Learning by getting their hands dirty

COSTA MESA — High-pitched shouts of "eureka!" chorused out about eight minutes into the archaeological dig at Sonora Elementary School.

On Thursday morning, the sixth-grade students had just unearthed "ancient" artifacts — the first of more than 30 such objects deliberately buried in about a foot of dirt.

Armed with notebooks, hand shovels and paintbrushes, some 50 students kneeled in the 30-by-5-foot plot of loosely compacted earth adjacent to Debra Muniz's sixth-grade classroom. The area had been gated off and painted with brightly colored "cave" art and faux warning signs to give the space the feel of a real dig site.

The two-day activity, which involved the students "searching for artifacts as an archeologist and then looking through the eyes of an anthropologist," was the final wrap-up activity for a year of study of ancient civilizations, Muniz said.

The students had studied China, Greece, Rome, India, Mesopotamia, Israel, and the Aztecs and Mayans.

"Information from books is great, but real learning experience comes from doing it," said sixth-grade teacher Jon Pardoen.

Teaching ancient history has its challenges because visual material, such as video or first-person witnesses, do not exist, Pardoen said.

"One-hundred years ago, the plane was invented. Kids obviously can look up in the sky and know what planes are," he said. "But, as far as ancient history is concerned, the best way kids learn it is by doing it."

The students were expected to find an "artifact" — beads, toy soldiers, chicken bones and other items disguised as relics — then clean the item, analyze it and complete a write-up assignment.

Vanessa Maciel, 12, who unearthed a mold of a Menorah, had been looking forward to the big day.

"You actually get to learn stuff about [ancient civilizations] and we get to dig it ourselves," she said.

Maciel said she would consider a career as an archaeologist or anthropologist because of what she had learned and experienced.

However, while Muniz explained both the rewards and ample challenges of a career in archaeology or anthropology, the activity was more designed to solidify the students' ancient history lessons in a fun, memorable way.

And if many years later they look back on this activity with a renewed interest in either of those careers, that's great, too, she said.

"This activity is teaching them to use their imagination and creativity in a powerful learning experience," Muniz said.

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