By Nick Worth
Petrified Forest National Park is a treasure trove of history with sites that feature ancient human history, as well as places that speak to a much older time in the history of the Holbrook Basin area.
The park also serves as an outdoor classroom as rangers welcome students from area schools on field trips to the park with a series of unique programs that focus on geology, paleontology, archeology and American history. These field trips are offered year round, but are most requested in April and May.
In the Simulated Fossil Excavation, students in second through fifth grades engage in a simulated paleontological dig.
“Paleontology is the history of ancient non-human life that has been preserved by a geological process–fossilization,” said Sarah Herve, deputy chief of interpretation at the park. She said the students are able to uncover, map, measure and identify the fossilized remains of Triassic animals and plants. Both real and replica fossils are available.
“We can tweak the program to fit a teacher’s curriculum,” said Park Ranger Lauren Carter. “Many traditional schools don’t want any real fossils used.”
The same holds true for the park’s simulated archeology digs. Both modern and actual ancient pottery shards can be used in the simulated digs. The archeology digs feature pottery, pieces of petrified wood and examples of stone tools.
“I tell them archeology is learning about human history from the things that people leave behind,” said Carter. “It’s the study of past human life.”
Carter said the archeology dig has a kitchen area where students can uncover a metate grinding stone, corncobs, a hearth with firestones and charcoal, and an area where it looks like a wall has been buried.
Once everything has been revealed, the kids have to interpret what they have found. Carter said it depends on the age group how well the children can determine what they’ve found.
“We try to tie it in to the actual archeology in this area as much as we can,” said Carter. “We ask them, ‘If it were a house, what type of room would this have been?’”
The kids are then asked to share the information with each other.
For older students, sixth through 12th grade, there is a program in which the students hike to a place in the park badlands called the clam beds. The kids learn about geology along the way and then can study fossilized clams from the late Triassic period when there were rivers running through this region.
Carter said the clam beds are littered with “thousands and thousands” of the fossilized remains of the clams that lived in the long-disappeared rivers. She said once the students reach the clam beds, they have an opportunity to study the fossils close up.
Museum Detectives is another educational offering at the park. The program is held at the Rainbow Forest Museum, where there are representations of fossil animals inside the museum. In the program, the “detectives” work in groups, and take replica bones around the museum and try to identify what kind of Triassic reptile or dinosaur the bones came from, and what part of the animal the bones came from.
“We give them work sheets and they have to make their own independent observations,” said Carter. The activity concludes with each group making a short presentation to the rest of the students.
Groups for all the programs are limited to 25 and any group coming for educational reasons can apply for a fee waiver. A certain number of chaperones are required. Interested teachers are asked to describe their curriculum and whether the visit is related to what their students are learning in some way.
If students can’t make the trip to the Petrified Forest, the park can come to them through the Traveling Trunks, a distance learning experience featuring three different subject matters. Each trunk contains curriculum, activities, books and lesson plans for the three interest areas.
The Rocks and Fossils trunk contains lessons and supplies for hands-on activities, and specimens to help students learn about geologic processes and paleontology.
Another trunk is titled Ancient Cultures in Modern Times, and holds hands-on activities and supplies to help students learn about ancestral Puebloan and Navajo cultures.
Critters, Climate and Cover is a trunk full of animal skulls, field guides, and binoculars, along with interesting activities to help students learn about modern animals and their habitats.
And finally, park rangers are available to come to schools and make presentations. Also, additional standards based curriculum materials can be found on the Petrified Forest website at http://www.nps.gov/pefo/forteachers/curriculummaterials.htm.
In addition to the learning opportunities listed above, special topic programs can also be arranged by contacting the park at (928) 524-6228, ext. 264.
The programs outlined above are available only by reservation, however if schools choose not to sign up for a ranger program, classes can still visit he park whenever they want, as self-guided programs are available.
“Reservations fill up early, so it’s a good idea for teachers to call well in advance if they want to do one of these programs,” said Carter. Interested parties should contact her at (928) 524-6228, ext. 238.
If you’ve been planning to visit the Petrified Forest, or any other national park in the country, next week would be the ideal time. National Park Week is coming up Monday through Friday, April 22-26, and entry fees will be waived at the Petrified Forest and all other national parks and monuments across the state and the nation.
Richard Ullmann, chief of interpretation at Petrified Forest National Park, said some new exhibits about the human history of Petrified Forest are on display at the Painted Desert Inn, near the park headquarters.
“With the free admission during National Park Week, it will be a good chance to see the new exhibits,” Ullmann said.
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By Nick Worth