The Muddy Process of Creating A Successful Science Lab

This Westside Story was written by our 5th & 6th Grade Science Teacher Scott Herman.
Science Teacher Scott Herman putting mud in semi-circular forms for a science lab

What goes into the creation of a successful science lab? In 5th grade, this means a number of different things. It means creating an authentic way for students to interact with meaningful science, that they can relate both to the subject we’re studying and their lives outside the classroom. It means giving them opportunities to practice the scientific skills they are still learning and developing, including observation, data recording, and analysis. And it never hurts if they get a little muddy in the process. All of these factors came together beautifully for our recent lab on ocean sediment cores and paleoclimatology during our climate change unit.

First, a little background (spoiler alert: you may learn something!): Foraminifera (also called forams) are a type of marine amoeboid protist. In layman’s terms, it’s a tiny marine animal that has been around for millions of years. Forams use calcium carbonate, as well as other minerals like magnesium, in ocean water to create their shells. The ratio of these minerals in a foram’s shell is dependent on the ocean’s temperature (for example, a warmer ocean leads to a higher percentage of magnesium in the shell). Climatologists find foram fossils by drilling down into the ocean floor and test them for these ratios, which can give us an idea of ocean temperatures as far back as 400 thousand years.

Two semi-circles filled with mud separated by a few pieces of paper
When I learned about forams, at a recent conference hosted by the National Science Teaching Association, I wanted to find a way to bring it into my classroom, and our climate change unit. Understanding the history of our world’s climate (called paleoclimatology) is vital to understanding what is happening now, and why we know the changes we are seeing are not part of a naturally occurring cycle. Foram fossils offer a fantastic way to directly see a change over time.

At the conference, we sorted “fossils” in the form of colored beads mixed among pebbles to represent ocean sediment. While I loved the concept, I believe that 5th graders have a very low threshold for activities that don’t feel real. In our striving for authentic experiences, our science students need to feel that they are doing the real thing and experiencing this science just as professionals in the field might. Which is how I found myself mixing colored beads into muddy potting soil and molding it into ocean sediment cores.

Each student group received a sediment core split into four sections to represent various “depths” of the core, that correlate to time periods between the present and 20,000 years ago. They were responsible for sifting through each section of sediment to find the foram “fossils.” The fossils were colored in a gradient range of blues, to represent the levels of magnesium in the foram’s shell. Students had to record how many fossils of each magnesium level were found in each time period’s sediment. This involved digging through the mud, sifting and rinsing with water, and many, many trips to the classroom mud bucket. At the end of the lab, the classroom (and the students) was splattered liberally with rich, loamy mud. And then it was time to clean up and get ready for the second class.
Two students picking small beads out of the mud in a sieve and small container

Of course, science isn’t all just digging around in the dirt. We work hard to emphasize all parts of the scientific process, including the analysis. After the mud was washed off, we had to take our raw data and make some sense of it. Graphing our data as a class gives us an opportunity to practice these skills, as well as letting us look at our data in an organized way. We practice looking for patterns and trends in our data. And we then synthesize our original background information (magnesium levels in foram shells) with our newfound data trends to come up with a conclusion. In this case, that ocean levels have been steadily rising over the past 20,000 years.

The most powerful part of this lab came right at the end, when, having determined this conclusion, we were able to pull up actual research data from scientists working on the same issue in the field. We saw that our results aligned with what the experts were finding, and saw exactly how this feeds into learning about Earth’s changing climate in real-time. Connecting our classroom lab to real-world scientists, seeing our classroom activities validated by actual research results, is what connects students to this work. It lets them understand the “why” as well as the “how” of science. And hopefully, it will inspire them to keep striving for these authentic interactions throughout their career at Westside, and beyond.
Three students working on a science lab. One pouring water into a sieve filled with mud over a bucket.