University Museum exhibits 330-million-year-old fossils

By Gus Bode

Fourth-grade scientists conducted research

University Museum visitors can view and learn about 330-million-year-old marine fossils because of the efforts of area fourth graders.

At the museum, the “Young Earth Scientists Project” is on display, featuring fossils discovered by the students. The exhibit lasts all semester.


This year, students at Ellis Elementary School in Belleville and Davie Elementary School in Anna conducted their field study at St. Clair and Johnson counties.

The museum displays a chart comparing the number of the different types of fossils each school found at their study sites, which scientists say were once a seabed.

Marine fossils are exhibited for visitors, as well as informative drawings and essays written by the children chronicling the research project.

Museum Education Coordinator Bob DeHoet and SIUC geologist Harvey Henson partnered with the elementary children, guiding them to investigate the history of the fossils.

“This gives them a chance to think about what this place could’ve looked like; what was this alien world like,” DeHoet said. “We tell them you’re looking at something that’s 330 million years old. Even though none of us can really conceptualize that, they do their darnedest in working with that from the beginning.”

Every year, DeHoet and Henson send fourth-grade children a letter asking them to do hands-on research on fossils at a selected site around the region.

“We set it up as a question:’What was life like 330 million years ago when the fossils were living creatures?'” said Henson, also a SIUC faculty member.


While at the sites, the young scientists come up with hypotheses about what the area might have looked like. Following the field study, the schools corresponded with each other and reported their experience via e-mail. Drawing, math work and reading and communicating with others are some of the skills the students contributed to the project.

Besides gaining an education, the youngsters are also recognized, said Nancy Beasley, a fourth-grade teacher at Ellis.

“It is meaningful for our school and the students because they’re being validated for their efforts,” she said.

Henson and DeHoet, who created the project 10 years ago, said the program does a great service to the students because the work cuts across the school curriculum.

“The nice thing for me is to work with them and getting beyond the fact that, ‘Boy we have some neat stuff here’ and getting them to the point where they’re starting to think, ‘OK these are interesting fossils but what’s the story that they tell us?’ and to see the fourth graders go with you on that path is very exciting.”

And their young age does not deter their efforts in digging deeply into scientific research.

“They get really interested in going beyond that. We’re talking about kids that are just at the beginning of really doing a lot of abstract thinking,” DeHoet said.

DeHoet and Henson said they will work to expand the project to other schools throughout the nation.

“It’s nice in a way that the project can inform and remind us what the University can do working with the community,” DeHoet said.

Reporter Jane Huh can be reached at [email protected]