A few weeks ago, the local group I volunteer with, Jurassic Roadshow, participated in an outreach event at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every year, the museum chooses a theme and builds educational events and activities around the theme, which lasts an entire week. This year’s theme was Dinosaurs and Dragons, as the museum was showcasing its fossil collections (including dinosaurs) and the collection of art featuring dragons.
When I volunteer with Jurassic Roadshow, I usually set up about two tables full of fossils from the major geologic eras so people can see the different groups of organisms that lived during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. But this outreach event was different: I was tasked with creating a display and/or activity that incorporated both dinosaurs AND dragons! I’m no mythical creature expert, so I was a bit perplexed as to what I could do to tie into the museum’s theme.
Inspiration struck when I visited a local toy store (paleontologists LOVE toy stores, especially one with lots of dinosaur figurines) and found Tyrannosaurus rex, Archaeopteryx, and dragon toys. I bought one of each and took them back to my lab. Next, I found a mythical dragon skeleton drawing online, along with scientific drawings of T. rex and Archaeopteryx skeletons (check out the awesome paleo art by Scott Hartman) and positioned them next to one another on a small poster. Then, I wrote down observations and features of the dragon skeleton, and did the same with the dinosaurs. I printed these onto cards so that kids could label the correct features on each organism. This way, they could see the major differences between dragons and dinosaurs and begin thinking about how we identify and name the animals we find in the fossil record, and why we interpret dinosaur fossils as dinosaurs, and not dragons.
The day of the event, I took my student, Solveig, with me to the museum. We set up our table with a few representative Paleozoic and Cenozoic fossils, then made a larger display of Mesozoic fossils with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity. In addition, I also took an articulated (complete and together) pigeon skeleton and eagle skull with me to show the public the transition from dinosaurs (T. rex) to more bird-like dinosaurs (Archaeopteryx) to modern birds. As if this weren’t enough, we also took ~150 oyster fossils and ~20 ammonite fossils from the Cretaceous (~90 million years old) to give away to kids.
The biggest hit of the day at our table was the dinosaur and dragon toys. Younger kids automatically picked up the T. rex and engaged it in an epic battle with the dragon (one enthusiastic patron informed me the dragon I bought was a European dragon). We made certain that every kid (and adults!) left our table with an oyster or ammonite fossil. Several families engaged with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity, and most kids found it fun to point out the differences between mythical and real creatures.
Other Jurassic Roadshow volunteers who attended the event also had tables with activities for visitors related to the geology and paleontology of western Massachusetts. A professor from Holyoke Community College brought along several mineral specimens and microscopes so people could look at them under high magnification. Other members brought representative rocks from around the valley, hammers, googles, and hand lenses so kids could break the rocks and look at the minerals under the lenses (this was also a huge hit, pun intended). Another volunteer had two tables full of fish fossils from the Triassic-aged lake that once covered parts of western Massachusetts. One table included dinosaur-themed crafts for kids to make and take home!
As usual, the day ended with all of the Jurassic Roadshow team content and happy to have shared our love of geology with others. Although these outreach events do take time, I love participating in them, as it’s a way to connect with the public, practice and sharpen my science communication skills, and be visible to other youngsters who may, one day, decide to become a scientist.