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No one minded that a group of students left behind a trail of mud from the schoolyard to their classroom on one rainy April day in Chicago.
After all, this was the long awaited day of the “dig.” Today, first and second graders would don the role of archeologist and apply the lessons they’d been absorbing for weeks under the tutelage of Jackie Rapp at the Akiba-Schecter Jewish Day School on the South Side of Chicago.
Her curriculum, which Rapp says is “an inch wide and six feet deep,” had for the last months explored all aspects of archaeology—as a gateway to history, scientific thinking, sociology, art, math, and art.
Rapp was inspired initially by David Macaulay’s book Motel of the Mysteries, which portrayed an amateur archeologist in 4022 who came across the ruins of a catastrophic event in the United States in 1985. She wanted her students to have a similar experience, and began her research.
Her eureka moment was the discovery of one of EDC’s seminal science curricula lessons from the 1960s, which taught children about attributes and critical thinking skills. “You don’t see that very much anymore in curricula,” she notes. “It’s very absent in American education.”
“American students are falling behind because they don’t have the critical thinking skills. This unit got me very excited about the idea of actually having the kids digging with their hands.”
As she prepared the unit, Rapp’s research took her to the University of Chicago, where she came across the second chapter of The Teachers Guide for Attribute Games and Problems, a product of EDC’s 80 unit Elementary Science Study (ESS) curriculum, which was developed with National Science Foundation funding between 1960 and 1973. It brought hands-on science learning to hundreds of thousands of students from kindergarten through eighth grade in schools nationwide.
She began with a bang, devising an experiment to teach her students about carbon dating. “We measured melting ice in a jar at 15-minute intervals and found a simple way to calculate how long it took for it to melt. I likened it to carbon atoms deteriorating and explained how archeologists do carbon dating by measuring the loss of atoms. It was a tough concept but an interesting way to introduce it to young minds,” she says.
When her students were asked later by a visitor what “carbon dating” was, the answers showed that they clearly understood. “As things get older, the carbon goes away. When they die, all the carbon is gone. You can measure that.”
Her next activity was to ask parents to bring in artifacts from their family’s past and talk about their stories, “with the idea in mind that artifacts are messengers from the past.”
“Then we looked at things from my kitchen and home. They guessed what the less obvious items were, and we discussed the difference between observation and inference. It was great fun.”
Rapp amplified the idea of artifacts by giving the children pre-cut jigsaw puzzles, had them draw a picture or a design, and then take them apart and see if they could put them back together. “This helped them to experience the struggle of understanding pieces of things.”
On dig day, the children, toting their hand-made sieves, headed out to the schoolyard, where Rapp had created an underground city of ruins that her child archeologists could uncover.
“Let’s dig up this place,” said one. “We might hit China,” another called out. They found a vinyl Motown record, a soda can, a hockey puck, and more. A lucky few extracted golden doubloon coins.
For Rapp as well as the students, the archaeology hunt was a big success. “For kids to take the information that you’ve been talking about, put it together, and make something new and wonderful out of it was so exciting.”
“They came away knowing how to study. It isn’t just that they know archeologists discover things. They know how archeologists work and think and what it’s like to be one. They learn why they need math, why they need science. So the next time they go to study something, they know there are all these different things about one topic that they can find out about.”
Originally published on July 10, 2013