MSU Science Festival: Learning by Doing

Most archaeologists would agree that you do archaeology, because you love archaeology. It’s generally not a profession that you happen to fall into, you strive to become an archaeologist. And in that passion for archaeology, you look for opportunities to show others just why you love what you do. This is absolutely the case for CAP, we take every opportunity (and create our own) to show the public just how cool archaeology is. One such event was the recent MSU Science Festival. This week-long event encompasses the entire MSU campus and allows all departments to “share the science that inspires you.” The Science Festival invites the public to partake in all areas of science, from a lecture on Climate Change in the Great Lakes, to a tour of the Center for Advanced Microscopy. It is truly a “learning by doing” event.

Blair explaining why archaeologists screen dirt
Blair explaining why archaeologists screen dirt
One student explaining how this tool was too heavy to be a projectile
One student explaining how this tool was too heavy to be a projectile

For the second year in a row Campus Archaeology participated in Science Fest by organizing several hands-on archaeology activities. For our first session, on Thursday, we worked with the MSU Museum Education Coordinator Julie Fick and invited local schools to come and experience archaeology.

One advantage of participating in the school day, over the open day on Saturday was that we could invite certain age groups (4th and 5th graders), and tailor our activities to their grade milestones. We talked with elementary school teachers to figure out just how specific archaeological techniques could highlight grade specific topics. This was one advantage we had over our usual Dig the Past event, was that we knew exactly how old our audience would be, and how many to expect.

Because we only had the kids for a short period of time, we decided to focus on two activities that would lend the best results: screening, and stone tool identification. These two activities allowed us to explain, in depth, why archaeologists do what they do. For the screening activity we had bins of dirt with “artifacts” (beads and shells) peppered throughout. Several kids could stand around the screen while we discussed why archaeologists screen dirt, the methods behind screening, and how we keep track of where the dirt comes from.

Anneliese explaining the difference between ground stone and flaked stone
Anneliese explaining the difference between ground stone and flaked stone

This activity was successful because the kids were excited to be able to use real screens and find real artifacts, like archaeologists do. Additionally, there was plenty of time for the kids to ask questions, and engage and conversation about archaeology.

Screening activity- what can you find?
Screening activity- what can you find?

The second activity, stone tool identification, was also successful for its learning by doing experience. We used real, prehistoric projectile points and ground stone tools and asked the kids to figure out how old each tool was. We created a field guide that allowed the kids to learn the anatomy of the stone tools (stem, blade, notched etc..) and answer questions about each tool, in order to determine its age (or more accurately its style, which corresponded with age). Once the kids learned that they were holding objects that were thousands of years old, their faces beamed with excitement.

“Learning by doing” events like the Science Fest is rewarding for both the audience and the archaeologist. I truly get geeked explaining to people that archaeology really is as cool as they always thought, even though it’s done much more scientifically than is seen on tv.



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