Dino Tracks, Conglomerates, and High School Students; Oh My!

Adriane here-

Serena and I with one of the dinosaur trackways. The tracks are next to our hands on the left side of the image.

This post is about an education outreach field trip I participated in a few weeks ago. Usually when I go out in the field, I’m either teaching undergraduate geology majors, or with my advisor and lab mates to collect samples for research. This trip was a totally different experience for me, my advisor, Mark, and my lab partner, Serena: we took 18 high school students on a day-long field trip to three stops in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts! I was really excited for this trip, as I do not get to work specifically with high school students very often. The group we took out in the field was a science club from Holyoke High School in Holyoke, MA. This group of students was very diverse, with most coming from Hispanic backgrounds, some of mixed race, and several that spoke Spanish as well as English. But it wasn’t their diverse backgrounds that intrigued me the most, it was their sense of community and friendship, how they treated one another like siblings instead of classmates. This made spending time and getting to know the students all the more special, and made for an amazing day out in the field!

Mark explaining to the students how we concluded that this area was once an ancient lake. If you look carefully, you can see fossil ripple marks in the center of the image!

The students started their day with hot chocolate at 8 am before we  picked them up and whisked them outdoors! Our first stop of the day was at the Dinosaur Tracks along Route 5 in Holyoke, MA. Here, over 100 dinosaur tracks are preserved in the Early Jurassic (about 200 million years old) Portland Formation accessible to the public. We talked about the paleoenvironment (the ancient environment) of the area and how the tracks were preserved. In short, the rocks here were deposited along a lake edge, where the dinosaurs would visit for a cool drink. The students were excited by the tracks and the beautiful views of the Connecticut River.

Our second stop of the day was a famous outcrop in the valley called Roaring Brook. This spot is really fun as it’s on the eastern border fault that formed in the Early Jurassic as the supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to rift apart. It was at this spot that the Earth’s crust was pulled apart, causing a block of crust to drop down relative to the blocks to the east and west. This formed the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts as it is known today. Roaring Brook is characterized by massive blocks of igneous and metamorphic rocks that are found beside sedimentary rocks called conglomerate. The waterfalls at Roaring Brook are made of the conglomerate, which the students had a wonderful time climbing over!

The students exploring the conglomerate rocks at Roaring Brook.

After Roaring Brook, we took the students to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where we work, to one of our more famous dining halls. The students loved this (and quite frankly, it’s always a treat for us to eat here, too!), and it gave me and Serena a chance to chat with the teachers.

Our last stop of the day was the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This is one of my favorite natural history museums, partly because it holds the world’s largest collections of dinosaur footprints as part of its Hitchcock Ichnology Collection. The students were given a personalized tour around the museum by one of the curators, where they learned about mammoths, mastodons, sedimentary structures, and of course, dinosaurs!

The students are given a brief overview of the Beneski Museum before looking around. Smilodon (a Pleistocene saber-toothed tiger) is in the foreground.

At the end of the day, I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the students, and eager to work with them again. Before we dropped the high schoolers back at their campus, we gave them a survey to determine if our field trip was successful (did they learn science, did they have fun) and if they had any suggestions on how to improve future trips. Through this survey, we found out that only a few students had ever been on a field trip. This surprised me at first, as I remember going on field trips throughout my K-12 education. Talking with the teachers, however, gave me a more grim picture: public education funding is limited, and has become more so over the years. This is happening in all public education systems across the country. Teachers’ jobs are becoming harder because of these funding issues, but the real losers in the situation are our students. This field trip made me realize how important working with public school students is, as they and their teachers need all the help and support they can get in these times of public education budget cuts.

Thus, we in the UMass Geosciences department are planning another field trip with the students in the Spring to go fossil collecting in New York. Ideally, this will lead to a long-term partnership between the science educators in public school systems and our university.

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