Dancing paleontologists, colourful graphics, and unashamed catchiness make Fossil Rock Anthem one of my favourite scientific parody songs. Even better, it's educational effectiveness is backed by research into the developing field of using music to engage students in learning science.
Fossil Rock Anthem covers key points in the California grade 7 science curriculum, touching on geological and biological change over time, natural selection, plate tectonics, fossil formation, the rock cycle, relative and absolute dating, extinction events, and even a bit on the lifestyle of a geoscientist. That's a whole lot of science to jam into less than three and half minutes!
Fossil Rock Anthem was part of Tom McFadden's thesis work on using the song in a classroom setting as a teaching tool. Why bother with science songs? Despite music programs being cut during funding squeezes, it's a vital part of school programs. Music can reduce stress and increase student engagement, so why not try using it to help students process and retain information? That's what got McFadden started, and according to research he's collaborated on with Greg Crowther and Katie Davis, it's working.
So, how's the science in Fossil Rock Anthem? Pretty good! McFadden was kind enough to pass me the teacher's guide that goes along with the song. In it, he acknowledges that the term "Fossil Rock" is technically accurate but entirely unused, as fossils are found in rock, or made of rock, but are usually just called fossils. He also admits that the "They're the schist!" line is mostly to provoke giggles, as highly metamorphosed rocks are unlikely to preserve a fossil, but "They're in shale" doesn't scan as nicely.
Aside from those exceptions, the science all follows the curriculum neatly. Rocks build up with older layers on the bottom and younger on the top. The continents reshuffle and move over time. Species in isolation follow different evolutionary paths. Extinction events are painful. And geoscientists are obsessed with their hammers.
As the disaster-obsessed scientist I am, my favourite note in the guide is for the poor, doomed trilobite:
"Doing the trilobite" might mean crawling, swimming, looking at the world, or going extinct along with 90% of marine species during the Permian Extinction.
Although his acknowledgement that actual paleontology dance parties may not be exactly as portrayed in the video is pretty cute, too:
The dance moves demonstrated in the "Fossil Rock Anthem" music video pay homage to the art and science of shoveling, hammering, and brushing. They in no way reflect the actual dance moves of paleontologists. My apologies.
After the Fossil Rock Anthem, McFadden produced a Science History Rap Battle pilot program, making 5 videos at 5 public schools around the state (including the Pluto debate, and an astronomer showdown between Brahe vs. Kepler). At this point, schools were starting to realize he had a good thing going, and he got snatched up by the Nueva School near San Francisco, California. He continues to make science music videos with his students, most recently releasing a investigation of the atomic properties of metals. Rumour is, the next video will be decidedly biological, looking at eyes and cataracts.
When asked what he's up to, McFadden encourages you to subscribe to his YouTube channel (where ad revenue goes to supporting future science music videos), and check out Science With Tom. If you want to contribute to future projects, he's trying to build a community of students and teachers to put together more and more ambitious future projects, so go on, get in touch.