Few things are more rewarding for an educator than the opportunity to work with a group of excited, engaged students – whether the students are children, teens, young adults, or mature adults. Having the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to education in the field is the cherry on top. Over the past few weeks, Sternberg Museum staff have had the wonderful opportunity to work with local high school students on a mosasaur dig in Western Kansas. Two students from the Quinter High School advanced biology class contacted me for instructions on how to safely and properly excavate a mosasaur fossil. They were working on a capstone research project for their class. After some discussion of techniques and equipment, we decided to join forces and dig together. This way, we could provide hands-on instruction on proper collection techniques, and continue discussions on the importance of data collection and scientific research. After contacting the landowners for permission to excavate and arrange for the specimen to be donated to the Museum, Museum staff – including myself (Sternberg paleontologist), David Levering (Sternberg education director), and Dr. Reese Barrick (Sternberg director) – joined a group of high school biology students and their teacher to begin field work.
Through the months of April and May, professionals, educators, high school students, graduate students, and local land owners all pitched in to excavate a partial Tylosaurus skeleton from the lower Smoky Hill Chalk of Gove County, Kansas. It didn’t take long for the quarry to turn into an outdoor classroom as we talked about everything from the geologic history of Western Kansas to the skeletal anatomy of mosasaurs to different excavation techniques (including a few impromptu physics lessons as we figured out how to get a 1000 lb jacket into a truck bed). Ultimately, our classroom provided first dig experiences, a science project for two advanced biology students, a gathering point for ranchers around the area to drop by and see what was going on (lawn chairs and grills included!), and a launch pad for future student research and community collaborations. Local media outlets also helped spread our story.
|The jacket containing the fossil mosasaur getting fork lifted
to its new home in our prep lab at the Sternberg Museum.
Despite holiday weekends, exam schedules, a very heavy jacket, and a very old truck, the mosasaur skeleton was safely removed from the ground and transported to its new home at the Sternberg Museum. Where our story continues into the future. Thanks to new connections and sparked interest, we have the opportunity to continue to use this fossil to work with local students. Through the course of the summer (and however long it takes after that), students will be volunteering at the Museum as we teach them how to prep, curate, and study fossils. This mosasaur specimen will be the first fossil used to teach a new generation of students interested in paleontology and natural history.
Of course, not all students are looking to build a career in the field of paleontology (talk about a flooded job market!), but it is the core mission of natural history museums to instill an interest in and understanding of science. We strive to encourage people to ask and answer questions about the world around them and figure out ways to solve problems. We aim to build a respect for the knowledge and advancements that scientific research, engineering, and technology can provide. I like to think that by giving students of all ages hands-on experiences exploring what science is and why it’s important, we are leaving them better equipped to shoulder the responsibility for our future.
|A crew including Sternberg Museum paleontologist, Sternberg Museum education director, Fort Hays State graduate students, Quinter High School biology teacher, Quinter High School biology students, and our fantastic land owners! May 2014|