Yes, Archaeology is a Science Too…

By: Genevieve Everett

For the past few weeks the Public Archaeology class and I have been preparing to host the high school students involved in the Upward Bound Math and Science (UBMS) program. The Upward Bound program aims to serve, “high school students from low-income families; and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree” (U.S. Department of Education). UBMS, a local branch of Upward Bound, prepares high school students for college with the possibility of pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). The UMBS students are required to come to IUPs campus one Saturday a month for tutoring sessions and/or workshops. This month (November) the students woke up bright and early to participate in four archaeology centric workshops.

In planning for the workshops, our class brainstormed a theme and three objectives to convey the scientific aspects of archaeology. We chose the theme, “Scientific Method” (a concept most high school students have learned), and our three objectives were to show how the scientific method is used in archaeology, highlight the inter-disciplinary aspects of archaeology, and how math and technology aid archaeology. Most importantly, our goal was to provide a hands-on experience that actively engaged the students as opposed to simply teaching them through lecture. The four workshops developed by our class include: Dendrochronology/Archaeoclimatology, Geophysics/archaeology, how to lay out test units (using the Pythagorean Theorem), and dissecting owl pellets/zooarchaeology.

Jessie and I partnered up, and decided to create a dendrochronology workshop, which evolved into a focus on what tree rings (annual growth of a tree) can tell us about past climate events and how this may have effected settlement and subsistence in the past (Archaeoclimatology). I for one knew little about the methods behind “dendro”; therefore, it was a personal learning experience for me. Our learning objectives for this workshop were to show how archaeologists use dendrochronology and the limitations of the dating methods, and the ability to look for past climatic events in tree rings and their effects on the surrounding environment.

One of the horizontal cross cut hand-outs

Jessie and I created a few PowerPoint slides explaining what dendrochronology is and what each tree ring can tell us about the trees growth (i.e. wider rings=healthy growth, smaller rings=dry seasons, less healthy growth). With this information, Jessie and I gave the students two hand-outs displaying horizontal cross cuts of trees that represented two hypothetical beams from two log cabins found in close proximity on the North American Great Plains. In this hypothetical scenario, Jessie and I, the archaeologists asked the students to help determine the first year of growth of each beam, the year each tree was cut, and which drought event (The Dust Bowl or the 1890’s Drought) was present based on the tree rings. The students were given two dates: 1886 and 1919 for first year of growth from which they were asked to count out toward the outer most ring (last year cut) to find the climate event and the year the tree was cut. Likewise, they were asked to make observations and work together to figure out the three objectives of the activity.

A good portion of the students (sorry, no hard statistics) were able to determine the first year of growth by testing out the two dates for first year of growth (1886 and 1919) on one hand-out at a time by counting out and up in time. Counting out and up in time allowed the students to pin-point where the climate events occurred, and finally the year the tree was cut. Other students needed a few hints to get them going. We rounded out the activity by explaining that dendrochronology is by no means a perfect dating tool, instead, we weigh the date from dendro against other methods such as radiocarbon dating and diagnostic artifacts from excavations. Additionally, we discussed the impacts of climate on humans in the past based on our own knowledge of the effects in contemporary contexts.

Overall, as a student of archaeology with an interest in Public Archaeology, this was as much an educational experience for me as it was for them. I’ve had minimal opportunities to interact with the public other than what I’ve done for my graduate assistantship and at field school. When working with the public, especially high school aged kids, you have to be able to balance all the different learning styles (tactile, visual, auditory, etc) in one workshop. This is definitely not easy, and I give teachers props that are able to balance them all. I think that if Jessie and I had a little more time to develop the activity, that our workshop could have the potential to be a valuable teaching tool for all learning styles. One major take away from the student evaluations is that these kids want less lecture and more hands-on activities. Personally, I think that we provided them with plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning, but the audience has spoken, and as educators, it is our duty to adapt to these “criticisms” and work on making these workshops more fun and engaging.


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