Sticklebacks, Diatomite, and a Whole ‘Lotta’ Learning


At the same time we are working on our trip to Mars (see below) we are making a digital video about stickleback fish fossils. About 35 miles east of Reno is a tiny town called Hazen, Nevada. Hazen is one of those places you miss on the highway if you blink while going through. We took a trip there in November (90 sixth graders) to a diatomite mine. Diatomite is used in filter systems (diatomaceous earth) and scrubbing cleansers – it’s really the shells of diatoms. These prehistoric dried lake beds that 9 million years ago were down near sea level but now sit above 4,000 feet are literally full of stickleback fish fossils. There are so many fossils that we were only there for about an hour and all 90 sixth graders came back with 3 to 15 fossils. The lakebed is pure white and when you first spy it you would swear some freak snowstorm dropped about 4 feet of snow just there.

The students scrambled off the bus and after a required safety speech from a mine employee about rattlesnakes (I’ve been here about 10 times and never seen one) and getting lost … they did just that. They become lost in their fishing trip. More than 80% of these students receive free lunch and a group in the back of the bus asked me if we were going to pass through Las Vegas on the way (Las Vegas is well over 300 miles south of here) so watching them picking up hunks of diatomite and splitting the layers with a butter knife was awe inspiring. Students constantly run up to you smiling broadly to show you their “catch”. I took turns with various students in shooting video of the goings-on. One student found an especially good specimen that split to show both sides of the same fish. We put it back together and shot video of a student demonstrating how to find fossils – of course the second rock they picked up split to reveal its treasure.

Since we got back we have done research on stickleback fish and fossils, but we also got involved in test prep and all that that entails so just last week we finally got back to brainstorming the scenes that each group will be responsible for in our video – What is a fossil? – What is a 3 spine stickleback? – What is diatomite? – What is a diatom? Etc. When done we will edit it and voila! We have gotten feedback and assistance from biologists at Stanford via email questions (they bring classes to this same mine during the summer so they were blown away that we were making this video). Several years ago the University of Nevada, Reno Geology Department scanned some of our fossils with their scanning electron microscope (it will magnify images up to 300,000 times!) and we will include some of those images in our video – way cool stuff! (Note the photos in my Flickr account displayed on this same web page)

And most importantly it is one of the messiest field studies we do. Little flakes and powdered white diatomite are everywhere – in shoes, pants, pockets, the buses (which we spend 30 minutes cleaning out when we get back) and our classroom. Now let’s hope that the stain of learning doesn’t wash out as easily as the diatomite!

Learning is messy!

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2 thoughts on “Sticklebacks, Diatomite, and a Whole ‘Lotta’ Learning

  1. Yes, learning is messy in many ways! Great blog, worthy of monitoring by most teachers. I know the area you’re talking about as one of those who has driven through. Wow, what I’ve missed. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights about student learning.

  2. I greatly enjoyed your “Learning is Messy” Blog. It is inspiring. I am an artist, working for the City of Reno on developing form liners for their interstate highways. I am working with a geologic theme, so I am researching all possibilities. Is it possible to review some of your research materials that you developed with your students. I am researching “form” ideas. Perhaps the electron microscope scans of the fossils might produce some interesting results, that could be interpreted in 3D. Did you make a video? Also, do digital files of fossil scans exist? Just curious! Your project sounds GREAT!

    I look forward to the possibility of hearing from you, and to seeing your work!