Earth and Mineral Sciences

Elementary students dig in to Shake, Rattle & Rocks event

A fifth-grader from Radio Park Elementary looks on as Lauren Milideo, a Penn State graduate student, helps a classmate identify ancient animal bones and teeth mixed in a pile of rocks.  Credit: Matt Carroll / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Russell Graham put the newest crop of paleontologists to work right away.

Eager fifth-graders from Radio Park Elementary dug into the small piles of rock placed in front of them. They carefully plucked bones from the rubble, finding ancient remains of animals like mice, toads, snakes and gophers. 

“I found a tooth,” one student shouted. 

The students’ foray into identifying fossils was part of the Department of Geosciences’ annual Shake, Rattle & Rocks event held last week on campus. The three-day program gave fifth-graders from State College the chance to experience what it means to be an earth scientist. 

Graham’s lesson, “Bone Picking,” was one stop on a tour of the Deike Building that ran the gamut of earth sciences studied there. 

Students learned about everything from the effects of oil spills in our oceans to how microbes could thrive on other planets.  

During their time with Graham, director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences museum, the students got to contribute to real research. They helped filter bones and teeth from rocks and set the fossils aside for Penn State researchers to study later.

“These fossils come from a site out in South Dakota that all of us have worked on,” Graham told the students. “We’re digging bones out there in a cave. What we do is take the sediments, put them on a screen and spray it with water. All the fine material goes through the screen, and what’s left is what you have in front of you – bones and rocks.”

It’s that type of hands-on experience that’s at the heart of the event, now in its 15th year, said Tim Bralower, professor of geosciences and organizer of Shake, Rattle & Rocks.

“They do the sorts of activities we do in our labs,” Bralower said. “They are doing things like looking at microbes in petri dishes. We have them picking bones, we have them looking at minerals and at photographs of Mars. It’s kind of the best of what we do.”

The event shows the work being done every day by faculty and students in the Department of Geosciences can be cool – even by fifth-grade standards. But “Shake, Rattle & Rocks” also aims to enhance what the elementary students are learning about science from their textbooks and in their classrooms. 

“We hope that this type of hands-on learning adds greatly to students’ education in their classrooms,” Bralower has said, “and that it will give them a stronger appreciation of the types of issues that earth scientists work hard to investigate — water, climate change, natural hazards and the viability of life on our planet.” 

Russell Graham, director of the Earth and Mineral Science museum, helps a fifth-grade student identify several small fossils found in a pile of rocks during the annual Shake, Rattle & Rocks event.     Credit: Matt Carroll / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 20, 2015