though messy). If possible, do outdoors, or at least on a non-carpeted floor. I wanted it to be more than simply sifting through sand, but also material that was easy enough to dig through in the amount of time we had, and somewhat simulate different layers of earth/rock.

  • Salt dough (it takes a lot!) made in several batches, each colored slightly different earth tones.
  • Optional additions to make it interesting (rock salt, aquarium gravel, etc.)
  • Hard plastic dinosaur skeletons that come in pieces that can be put together (I found a set of 3 for about $15 from Amazon)
  • Something to use for dirt (I used a mixture of used coffee grounds, cornmeal, and salt)
  • Disposable aluminum pans
  • Variety of tools (plastic knives, spoons, skewers, paintbrushes, toothbrushes, etc.)
  1. I first put a thin layer of salt dough in each pan, sprinkled a few pieces of rock salt on it and baked at 250 F for 2 hours and then let cool to provide a hard rock base layer. This step is not necessary if you'd rather skip it to save time and materials, but I really wanted to create at least 3 different layers.
  2. Next, I added a second, thicker layer of salt dough in a different color, and pressed the dinosaur bones into it, partially covering them, and baked at 200 for 45 minutes, then let cool. This made it firm and dry, but not hard.
  3. Finally, I covered with a layer of "dirt".
  1. I made up a total of 6 8x8 pans, and half the bones of one dinosaur went into each one. I labeled them A, B, or C so I would later know which pans went together.
  2. I gave each group of 3 kids one pan, along with assorted tools, reminding them they have to be careful not to damage the fossils (they WILL make a mess). Once all bones have been unearthed, then groups combined to assemble their skeletons. They often found they had to do a little more cleaning to get them to snap together properly.

    Some kids got bored or frustrated at this point, and wandered over to play with our large toy dinosaurs I had off to the side (they have been starring in my Dinovember "What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night" after escaping, and the ones that our young patrons have helped us capture were at the program) or to draw dinosaurs on the dry erase tables, but a few of them and a couple of moms really got into it and would not give up until they had the skeleton fully assembled.
I also had my large dinosaur skeletons (about the size of a
German shepherd) for the kids to look at and take pictures with.

How It Went

Overall, it went well, but I did not get a chance to do everything I wanted. In addition to these two activities, I had intended on showing them a number of real fossils; no dinos, unfortunately, but a lot of others that can be found in our area, even microscopic fossils in diatomaceous earth, but there was just no time.

The first activity took twice as long as I had expected, because (1) people weren't listening or following directions, and (2) there were several latecomers, so I had to stop and repeat or start over several times. I was torn about whether to make the footprints ahead of time and let the dough dry hard to save time and be more like rock, and I now wish that's what I had done. All but one of the plaster casts set, but a few broke because of rough handling or not pouring all the plaster
in and making it thicker, and thus stronger.

The excavation worked really, really well and the kids clearly enjoyed that the most, and some of the parents really got into it, too. I would highly recommend the skeleton set I bought, even if they did send us two stegosauruses and no T. rex. It did make a huge mess, and I spent a full hour cleaning up. I would have had a layer of slightly damp, packed "dirt" and only a thin layer of loose dirt on top, but I didn't have time as the dinosaur skeletons didn't arrive until the day of the program!

I wish we'd had time to do some of the fossils, especially because that was the main reason the oldest child came, but I'll have to figure out some other program to do where that can be the focus. I really felt bad when he asked about them and I had to say we just didn't have time and I hadn't even had a chance to unpack them. I would've been happy to show him some afterward if my shift wasn't already over and I still had all the clean-up to do.

In hindsight, the plaster casting and excavation activities were too much to do together. If I had it to do over again, I'd just do one of them along with looking at real fossils, and spend a little more time talking about the science of paleontology, how fossils develop, and how they are found, and the individual fossils. 

I definitely learned my lesson about being overly ambitious and overplanning! But next month's program will have no prep and virtually no clean-up, so it balances out. Plus I got to channel Ms. Frizzle and wear this super cute dinosaur dress 😉

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