Middle schoolers in Paula Garrett's science class at the Adelson Educational Campus are touching woolly mammoth fossils on loan from the lab of paleontologist Steve Rowland at UNLV. How cool is that? And they're asking the question, "How did these enormous animals become extinct?" Examining the delicate balance of life in the most recent ice age, students then engage in systems modeling to understand interacting variables and their impacts on the fate of the mammoths.
Playing a dice game simulation of mammoth fates -- including "mammoth lives another year," "mammoth dies of starvation," "mammoth is killed by a hunter," and "a calf is born" -- students investigate population fluctuations and extinction trends. They then create and customize computer models in the Startup Incubator, using STELLA software, designing their models to include reinforcing (birth) and balancing (death) loops, and examining the resulting decay curves.
Surprisingly, the woolly mammoth was around more recently that we've been taught: Earth's last mammoths died out just 3600 years ago, from Wrangel Island, Siberia, most likely from hunting by humans and from climate change. Through scientific investigation and systems modeling, our middle schoolers use techniques analogous to STEM professionals to understand what happened to those last remaining mammoths, and whether other populations might someday experience similar fates.