Students Dig Into Learning

Fossils fill students and adults with wonder and the joy of discovery

By Dianna Troyer

A geologist encourages students to dig in and discover what lies beneath their feet
A geologist encourages students to dig in and discover what lies beneath their feet.
Photos courtesy of Jon Powell

Imagine creatures living in a vast sea in northern Nevada 300 million years ago before they became fossils.

To help second graders on a field trip understand such a long-ago age, geologist Jon Powell tells them to envision a stack of paper.

“Take 300 million pieces of paper and put them on top of each other,” says Jon, Nevada Gold Mines’ principal geologist for Carlin Exploration in Elko. “How tall do you think it would be? They’re awestruck when I tell them 20 miles high.”

For 23 years each fall and spring, Jon has led fossil field trips for second graders in Elko County, sharing his love of geology and Earth’s transformative history.

Students explore and dig at Fossil Hill about 5 miles north of Elko on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s one of our most popular programs and has been offered for about 30 years,” Jon says. “It’s not just me. We have a lot of other Nevada Gold Mines geologists leading trips too.”

Geologist Jon Powell with a young girl outside in a valley.
Geologist Jon Powell shares students’ enthusiasm at finding fossils during a field trip.

Before traveling to Fossil Hill, Jon tells students how arid northern Nevada was once a giant sea teeming with life. Creatures thrived and died, became encased in mud, turned to stone, and are today’s fossils.

“He and other geologists make the trip suspenseful and build up the kids’ enthusiasm,” says Cindy Elquist, a fourth- grade teacher at Wells Elementary School who has also taught second grade. “They’re so excited, showing fossils to each other.”

Jon says when the students are at Fossil Hill, “They tell us it’s the highlight of their year. Some parents who volunteer as chaperones tell me they remember going on it when they were in school. Adults love it as much as the kids do. We all wonder what we’ll turn over in the rocks.”

Geologists provide rock hammers, and each student gets a bag to fill. Jon tells them what they are likely to discover and might want to take home.

  • Ammonites resemble a nautilus with their ribbed spiral shell.
  •  Bryozoans, nicknamed moss animals, built exoskeletons similar to coral and lived in colonies.
  • Brachiopods look like scalloped shells.
  • Crinoids are animals but resemble a plant with a stem and fronds.
  • Clams are bivalve mollusks.

Although there will be no formally organized field trips for Elko County School District students this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, families can explore Fossil Hill near Mountain City Highway at their leisure. Charter school students and homeschooling families have contacted Jon about field trips this fall.

Examples of Fossil Hill’s ammonites and clams are displayed at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.
Photo by Guy Clifton/TravelNevada

“My students have told me that Fossil Hill is their favorite field trip,” says Jenny Driver, a second-grade teacher at Wells Elementary School. “We love getting out and exploring, looking for fossils, and filling our bags.”

She says her favorite fossil is the ammonite, “probably because it is a rare find.”

At Carlin Elementary School, second- grade teacher Chiara Cross says it is unfortunate their field trip was canceled last spring and this fall.

“It’s the field trip that second graders look forward to the most–even the parents,” Chiara says. “Whatever fossils
the kids find, they’re happy to take them home.”

During the field trip, students not only learn about fossils, but what geologists do during their workday.

“Learning about science, especially geology, is exciting,” Jon says. “We tell students about the careers they can pursue at our gold mines.”

Young girls holding up their fossils.
Elated students share their discoveries.

He recalls working with a college intern majoring in geology.

“She told us she remembered taking the fossil field trip,” Jon says. “You never know what impact it will make on someone.”

By the end of the field trip, most students will have not only filled a bag with their fossils, but will also have collected lasting memories.

“There are so many fossils there,” Jon says. “We’ll never run out.”

To schedule a field trip, call Jon Powell at (775) 778-4710.