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Lesson Plans: Tell A Tale of the Burgess Shale

Overview:

Students use the Internet to research the famous Burgess Shale fossils, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Yoho National Park of Canada, then demonstrate their learning in a variety of creative ways!

Learning Expectations:

  • students locate, gather, select, and summarise relevant information on the Burgess Shale, then report in the form of a creative product or presentation
  • to appreciate the scientific importance of the Burgess Shale fossils

Duration of the lesson:

This is a project, requiring a few classroom sessions plus out-of-class research and preparation time.

Required Materials/Preparation:

For each group of students:

  • a copy of the Assignment and Guiding Questions
  • a copy of the assessment chart(s)
  • poster paper, coloured markers, tape, glue
  • computer, with Internet access
  • * books on the Burgess Shale fossils (*optional)

Teacher Background:

Some fossil locations are known as fossil Lagerstatten ( meaning “motherlode”) because their preservation of ancient life is extraordinary. The Burgess Shale is one of these fossil sites, located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia. It is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was discovered in 1909, by American scientist, Charles Walcott. The fossils are the remains of a marine community that lived in a tropical sea in the Cambrian time period, roughly 500 million years ago. The fossil quarry where they are found, high up on a mountain ridge, contains over 170 different species of plants and animals! The fossils are so well preserved that in some cases even soft tissues and internal organs are visible, which is very rare. The Burgess Shale animals lived shortly after an extraordinary event, called the Cambrian Explosion, which was like an evolutionary “Big Bang”. Within a very short time (geologically speaking), a wide range of complex animals (many with hard shells) suddenly appeared in the fossil record for the first time.

Assignment (Procedure):

  1. Think about what you’d like to know about the famous Burgess Shale fossils, and list at least five questions that you’d like to have answered about them.
  2. Compare your questions with the ones listed below, and see if any are the same. Make a final list of questions to answer about the fossils.
  3. Use the Internet to research the Burgess Shale, using the questions to focus your research.
  4. Make sure that you properly document your sources of information (or else you are plagiarising)
  5. Use your own special creative talents to “tell a tale” of the Burgess Shale that demonstrates your knowledge of the fossils. You may choose to create either a product or a presentation. You may work on your own, or with a partner, or within a small group, depending on what you choose to do. Here are just some of the possibilities:
    • Presentation for the class, with pictures (PowerPoint if possible)
      Short Story , minimum 500 words (for example, a fictionalized story of the discovery of the fossils, or from the point of view of one of the creatures)
    • Poster (with pictures)
    • Poem or song, minimum 150 words
    • Create models of at least 3 of the animals, labelled with information
    • Write and present a Play, minimum 5 minutes in length
    • Mock Interview, minimum 500 words (for example, with a scientist, or with one or more of the creatures)
    • Mock Letter, minimum 500 words
    • Write and present a “radio broadcast” or “TV show”, minimum 5 minutes in length
    • Written Report, minimum 500 words (with pictures)
    • Your own idea (but make sure that your teacher approves it first!)
      You should refer to the Assessment Criteria frequently, that will determine your mark on this project. Make sure that your product or presentation will meet the requirements for the mark you desire.
  6. Ask two other classmates to review your work, using the Assessment Criteria as a checklist, and get suggestions from them on how to make it better
  7. Revise and edit your work, to complete the final version of your product or presentation.

Guiding Questions to try and answer with your research:

  • What kinds of life forms are most likely to fossilize?
  • Do fossils provide a complete look at ancient life forms?
  • Where were the Burgess Shale fossils first found?
  • Who discovered the Burgess Shale? When?
  • How did the environment of the Burgess Shale differ from the present?
  • How long ago did the Burgess Shale creatures live? What do geologists refer to this time as?
  • How did the animals likely die? How did their bodies become fossilized?
  • Are there Burgess Shale type fossils found elsewhere in the world? If so, where?
  • Which Burgess Shale animals resemble modern marine life? Why?
  • Which Burgess Shale animals do you think are unlike any creatures on Earth today? Why?
  • Why is the Burgess Shale a fossil Lagerstatten (motherlode), and an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Evaluation/Assessment:

The teacher should inform students of the criteria against which their work will be evaluated at the beginning of the project. When reviewing other’s work, students should use these criteria as a checklist. Students may be assessed on either a product or a presentation demonstrating their learning. Sample assessments of each are included here:

Presentation Assessment Criteria

(e.g. presentation, interview, dramatization)

Criteria Rating Comments
Logical organization that is easy to follow 5 4 3 2 1  
Information is relevant and accurate 5 4 3 2 1  
Evidence of careful planning, preparation 5 4 3 2 1  
Visual aids are used effectively 5 4 3 2 1  
Uses grammatically correct language 5 4 3 2 1  
Voice can be heard, and is understandable 5 4 3 2 1  
Effective, holds audience’s attention 5 4 3 2 1  
Informative, most questions answered 5 4 3 2 1  

/40

Key:
5
– Outstanding (demonstrates strong evidence of all criteria)
4 – Very Good (demonstrates most criteria competently)
3 – Satisfactory (demonstrates some criteria competently, some not met)
2 – Developing ( some criteria met, does not meet all requirements)
1 – Not Evident (does not demonstrate most criteria)

Product Assessment Criteria

(e.g. poster, letter, report)

CriteriaRatingComments
Logical organization that is easy to follow 5 4 3 2 1  
Information is relevant and accurate 5 4 3 2 1  
Layout / design / style is effective 5 4 3 2 1  
Pictures / illustrations are appropriate 5 4 3 2 1  
Few spelling or grammatical errors 5 4 3 2 1  
Neat, legible, easy to read 5 4 3 2 1  
Effective, interesting, original 5 4 3 2 1  
Informative, most questions answered 5 4 3 2 1  

/40

Extension of the lesson:

The scope of this project may be revised as necessary to suit the capabilities of the students, as well as the available time for completion of the project.

References (Suggested Related Resources):

For information, illustrations and pictures of Burgess Shale fossils try:

The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of natural History (Burgess Shale fossil index).
University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology (For biological classification and evolution information)
The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation
Peabody Museum of Natural History
Briggs, Derek, E.G., et.al., The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, 1994.
Gould, Stephen Jay, Wonderful Life, 1989.
Coppold, Murray, and Powell, Wayne, A Geoscience Guide to The Burgess Shale, 2000. 
Yoho National Park website

Acknowledgements:

Created by teacher Lisa Holmstrom, 2005 (with creative ideas from teacher Katie Birtwell and her students).

Some Answers to Guiding Questions:

  • What kinds of life forms are most likely to fossilize? Usually only the hard parts of animals (i.e. bones, teeth) that are resistant to decay will fossilize.
  • Do fossils provide a complete picture of ancient life forms? No, especially if only the hard parts of the animals are fossilized. Also, many plants and animals will never become fossilized in the first place.
  • Where were the Burgess Shale fossils first found? High up on a mountain ridge, in Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
  • Who discovered the Burgess Shale? American scientist Charles Walcott. When? In the year 1909.
  • How did the environment of the Burgess Shale differ from the present? The animals lived in a shallow, warm, tropical ocean on the continental shelf of ancient North America.
  • How long ago did the Burgess Shale creatures live? Roughly 500 million years ago. What do geologists refer to this time as? The Cambrian time period.
  • How did the animals likely die? They were quickly buried in fine-grained mud by undersea currents. How did their bodies become fossilized? The fine-grained mud completely coated their bodies inside and out, and prevented scavengers and bacteria from destroying the carcasses. Certain minerals replaced the animals’ remains, and the mud in which the bodies lay became rock.
  • Are there Burgess Shale type fossils found elsewhere in the world? Yes! If so, where? Other famous Burgess Shale type fossil sites are found in China and Greenland.
  • Which Burgess Shale animals do you think resemble modern animals? Why? For example, Canadaspis is an ancestor of crustaceans, and looks a little like a lobster.
  • Which Burgess Shale animals do you think are unlike any creatures on Earth today? Why? Anomalocaris, Opabinia, Waptia, Dinomischus, and Nectocaris are some of the animals that bear no resemblance to anything alive on Earth today.
  • Why is the Burgess Shale a fossil Lagerstatten (motherlode), and an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

In the Burgess Shale, even the soft tissues and internal organs of the animals are often preserved, which is very rare. The fossil site is very rich, with over 170 different species of plants and animals found in one small quarry. The fossils are very old, and are some of the most ancient ancestors of modern animals.


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