Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

What's Under Our Feet?

Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity

Alonna Smith | Published: August 10th, 2022 by K20 Center


In this lesson, students use an online fossil database to explore changes in life forms throughout the history of life on Earth. Students also make predictions about environmental changes and how those changes affect organisms living in different environments. Students then analyze anatomical similarities and differences between modern-day organisms and fossilized organisms.

Essential Question(s)

How can I use patterns in fossils to understand the diversity of life forms that have existed in the past and in the present?



Students make predictions about past life in Oklahoma based on fossils.


Students use the online fossil database to track the number and locations of fossilized species once found in Oklahoma.


Using a modified 3-2-1 strategy, students answer prompts about their findings from the Explore portion.


Students analyze and evaluate information about fossils found in Oklahoma.


Students create a presentation to share what they learned about their species in the Extend portion.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • I Notice, I Wonder handout (attached; one half-sheet per student)

  • Exploring the Fossils of the World handout (attached; one per group)

  • 3-2-1 handout (attached; one per student)

  • Extending Your Knowledge handout (attached; one per group)

  • Tweet Up handout (attached; one half-sheet per student)

  • Poster paper or chart paper

  • Markers

  • Student devices with internet access


20 Minute(s)

Introduce the lesson using the attached Lesson Slides. Display slide 3 to share the lesson's essential question and slide 4 to go over the lesson objectives. Review these slides with students to the extent you feel necessary.

Go to slide 5 to show students side-by-side images of a fossilized aquatic organism and a similar modern-day species. Next, give each student a half-sheet from the attached I Notice, I Wonder handout. Have students use the I Notice, I Wonder strategy to record their observations and questions about the images.

After giving students 3–5 minutes to write what they notice and wonder, invite a few volunteers to share out what they wrote. Then, inform students that these types of fossils can be found in Oklahoma and ask them how such fossils could be found in a landlocked state.


60 Minute(s)

Explain to students that they will look at where these types of fossils can be found in Oklahoma, using to track the number and locations of fossilized species in the state.

Display slide 6 to show students how to get to the "Explore" part of the database. Next, go to slide 7 to explain what each dot represents before allowing students 5–10 minutes to play around with the tools on the website.

Then, place students in groups, which they will stay in for the rest of the lesson. Groups should have 2–4 members to ensure that all students participate. Give each group a copy of the attached Exploring the Fossils of the World handout for navigating the simulation.

Display slide 8 and explain the concept of scientific names (specifically, binomial nomenclature). Students will need this information because the website only allows searching by scientific name.

Go to slide 9 to help students get started with their exploration of the site. They will follow the instructions on the handout to go through the simulation and answer the analysis questions. Give students time to work through questions 1–8.

Before letting students proceed to questions 9–15, have students share out their responses and allow for a class discussion about what they have figured out so far. Then, invite each group to choose an animal they would like to investigate further, just as they've done with Cnidarians.

Allow time for students to answer questions 9–15 about whichever organism they selected.


20 Minute(s)

Display slide 10. Have students use the 3-2-1 strategy to connect their prior knowledge to the new discoveries they made during the Explore portion of the lesson. Provide each student with a copy of the attached 3-2-1 handout. Invite students to answer the following questions based on what they've learned so far:

  • 3—What are three inferences you can make about the animal you chose to investigate?

  • 2—What are two things you found interesting about the animal you chose to investigate?

  • 1—Describe one modern-day animal that you think might be related to your animal.


60 Minute(s)

Display slide 11. Students will work in their groups to create a presentation about the animal they chose to investigate. Presentations do not have to be limited to posters or slides—you may choose to have students brainstorm which delivery methods they think will work best for their groups.

Provide each group with a copy of the Extending Your Knowledge handout, which contains instructions for the presentation and a rubric to guide students in their creation. The handout also contains an Oklahoma map for students to display the location their organism was found.

Let students know their presentations must include the following information:

  • The name of the species (both the common name and the scientific name).

  • A picture or drawing of the organism.

  • The location on an Oklahoma map where its fossils are usually found. (Students will use for this.)

  • The time frame in which the organism was alive. When did it go extinct?

  • A description of other species that are anatomically similar to your species. Would these species have existed before or after yours? Why? (This will help students observe changes in the complexity of species over time.)

  • A prediction about the environment the organism would have lived in. Include the amount of water/rainfall, plants found in the area, temperature, and physical landscape. (This information should help students identify what causes certain species to go extinct and how others are able to survive.)


10 Minute(s)

Display slide 12. Give each student a half-sheet from the attached Tweet Up handout. Using the Tweet Up strategy, have students write a summary using 280 characters or fewer and include a hashtag in response to one of the following prompts:

  • What patterns do you notice about the diversity and complexity of life over time?

  • What similarities or differences do the fossil species from the beginning of the lesson have compared with the modern-day species?

  • How might changes in the environment affect the patterns of diversity we see in the fossil record?

  • How can fossils be used as evidence that modern-day species are related to species from the past?