2013-12-13 / Schools

Camarillo Heights students get chance to dig into archaeology

CSUCI senior returns to former school to direct STEM project
By Rick Hazeltine

Melinda Berge stood in front of 24 Camarillo Heights Elementary School fourth-graders reminding them how to carefully peel back layers of dirt to expose artifacts that the room of budding archaeologists might find when they were finally unleashed to go outside and begin their “dig.”

This was Berge’s third class of the day, so she was starting to get the hang of the finer points of what kids armed with small shovels, buckets and imagination needed to know.

“It’s a challenge to get them to not just dig holes,” she said smiling.

Berge, who attended Camarillo Heights from third through fifth grade and is now a senior at California State University Channel Islands, had returned to the school as part of her capstone graduation project.

Her project fit perfectly with Camarillo Heights’ new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program. The school is piloting a STEM program this year, and the Pleasant Valley School District has approved Cam Heights as an official STEM Magnet beginning next year.

STEM is becoming a focus of education, especially with the new Common Core State Standards, which involve critical thinking and analysis.

U.S. Rep Julia Brownley even stopped by to encourage the students.

“ I’m a big proponent of STEM, and this school is taking that challenge on,” Brownley said.

She urged the kids to “stay inspired to do science, math and technology.“

“We need a lot more folks in these fields,” Brownley told the students.

Wendy Ropes, a Cam Heights parent with a background in STEM, contacted the CSUCI anthropology department looking for someone who could design an archaeology project. It just so happened that Berge was working on her senior paper, which involved experimental learning in archaeology and how it would specifically benefit elementary school students.

“It was perfect because that’s what I wanted to do,” Berge said. “It fell into my lap.”

Aided by a cadre of classmates and friends, Berge set up a dig like one would find on an archaeology site. She then planted the sites with “artifacts” and divided the dig into units, making a grid with string.

The students had previously learned how to work a dig. They were told the importance of carefully removing the dirt and marking on a worksheet the grid number and location of any artifact they might uncover. They then had to provide a written description of what they found.

“It’s a great experience for the kids to get outside and see that science is not all beakers and experiments,” Berge said.

On this day, it was about shovels, screens and cool things buried in the ground. Some of the adults commented on how focused all 24 kids were on their task. There was no wandering or goofing around.

A steady trail of students with smudged faces and dusty clothes carried buckets full of excavated dirt from the dig to the screening area. The buckets were then dumped into the screens, where students sifted and hunted for artifacts. Some, like broken pottery, were easy to spot. Others needed a more subtle eye, like a piece of charred wood or small animal bone.

One girl found a batch of small beads.

“There must have been Indians here,” she said confidently.

Berge said she was surprised at how engrossed some students became. Her favorite example was a boy who asked one of her volunteers, “When is a rock not just a rock? When does it become something someone left behind?”

Of course, not all of the students’ thoughts were as deep.

At one point, a boy’s voice rose above the digging. “If we find something do we get to keep it?” he asked.

The dig wasn’t the end of the project. Berge returned the next school day to go over with the students what they had unearthed. They would then discuss what they think might have been there based on the evidence they found.

Even after Berge has returned to school, Principal Veronica Ortega-Myers will probably be dealing with a playground full of Indiana Joneses. The school has hand shovels and pails for the sandbox, and on a recent day a group of third-graders ran up to her on the playground.

“Mrs. Ortega-Myers,” they said. “We’re doing archaeology!”

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