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Elementary Informal Education    |    Daily Do

Why Are There Fish in the Desert?

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Why Are There Fish in the Desert?

Crosscutting Concepts Disciplinary Core Ideas Earth & Space Science Is Lesson Plan Life Science Literacy NGSS Phenomena Science and Engineering Practices Three-Dimensional Learning Elementary Informal Education Grade 3 Grade 4

Welcome to NSTA's Daily Do

Teachers and families across the country are facing a new reality of providing opportunities for students to do science through distance and home learning. The Daily Do is one of the ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families with this endeavor. Each weekday, NSTA will share a sensemaking task teachers and families can use to engage their students in authentic, relevant science learning. We encourage families to make time for family science learning (science is a social process!) and are dedicated to helping students and their families find balance between learning science and the day-to-day responsibilities they have to stay healthy and safe.

Interested in learning about other ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families? Visit the NSTA homepage.

What Is Sensemaking?

Sensemaking is actively trying to figure out how the world works (science) or how to design solutions to problems (engineering). Students do science and engineering through the science and engineering practices. Engaging in these practices necessitates that students be part of a learning community to be able to share ideas, evaluate competing ideas, give and receive critique, and reach consensus. Whether this community of learners is made up of classmates or family members, students and adults build and refine science and engineering knowledge together.


The image at right is the fossil of a catfish that lived more than 40 million years ago. Maybe even more incredible than finding a 40-million-year-old catfish fossil is finding that fossil in the middle of a desert!

In today's task, Why are there fish in the desert?, students and their families read the NSTA e-Book Thinking Like a Scientist: Fish Out of Water, which engages them in science and engineering practices and the use of patterns as a thinking tool (crosscutting concept) to figure out science ideas about Earth's changing landscape over time.


The Fish Out of Water e-Book is now free to NSTA members and nonmembers! Check out the e-Book and other NSTA offerings that support distance science learning.


Before you invite your students to read aloud or read along with you, take a few minutes to become familiar with the e-Book and suggested supporting resource(s).


Watch the video (above) for guidance on how to best use the Think Like a Scientist: Fish Out of Water e-Book with your students.


Open the Think Like a Scientist: Fish Out of Water e-Book. You may want to pause here and read the e-Book to identify pages with (a) big ideas you want to emphasize through questioning and/or discussion and (b) embedded tasks that will require students to develop new knowledge and skills to complete.


Open the Fish Out of Water Student Notebook. You may choose to print this notebook, but it is not necessary. Students and families can follow the directions in the student notebook and record their responses on blank or scrap paper.

Now you're ready to begin today's task!

Note: Fish Out of Water's many interactive features allow students and families to explore ancient environments with Kat. Below are additional opportunities the e-Book provides for students and their families to engage in the science and engineering practices to make sense of science ideas.

Engaging Students With the e-Book

Page 6. Click on the circle with the fish skeleton (right center of page) to reveal a picture of the catfish skeleton. Ask students, "What do you notice? What do you wonder?" You might ask students to record their noticings (observations) and wonderings in a science notebook, on blank paper, or in an electronic document.

Fossil catfish

Page 9. Say to students, "This is where the catfish was found. What do you notice? What do you wonder?" Tell students to add observations and any new questions to their science notebooks.
Ask students to circle three noticings they want to share. Then request that they turn to a partner and share these noticings. If students share the same three observations, ask them to see if they can find one observation they made that their partner did not. Ask students to share observations with the class. Record all observations. If students repeat observations, note it on the class record.

Page 9

Return to page 6. Ask students, "Based on what we've observed so far, can you explain how this catfish ended up in a desert?" Allow students independent thinking time to create an initial explanation for how the catfish ended up in the desert. Students may represent their ideas in words, pictures, and/or symbols. Then ask students to put their explanation away; assure students that they will have an opportunity to share their explanations.

Ask students to review their list of questions and record any new questions they have. Then ask them to choose one question to share with the class.

Create a space for students to post questions. Give each student a turn to read, then post, their questions. Questions might include these:

  • How old is the fish (fossil)?
  • How did it get in the rock?
  • Were other fossils found in the rock?
  • Where did the water go? (Was the desert formerly a lake or an ocean?)
  • How did the fish die?
  • How did they know it was a catfish?

Say to students, "Many of us are wondering how old the fish fossil is. Should we investigate this question first?"


Page 12. Ask students, "The layers of rock in this picture are made of sand, slightly smaller pieces of rock called silt, and even smaller pieces of rock called mud." Point out the different layers.

Say, "These layers of rock are in a pile. Can you think of other 'piles' around your home, school, or community?" Ask students to either draw the pile, or if they are at home, point to the pile. Next, ask students to identify the item that has been in the pile the longest amount of time—the oldest item in the pile. Why do they say so? Which item has been in the pile the shortest amount of time—the youngest item in the pile? Why do they say so?

Page 12

Ask students to turn and talk with a partner (classmate or family member) to share their ideas. Listen for students to share ideas about items at the bottom of the pile being there the longest and the items at the top of the pile being there the shortest time. When you bring the students back together, ask these partners or small groups to share their ideas first. Ask, "Are we in agreement?"

Next, ask students, "Which layer of rock, A or B, is the youngest? In other words, which layer of rock has been there the shortest amount of time? Why do you say so?"

Next, click the "Check Your Thinking" box and read about the rock layers.

Ask students, "Would a fossil found in layer B be older or younger than a fossil found in layer A?" (older)

Say to students, "We've figured out we can use the position of the rock layers in the pile to determine if one fossil is older or younger than another fossil."

Add, "Many of us wondered if there were other fossils found in the rock where the catfish fossil was found. Should we investigate this question next?"

Page 18. Make sure to stop here without turning the page (some answers are revealed on the next page).

Tell students the fossils on the page are all found in the same layer of rock as the catfish fossil. Ask, "Compared to the catfish fossil, are these fossils older, younger, or the same age as the catfish fossil?" (same age, some students may say it depends on where in the rock layer they are found: Below the catfish makes them older and above the catfish makes them younger.)

Page 18

Ask students to click on one of the pictures, which will enlarge the picture. Ask students, "Can you think of a living plant or animal that is similar to this fossil? Where would you expect to find this living plant or animal; that is, what is the plant's or animals' environment?"

Repeat this activity for each picture. Students may have a difficult time identifying the plant fossils, but this is acceptable. (Students who have experience with saltwater fish tanks or swimming in the ocean may be able to recognize the individual plant fossil as "coming from the ocean.")

Return to the question, "Based on what we've observed so far, can you explain how this catfish ended up in a desert?" This time you might choose to share this explanation organizer with your students. Encourage them to think about evidence from the observations they've made (data) while reading the Fish Out of Water e-Book that would help them answer the question.

Ask students to share their ideas with a partner. Then provide additional time for students to share their ideas with a small group, comparing similarities and differences. Give students an opportunity to revise their explanations based on their small-group conversations. Ask students to put their explanations away; assure them, "We'll come back to these explanations later in the lesson."

Next, say, "We've answered some of our questions, but we have some others remaining. We know that other fossils were found in the same area as the catfish fossil. Does it makes sense to answer the question about how the animals and plants got into the rock?"


Page 32. Ask students, "Have you ever noticed water moving bits of rock like sand (biggest pieces) or mud (smallest pieces)? Where did you see water moving bits of rock?" Ask students to turn and talk with a partner (classmate or family member). Students might have one or more of the following experiences:

  • waves moving sand at the beach (knocking down sand castles, filling holes);
  • water moving sand out of the sandbox;
  • feeling sand float by while standing in moving water (ocean, lake, stream, surface water flowing down a street after a rainstorm);
  • muddy water flowing over the ground; and
  • mud or sand left behind when a puddle dries (evidence that water moved mud/sand there.

Page 32

Say to students, "Based on our experiences, water can move sand and mud from one place to another (share specific experiences you overheard students share) and drop the sand and mud it is carrying in different locations." (Share specific experiences you overheard students share.)

Ask students, "Can you create a model to explain how water dropping off sand and mud helped create a fossil catfish and how water moving sand and mud helped the paleontologist, Sanaa El-Sayed, find the catfish fossil?" Give students independent thinking time to create a model.

If students have difficulty starting their model, ask them what has to be in the model to explain how moving water can help create and help someone find a fossil (water, sand, catfish, catfish fossil). Once students have identified the parts (components) of the model, ask students how the parts interact with one another. For example, if students have drawn sand and water, ask, "How are the sand and water interacting in this part of your model? (Water is dropping off sand.) How could you show on your model that water is dropping sand?" (Use an arrow to show the sand is going down; write "dropping off" next to the sand, etc.)

Assign students to small groups of three or four students. Have one student share their model with the group. Give each other group member an opportunity to compare their model to the sharer's. Students can use the sentence starter, "One thing that is similar/different between your model and my model is...." Give students time to revise their models after everyone in the group has had at least one turn to share a similarity and difference.

You might choose to create a class consensus model before moving on. Ask each group to share one similarity between most of their models until all the groups have shared. Then ask if the groups noticed any other similarities between their models. Ask the class if they are in agreement with each part or interaction you add to the model. If they are not in agreement, ask them if it is okay to put a question mark on that part of the model. (You might also ask, "How might we investigate the answer to this question?")

Return to the explanation organizer. Tell students, "Based on evidence from observations in the story and evidence from our consensus model, make a claim about how this catfish ended up in a desert." You may choose to first give students independent thinking time to add evidence to the scaffold, then ask them to turn and share their evidence with a partner before asking them to make a claim. You may also wish to complete the explanation collaboratively.

NSTA Collection of Resources for Today's Daily Do

NSTA has created a Why are there fish in the desert? collection of resources to support teachers and families using this task. If you're an NSTA member, you can add this collection to your library by clicking Add to My Library.

Check Out Previous Daily Dos From NSTA

The NSTA Daily Do is an open educational resource (OER) and can be used by educators and families providing students distance and home science learning. Access the entire collection of NSTA Daily Dos.

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