Ways to Engage Youth with "STEM"


Field School Director Alex Jones Reflects on Using Archaeology to get Youth Excited about STEM Concepts and Careers

Are you a teacher, scout troop or club leader, or any type of informal science educator? If so, check out this interview describing ways to get young people excited about and actively engaged in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”).

In a response to our viewers, especially middle and high school-aged viewers interested in archaeology, the PBS prime-time series Time Team America asked archaeologist Dr. Alexandra Jones to put together an out-of-school-time learning experience with young people in mind. We called it the Time Team America “Science of Archaeology Field School,” not to be confused with “field schools” which form a major part of training for graduate students on their way to becoming professional archaeologists. Crow_FS_alex_dig.jpg Albeit less intensive, the Time Team America “Science of Archaeology Field School” experience was designed to introduce young people to archaeology and give them robust, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. We spread the word to youth in the areas where the PBS television series was filming episodes for season 2, and invited them to join us at the archaeological sites featured in Time Team America's new season. See for yourself in this video how much fun the youth had learning about science and technology while playing in the dirt!

Alex, the director of TTA’s field schools, describes the successful and engaging activities, and points to other fun content including some downloadable activities.

TTA: What are some highlights from the summer Alex? Do you think Time Team America's field schools might have inspired a next generation of archaeologists and scientists?

Alex Jones: I do, I see this daily in my work as an archaeologist and teacher. Archaeology is a fun way to expose young people to different elements of STEM, after all archaeology is an exploration of a mystery from the past.  To successfully “solve” a mystery requires a whole set of STEM practices: learning to ask good questions, collect evidence, using mathematics and technology as a resource, etc. For example, at The Bones of Badger Hole site and field school we were trying to figure out how our human ancestors, the Paleoindians, could possibly have killed massive bison with the tools and technologies they had.

Badger_Atlatl_2.jpg So, when I first meet with the kids at a field school, I explain that they arescientists. They will be using scientific practices to investigate the past. We begin our archaeology adventure with a research question; we develop a hypothesis, collect and analyze data. At the end of our analysis I ask the very important question, “Did you find evidence supporting your hypothesis?” If not, why do you think you didn’t? So at Badger Hole, the youth gathered evidence, such as the marks left on bison bones by stone tools. Then they had to try to understand how the tools were made and the technology employed by the hunters, and then explain what all the evidence meant. This atlatl animation can help others understand the physics of this lethal technology used by early hunters. 

Time Team America's producers have also created videos that highlight some of the fun and engaging activities at the field schools, like the students using atlatls to throw spears at a target and learning how to flintknapp.

Practicing archaeology in the field is kinesthetic, and most youth love this hands-on approach. The elements of story and mystery are important, too. All in all, I think Time Team America inspired a lot of kids to keep their minds open to future exploration of science. In fact, some mentioned they plan on pursuing careers in science. And that's very gratifying as a teacher!

TTA: So archaeology uses scientific practices. That makes sense. But math? Really? Tell us how.

Alex Jones: For example, when archaeologists Zuni_FS_simdig.jpg want to set up an excavation site they need to create a grid of equal units so that as they find artifacts they can map its exact location on the grid. This is accomplished by using a transect and measuring tape to set stakes in the ground at a set distance, such as every five meters. Then, string is tied to each stake forming a series of squares, or units that form a checkerboard effect over the site. By giving kids some string, stakes, and a measuring stick, they can simulate the creation of an excavation unit. The kids can create a perfect 5 x 5 meter square and learn basic geometry, specifically the Pythagorean theorem, in the process. Check out our Setting Up a Unit activity.

There’s more math, too. At Time Team America's the Bones of Badger Hole site, the field school youth were all middle school girls (yes, girls rule in STEM!). Based on the bison skeletal remains inventory, we used the Minimum Number of Animal Units  math formula to teach the girls about how archaeologists understand which bones were used most by the Folsom people. Learn more about this formula and find out how to do a similar activity in the Using the MAU Formula to Count Bones activity. Henson_FS_grid.jpg

TTA: The math is really a tool then, either for establishing a grid in your first example or for analyzing evidence as you did when you used the Minimum Number of Animal Units formula to estimate which bones were used most. It’s concrete rather than abstract, and helps answer a question, which is a step in solving the mystery.

Alex Jones: Exactly. And using math or science to answer a question about the past makes it seem, well, useful and relevant. Say you’re studying an ancient culture, and you’re trying to understand what the world was like for these people. What was the landscape like? Well, it turns out archaeologists and scientists can do this by figuring out what kind of plants grew in a given site.

For example, at Time Team America's Basketmaker III–era site in Colorado, The Lost Pueblo Village, we were studying the Ancestral Pueblo Indians. What did their landscape look like in AD 600? And what did they eat? By taking soil excavated at the site, placing it in a bucket, and adding water, we separated out the plant material. It was lighter than the dirt and floated. We call it “floatation”, and it’s a scientific practice. Then we strain off the floating material and examine it under a microscope. One of the Time Team America pollen experts found corn in the dirt sample from The Lost Pueblo Village. Since we know that corn can only grow with the help of humans, that is—it’s a domesticated plant—we know the Basketmaker III people had adopted agriculture. You need the science—in this case, botany—to understand the human story.

If you don’t have access to collections from a real archaeological site, you can still work with real plants and seeds, and get students looking at samples under a microscope. By engaging them in systematically looking at these plants, they are engaging in the practices of botanists. Collect a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds; have the students examine them, describe them, and try to identify them. Careful and methodical observation is really important to science. You can use this Identifying Seeds & Pollen actvity. Also check out this blog post "Organs, Plants, and Archaeology" and this video of botanist Greg McKee.

TTA: What are some of the other STEM concepts the students learned?

Alex Jones: Well, field school youth got to meet and work hand in hand with a variety of experts. They loved this. At the Lost Pueblo Village, the students heard from Dr. Ron Towner who explained dendrochronologydendro_10.jpg , which we all found really interesting. You’re not just counting rings on a sample of wood, you’re graphing a pattern of growth and comparing it to hundreds of other samples called a master chronology. It’s great that we were in the Southwest, because this master chronology dates back to 322 BCE. The University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research where Ron Towner works has some really great resources for educators and anyone interested in dendrochronology, including the comparative samples needed. That would be a good starting point for developing activities on dendrochronology. Also, make sure to read our blog post about dendrochronology.

TTA: Young people, even if they don’t know a lot about archaeology, would probably expect to find bones in the ground if they are engaged in archaeology, and find this exciting, correct?

Alex Jones: Sure, but first I want to remind people of the difference between archaeology and paleontology; archaeology is the study of human culture through material remains. When people hear the word paleontology they usually think of dinosaurs, but paleontology is more than that. It involves studying fossils, and what they can tell us about the past. Archaeologists focus on understanding human systems but they do find animal bones, too. The bones inform archaeologists about how humans lived during a certain time period and give them clues about the environment and the climate. A fun activity involves gathering bones left over from cooking and having youth compare fragments to a complete, comparative collection, and try to figure out what animals they are. This is zooarchaeology, which is the study of faunal remains. We made a short video about it.

So you see, some archaeologists are directly engaged in STEM.  At Time Team America's Search for Josiah Henson site, a 19th-century site, the team found a lot of animal bones, which makes sense because it was a working farm, and people would have kept animals there, eaten them, and then thrown away the food waste there.

TTA: What about the “E” in STEM? Does archaeology involve engineering?

Alex Jones: Sure. At the Lost Pueblo Village field school we learned about how the Basketmaker III people lived about 1400 years ago, and how they would have constructed their houses. Engineering is the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to design, build, and Crow_FS_pithouse.jpg maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials, and processes. So, when the Ancestral Pueblo people made their pit houses underground to take advantage of the insulating qualities of dirt, they were engineering their buildings. When they made sure that there was an opening through which fire smoke could escape, they were engineering. The “E” in STEM often gets lost but it’s there—you just need to recognize it and since in STEM it’s the application of scientific and practical knowledge, it is particularly seen when studying human culture. Once they understood it in this way, youth in our field schools started seeing engineering everywhere. I like to take youth on a STEM scavenger hunt, of sorts, see the Finding the STEM in Archaeology activity for how to do this yourself.

TTA: Time Team America used some fancy technology analyzing finds at the sites it visited. Can educators leverage youth interest in high-tech tools?

Alex Jones: While it’s true that most schools, clubs or science museums won’t have access to the same equipment that Time Team America used in the PBS programs, educators can still point out these technologies and discuss how they work. We use some really cool technology in archaeology, and it can pique a youth’s interest. For example, Time Team America interviewed a scientist who uses archaeomagnetic dating to analyze soil samples and ceramic artifacts. Archaeo_Dating.jpg There’s a machine that can detect the magnetic signatures in sediment and align it with the Earth’s pole orientation at the time the soil was last burned. Evidence of slight shifts, and even occasional pole reversals, can be seen in artifacts or natural materials (like clay, rocks, or burned earth) that have undergone high heat since iron particles align with the north pole—like a compass needle. If you’re talking to youth about all the ways archaeologists can figure out how old something is, and they’re interested in archaeomagnetic dating, check out a video of a Time Team America contributing scientist explaining his work.

TTA: Meg Watters, Time Team America’s remote-sensing and visualization coordinator, used a number of different methods and technologies on the sites too, tell us more about this.

Alex Jones: She sure did. And at some of the sites she was able to show the field school youth her equipment, and better yet, they got to use it. She also talked about how she analyzes the data. What’s really great about Meg’s expertise as a scientist is that she could visit these sites and with the technology she brought had relatively “quick” ways to map the sites and surrounding landscape—and these techniques are non-invasive and non-destructive.

Our Time Team Americanw website developer, Heather Young, built a really interesting interactive that uses Meg’s real data from two of the sites, the Bones of Badger Hole and the Lost Civil War Prison. Meg used magnetometry, resistivity, ground-penetrating radar, and conductivity. You can read definitions of these in our glossary, and check out the interactive. On this website you can watch video or read descriptions about geophysicsground penetrating radar, resistivity, LiDAR, conductivity, magnetometry, and more. There's also a magnatometry animation.

Alex Jones: Bottom line—there’s lots of technology involved in archaeology. Youth already love technology and feel at ease with it. So, maybe it is more about making sure they know that the sciences, including archaeology are careers that allow them to use technology.

TTA: Anything else?

Alex Jones: Don’t underestimate the power of personality. Ask the parents of your youth group or class. Are any of them scientists? Call a local university, community college, or government agency. Get scientists to meet with youth and talk about themselves and what they do. They are often very interesting and inspiring. Ask them to come up with an activity that the kids could do or to bring an object they use in the workplace, a hands-on experience engages youth more than a lecture. Some of the best moments of the Time Team America field schools were when the kids got to interact directly with the Team and other scientists. It makes kids realize that scientists are people just like them. Oh, and don’t forget to watch and share the short video profiles we made of Time Team America’s members and the contributing scientists. These are a lot of fun. It’s surprising what some of these experts do, and these careers may really tantalize young people and get them to see why it is worthwhile to pursue STEM.