The Day the Mesozoic Died

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Biointeractive), Mary Colvard is the author of the lesson plans that are included.
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Animation/Movie
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This three-act film tells the story of the detective work that solved the mystery of what caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. Shot on location in Italy, Spain, Texas, Colorado, and North Dakota, the film traces the uncovering of key clues that led to the discovery that an asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago, triggering a mass extinction of animals, plants, and microorganisms. Science practices in geology, physics, biology, chemistry and paleontology all contributed to the solution to this compelling mystery. Lesson plans are included that have students identify evidence and construct an explanation to tie it together. Summary questions are included at the end and a class discussion is recommended. (This activity will be the only one evaluated in this review.) Another resource is “Finding the Crater” where students “visit” different K-T boundary sites. There are also lessons where students analyze various characteristics of the asteroid such as its size and energy, chemical data about the asteroid, and the iridium fallout from an asteroid impact. A hands-on activity where students study the differences in foraminifera fossils below and above the K-T boundary is also included as well as an article that outlines more details about each of the discoveries covered in the film. You can view the film on the website or HHMI will send you a free DVD. Lesson plans including teacher notes and a student handout can be found at Other extensions can be found at

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on finding patterns of changes in the level of complexity of anatomical structures in organisms and the chronological order of fossil appearance in the rock layers.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the names of individual species or geological eras in the fossil record.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students analyze evidence from geology, physics, biology, chemistry and paleontology as they trace the history of the discovery of an asteroid causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some evidence used is the difference in foraminifera, dinosaur and small mammals above and below the K-T boundary. Many species that lived before then became extinct. Students are able to draw the conclusion that an asteroid changed the environment to cause populations of life forms to change over time. Teachers may want to add the activity at to have students look at evidence of plant fossils at the KT boundary. They can find the patterns of change in the anatomical structures by looking at plant fossils and see the chronological order of fossil appearance and disappearance in the fossil record.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students analyze the evidence of a change in life forms such as foraminiferans, dinosaurs, plants and small animals over time as well as geological and chemical evidence including iridium, spherules, and shocked quartz at the K-T boundary. As students tie all of this evidence together they are analyzing and interpreting data as they answer questions about why some species became extinct and some survived as well as what caused the change in the environment. Teachers may want to have students focus on the following driving questions for each act of the film: Act 1: How did the dinosaurs die?, Act 2: Where is the crater?, Act 3: Which species were wiped out and which survived and why? The first two acts do a excellent job of outlining the evidence from different disciplines that support a claim. The last act is fairly quick and does not supply as much direct evidence to answer the question. The worksheet has columns for “Evidence Presented” and “What the Evidence Suggests”, but a third column that identifies the scientific discipline may also be added. Argumentation may also be included, especially with questions 4 and 5 at the end. Students could state their answer and explain why they chose it. The class may be able to come to a consensus for those answers. At the end of Act 1 there are two claims for the idea that something from outer space caused the iridium in the KT boundary layer, a supernova and an asteroid or comet. The teacher may want to do a side argumentation from the main driving question to have students argue which claim is best supported by the data.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Many different species such as foraminiferans, dinosaurs, ferns and small mammals are examined in this film. They are placed in chronological order and students are asked to analyze and interpret evidence and suggest a reason for the extinction of some species and the survival of others. The teacher may want to stop after each piece of evidence so that students have time to analyze and interpret each one. The film moves quickly at times so that it would be hard for students to identify each piece.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
There are many patterns in the data presented in the film such as some species not appearing in the fossil record after the KT boundary and the presence of iridium, spherules, and shocked quartz at the KT boundary. It will need to be pointed out to students that they are finding patterns when they analyze and interpret the data. The teacher can make a list of the patterns that are found in the fossil evidence as the pieces of evidence are discussed in class.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: “The Day the Mesozoic Died” is an excellent way for students to see scientific practices at work and also evaluate evidence that is produced by scientists to support a claim. The evidence is presented in an engaging way and students are asked to combine the three dimensions of analyzing and interpreting data to find patterns about the existence, diversity, extinction and change in life forms before and after the K-T boundary sixty-five million years ago.

  • Instructional Supports: Included in the lesson is an introduction, the procedure for the lesson, a table for students to fill out as they watch the film, and questions to answer at the end. There are also learning objectives, key terms, time requirements, appropriate age levels, prior knowledge, teaching tips and an answer key. Many extension activities round out the resources provided for teachers. Students engage in a scenario that has most probably captivated them since they were small-”What happened to the dinosaurs?” Prior knowledge is taken into account by building on the idea of the older fossils being found in deeper rock layers than younger fossils and relative timing of past events. One aspect that is missing is that there are no alternatives for ELL, special needs or struggling students. Extensions for students with high abilities are outlined.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Students are engaged in making sense of various phenomena and tying them together to construct a scientific explanation. The student handout could be used as a formative assessment, but a rubric could be included. A summative assessment should also be added. This could include a paragraph summarizing the claim for what killed the dinosaurs, the science practices used to discover the answer, and the evidence collected. The crosscutting concept of patterns should be included in each of these assessments.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The film is very well done and has won two awards. Students are able to “meet” the scientists that were involved in this discovery and hear their story about how it related to answering the big question of how dinosaurs and other species living 65 million years ago died.