Coordinating a Record of the Past

Activities Integrating Math and Science (AIMS)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model , Game , Experiment/Lab Activity
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.



Students examine pictures of marine and dry land organisms in a teacher-made 'fossil pit' before making claims about what type of environment the organisms  in the fossil pit lived in. The fossil pit is arranged like a coordinate graph with students using their understanding of math coordinates and area to uncover certain fossils before predicting the likely locations of land and water environments in the pit.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

3-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.

Clarification Statement: Examples of data could include type, size, and distributions of fossil organisms. Examples of fossils and environments could include marine fossils found on dry land, tropical plant fossils found in Arctic areas, and fossils of extinct organisms.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include identification of specific fossils or present plants and animals. Assessment is limited to major fossil types and relative ages.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are given a model of a fossil pit, and must use the evidence they reveal. To model the limited amount of evidence paleontologists work with, students are only allowed to uncover some of the fossils (determined by dice roll) before coming to a consensus of which final few fossils to target and uncover to determine the separation between land and water environments in the fossil pit. This activity allows each student to make a claim about what they believe the prehistoric environment was like, and then support that claim with 'fossil evidence'.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students use a model of a fossil pit to obtain "fossil evidence", analyze which fossils are found on dry land and which are marine fossils, and predict what the environment was like back when the animals that made the fossils were alive. In this activity, the students are using a coordinate graph (mathematics) to analyze which organisms were marine and which lived on dry land (colored areas), and use logical reasoning to fill in areas in which fossils were not revealed or were missing. Justifying the selection of the additional four squares to reveal provides a chance for argumentation, and possibly a written prompt to provide an additional assessment artifact for each student. To include computation, the students could find what fraction or percentage (out of the 36 squares) were land and what fraction were water.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The purpose of this activity is for the students to predict what the environment was like when the animals that left the fossils were alive. In order to do this, the students must become familiar with two dozen different organisms. The students may have some trouble identifying whether some of the animals that made the fossils lived on dry land or were marine animals, so the teacher should either be prepared with that information, look up the information as a group, or have the students break up into small groups and research organisms revealed to learn more about their structures and likely environments.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
As the fossils are revealed, the students can begin to see that there is an area on the grid where fossils that live on land meet fossils that live in the ocean. Because not all of the fossils have been revealed, the students will need to look for patterns and hypothesize where the dividing line between land and ocean might have been. The Connected Learning questions help the teacher to guide the students to understand that there is not a definite right or wrong answer, but that scientists use the clues that they find to locate patterns and make their hypothesis about what the area was like in the past. Just like the class, not all scientists will agree on the same answer.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson uses a model that allows students to observe models of different types of fossils and make sense of how fossils can help scientists to understand what the organisms and environment looked like long ago. The activity allows students to work together and discuss possibilities (turning over the four additional cards), but eventually asks the student to make a claim and support that claim with evidence (grid colored blue and brown, with separating line). Since pictures are not as impressive/effective as a real fossil, if possible, real fossils should be brought in for the students to touch and observe. If real fossils are not available, more realistic images of fossils can be found online at the Virtual Fossil Museum:

  • Instructional Supports: The Coordinating A Record of the Past lesson plan includes teacher background information, lesson organization, guiding questions, materials, reproducible sheets for the dice, fossil cards and lab sheet coordinate grid. There are no differentiation strategies for ESL students or struggling readers, but since this activity is done whole-group and much of the information is represented with pictures, that should not be a great difficulty. A rubric or some other standardized way to grade this activity would also strengthen the assessment portion of this lesson if being used as a summative assessment.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Student progress can be monitored through group discussion, student explanation about what four cards that they would like to see turned over, and the final lab sheet where students determine the boundary between the land environment and the marine environment. The activity assessment could be strengthened by having the students defend their claim in writing on the back of the coordinate grid lab sheet. The guiding questions include one that asks about how the student decided on the land/water boundaries, but it would be helpful to third graders to answer that question in writing before they tried to verbalize it to the rest of the class.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is no technology used in this resource.