Exploring Iowa Archaeology in the K-12 Classroom

Statewide and Local Outreach

The University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) has a strong, statewide K-12 outreach program. The world’s ancient and historical past is inherently an interesting and adventurous topic for students and all ages. Archaeology is highly multidisciplinary with roots in both the sciences and humanities, which allows children who do not consider themselves to be STEM thinkers to find a way to connect to the science and scientific processes. This is accomplished through activities including but not limited to: art, reading and interpreting primary sources; collecting, organizing, and analyzing data; writing, collaborative discussion, storytelling, and exploring local and global communities of the past and present.

STEM Advisory Council Seal of Approval
Exploring Iowa Archaeology in the K-12 Classroom received one of the Governor's inaugural five STEM Advisory Council Seal of Approvals in March 2015!


Archaeology is STEM!

OSA Education and Outreach staff Elizabeth Reetz and Cherie Haury-Artz develop and present a variety of Exploring Iowa Archaeology activities for classrooms and classroom visits to the OSA that are interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, hands-on, and customizable for all grade levels based on current classroom content and teacher needs. All activities are place-based and emphasize what is special about the archaeological, cultural, and environmental history of Iowa and the school’s own community. Students identify and generate questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. They are encouraged to think about the same concepts, topics, and questions as archaeologists such as, “How did they do that? How did they build that? How did they survive?” The activities also emphasize scientific inquiry skills such observation, inference, and critical thinking. Students gather, organize, and analyze data in order to support their conclusions about the lives, technology, and environments of past peoples. 
OSA educators also emphasize that although past peoples had different technologies and lifeways, they were not simple-minded. Past peoples knew how to survive in their environments using local resources and technologies passed down through generations and created their own technological innovations including agriculture, ceramics for cooking and food storage, the bow and arrow for hunting, and seasonal and permanent shelters that stood through harsh weather conditions. Some of these innovations, like agricultural and plant-based medicine, are still incredibly important to our local and global society today. These lessons open the door for students to learn about the geology and geography of Iowa, the effects of climate change, and the impact of humans on their environment. Archaeology also introduces students to the need to preserve and protect our shared cultural heritage, thus emphasizing respect, responsibility, caring and citizenship. They become active participants in other cultures!   

Scheduling an Educator

It is appreciated when schools or communities can contribute to the costs for OSA education services. Basic expenses include mileage/vehicle and an hourly rate for travel/presentation time. A typical 1-hour presentation within two hours of Iowa City incurs about $175 worth of these basic expenses. Costs increase with distance from Iowa City, but do not let that discourage an inquiry! Please review our flat-rate map under Educational Services for the cost of a one-hour program in your community.

If you know someone willing to make a contribution contribute to help us defray the costs of visiting classrooms across the state, please let them know they can make a tax-deductible, charitable donation! Options for providing support are:

Request an OSA speaker for your classroom

Learn about our Archaeology Discovery Trunks for educators


Exploring Iowa Archaeology Activities

The following Exploring Iowa Archaeology activities can be facilitated by OSA educators in any K-12 classroom. They can be adapted for grade level or other needs, and additional topics can be customized upon request.

Ancient Hunting Techniques
Student throwing an atlatl
The ability of ancient hunters to create and use stone projectile points was integral to survival. About 10,000 years ago and possibly earlier, long before the bow and arrow, Iowa’s earliest hunters used a spear thrower known as an atlatl to increase the speed and force of their spear for more efficient hunting. Projectile points, also known as spear points and arrowheads, also give archaeologists clues to technology, trade networks, chronology, and stone material sources. Students examine and learn about authentic projectile points from throughout Iowa’s prehistory and use an atlatl to throw spears in an appropriate and supervised outdoor setting.
A Walk Back Through Time People have lived in Iowa for at least 13,000 years, which is about 650 generations. Students visualize this chronology through actively stepping through an archaeological timeline, with each step representing one generation of time. With guidance from the archaeologist, students handle and examine replica and authentic artifacts from each time period, from the Paleoindian to the historic 19th century. The artifacts signify not only changes in technology and material types, but how past peoples adapted to the land and changed their ways of life throughout time.
Exploring an Archaeological Site
students exploring a storage pit
Archaeologists do not just collect cool artifacts, they use scientific methods to study the human past and keep detailed records, maps and photographs of their findings. They use the context of the artifacts as clues to help them determine relationships in time and space. In this activity, students explore a scale mockup of a prehistoric earthlodge site with real artifacts arranged in the same cultural contexts they might be found in during an archaeological excavation. Students work in small groups to examine and self-interpret portions of the site and propose their ideas about the functions of artifacts and activity areas based on their observations. The groups then combine their knowledge of the site to arrive at an idea of what the entire site represents.
Pleistocene Megafauna and Iowa’s Earliest Residents This presentation examines Ice Age life in Iowa. Students examine animal skulls and teeth, and they compare ancient megafauna replica skulls with those of modern relatives. Archaeologists also discuss how animals adapted to the ice age, how humans hunted them, and what archaeological evidence tells us about life in the Pleistocene epoch.
Prehistoric Pottery of Iowa
Student creating pottery
Over 2000 years ago, the invention of pottery revolutionized ancient cooking and food storing techniques. Ceramic technology started out crude, but potters of the past worked to refine and perfect their techniques throughout time. Students learn that ancient peoples had extensive knowledge about how tempering and firing clay affected the strength and quality of their final product. Students also examine the composition and decoration of authentic Iowa potsherds and explore how to recreate the decorations with tools from nature.
Traditional Toys & Games
Child playing a traditional game
Traditional toys and games had many purposes and were not meant to be played alone. Games brought people together, stimulated social interaction and strengthened social bonds, and taught skills, patience, and endurance – virtues that would be important in adult life. Students get to challenge themselves by playing some traditional Native American toys and games and learning that fun and challenging games can be made with simple materials found in nature.
What Do the Bones Tell Us?
Student organizing deer bone
Two different activities introduce students to animals bones found associated with archaeological sites. Students learn basics of recognizing different kinds of animal bones and discuss what they can tell us about the lifeways of humans throughout Iowa’s past. One activity allows students to examine animal skulls and teeth to formulate conclusions about animal diet and adaptations and use comparative analyses to investigate relationships between animal families. A second activity has students work together to articulate an actual deer skeleton, discuss how that skeleton could affect knowledge about an archaeological site, and learn the many ways animals remains were used beyond food.