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Dino Dig STEM learning site at Sammamish Montessori School

Montessori+ lead teacher Mrs. Virginia Ward and Director of Facilities David Rhett at the Dino Dig excavation site at Sammamish Montessori School

Montessori+ program introduces STEAM program to kids

Kids become scientists as they excavate fossils

Enter a world of science and discovery at Sammamish Montessori School (SMS). The school offers its hybrid Montessori+ program, with a half-day Montesssori program emphasizing core principles of independence and cultivating confidence at a very early age, with a half-day immersive STEAM experience (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Music & Movement). Seamlessly integrating a half-day Montessori learning program with an immersive STEAM experience, the program has become a stand-out success for the school.

Conceived by Mrs. Virginia Ward and alongside Mrs. Saee Hamine, an American Montessori Accredited teacher, find one such immersive experience at SMS where kids will be digging for fossils and studying the science of the Mesozoic Era. The Dino-Dig excavation site is a remarkable initiative that brings the wonder of paleontology to create a hands-on educational experience for students.

Students examining bones at the Dino Dig excavation site

STEAM Program: Not every school in the Seattle Metro digs for fossils

Virginia reminded us that preschool and kindergarten children love dinosaurs and can rattle off facts about them. They quickly grasp the multi-syllabic names that tongue tie a grown-up. What better way to get students excited about learning than by introducing an enriched dinosaur experience and giving them the chance to get their hands dirty?

A fossil uncovered at the Sammamish Montessori Dino Dig

Ugandan origins of the Dino Dig and the beginnings of the STEAM program at SMS

While living in Kampala, Uganda, about 25 years ago, Virginia worked to make the rich history of Uganda more accessible to students. Visiting staff at the Ugandan National Museum, she made connections with the resident paleontologist who shared some fossilized remains from the museum’s storeroom. The students loved putting them together like puzzles and learning about the prehistoric creatures that no longer roamed their villages.

Virginia decided an excavation site would be a perfect next step, so she created her own. Using a sandbox for the location, she created skeletons of prehistoric animals out of plaster of Paris based on photographs in the museum. Students learned about the tools used by paleontologists and guidelines for digging at the site and got to work. It was a hit, as students were engrossed in the work and used a variety of skills and problem-solving techniques to identify the different species they uncovered.

The Dino Dig’s current setup at the Sammamish Montessori School

Dinosaurs are popular with kids worldwide, so when Virginia came to the Seattle area, she had the idea to recreate the Dino Dig here. She first used a child’s swimming pool indoors and made a Stegosaurus skeleton. Students were challenged to identify the part of the skeleton and determine the species based on the unique features they uncovered.

The success of her temporary indoor dig led to the school building a permanent dig site. David Rhett, the Director of Facilities, designed and built the outdoor area. David used vintage tools to evoke the environment of the early paleontologists working in the Hell Creek Formation near Jordan, Montana. The site contains both real and reproduced fossilized remains, including raptor claws, a dinosaur egg, a prehistoric horse femur, megalodon teeth, and even coprolite (dinosaur poop). The favorite for the kids is the T-Rex skull. In addition to the dig site, there are sand sifting boxes for the youngest children to search for different types of fossilized shark teeth.

The Dino Dig site enriches the classroom dinosaur units, plus each summer, Sammamish Montessori School offers a dinosaur camp. It’s been a popular addition to the school and gives children the chance to learn about dinosaurs and paleontology in a more hands-on way.

Sammamish Montessori student connecting fossils found to images printed on learning materials

Paleontology and all the pillars of a STEAM program

Dinosaur units of study are more than just the excavation piece at Sammamish Montessori School. The students are also reading and writing about dinosaurs, learning about where they lived, how they are similar to certain animal groups today, how they evolved, and eventually, how they became extinct. There are art projects, songs about dinosaurs and dino-themed obstacle courses. Math is used to sort, count and measure, and children build their own dinosaurs from recycled material. The Ichthyosaurus hanging in the STEAM classroom even has fins that move! It reaches every part of their school day.

During discussions, students are encouraged to ask questions, plan and conduct investigations, and analyze the information they discover to answer those questions. The work at Sammamish Montessori School is just one stop on their continued journey to learn about dinosaurs and prehistory, and to engage in deductive reasoning and collaborative problem solving to wrestle with a four-year-old’s big questions: what color were dinosaurs, did stegosaurus and t-rex know each other and in what kind of environments did the different dinosaurs live?

Virginia says, “Our goal is to help facilitate that learning, help children make sense of the pieces they discover, and enjoy the journey.”

Sammamish Montessori student connecting found fossil to image in learning materialsWhat’s next for the Dino Dig program

Paleontology is a great entry point to engage a young learner.  To make this experience more authentic, Virginia joined the Burke Museum’s Dig Field School in the summer of 2023.  Working with staff and graduate students from the University of Washington and the Burke Museum in Seattle, Virginia traveled to the Hell Creek Formation in Montana.  There, she learned about the dinosaurs’ reign and their mass extinction and participated in the identification and excavation of both macro and micro-fossils, learning how both are important to understanding how dinosaurs lived and died.

In 2024, Sammamish Montessori School will add a micro-fossil collection and cleaning area that will include small prehistoric shellfish, teeth, bone fragments and fossilized plant life.  There will be stations to wash and sort and help integrate core Montessori practical life activities, bringing in an additional STEAM experience to the already robust curriculum at the school.


About Sammamish Montessori School

The Sammamish Montessori School (SMS) in Redmond, WA, was founded in 1977 by Joan Starling with just six preschoolers. Over the last 45 years, SMS has provided Montessori education to over 5,000 students. SMS has grown into one of the largest Montessori schools in the Pacific Northwest for 18-months to 6-year-old children. Check out the website for more details.

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Sammamish Montessori