Excursions with Tennessee’s Governor’s School

Maggie here-

This past June, I helped teach biology, with a focus on vertebrate evolution, with Tennessee’s Governor’s School, a program for high school students to come and experience college life for a month. Last year, Time Scavenger mastermind, Jen, wrote a post about what Governor’s School is, so I’m going to focus on the field trips that we went on!

Figure 1: Here we all are out in front of the entrance to the Gray Fossil Site! In addition to having a lot of information about the fossil site itself, there is a very hands-on science museum at the site.

Field trips are a really important part of learning about science, but can also be really valuable in showing young students what careers are available to scientists. Most students understand that scientists have all kinds of different research interests and biologists don’t spend their days rehashing high school biology curriculum, but it can be hard to imagine what else you would do with a degree in biology without seeing it in action. So, to show our students what all biology encompasses, we went on four field trips this year to the Gray Fossil Site, Oak Ridge National Lab, ProNova, and fossil collecting in east Tennessee!

Our first field trip was to the Gray Fossil Site, a Miocene (4.9-4.7 million years ago) fossil assemblage. This site is really cool because it is a lot younger than most fossil sites in east Tennessee and they have a plethora of vertebrate fossils preserved there. They have found everything from tapirs (similar in look to a pig) to alligators, mammoths, and even a new species of red panda! We unfortunately went on the paleontologist’s day off, so we didn’t see anyone actively working at the site, but we could see the pit that is being excavated this summer as well as peek into the preparation labs to see which fossils are currently being cleaned and put back together. After our tour we had some time to explore the museum that is a part of the Gray Fossil Site which does a good job of explaining what the preserved environment is like, how the site itself was discovered, and what the roles are of the scientists involved at this site.

Figure 2: An image from ProNova’s website showing how protons can more directly target a tumor when compared to radiation therapy. By more directly targeting a tumor, the patients risk of developing complications (including different cancer later on) from healthy tissue being exposed to high levels of radiation, decrease dramatically.

The second field trip that we went on was to Oak Ridge National Lab. We are super lucky living in Knoxville that we have a national lab ~40 minutes away that is welcoming to visiting groups! Since we were talking about biology, our main tour was in the biofuels (fuel derived from living matter) lab. There we discussed the major setbacks to biofuels (large land areas needed to grow plant matter to turn into biofuels, making sure that the carbon footprint of the growing and production of biofuels was also lessened, etc.) and how scientists at Oak Ridge are trying to solve these problems to make biofuels more readily accessible for large-scale use. In addition to biofuels, we met with other scientists and talked about big data and the computing power of the supercomputers housed at Oak Ridge. There’s nothing like talking about supercomputers and all that they can to do to get a bunch of science nerds buzzing!

Our third field trip was to ProNova, a facility that is using proton therapy to fight cancer. This field trip was particularly exciting to our students because many of them want to go into the medical fields, but was also a great learning experience for me! Using protons to treat cancers is a relatively new treatment, so none of us had any idea of what to expect, or what we were going to learn. At ProNova, they use large electromagnets to generate a beam of protons that can be directed to target tumors and that beam has more control than radiation, so only the tumor is being “attacked” by the protons, not the tumor + healthy tissue. The coolest part of this field trip was being able to go behind the scenes and see the magnets and resulting beamline that then is directed into treatment rooms and eventually into patients!

Figure 3: Left: One of the receptaculites specimens that was found while we were fossil collecting. You can see in the image on the right how similar they look to the center of a sunflower!

Our final field trip was to go fossil collecting in east Tennessee. While we weren’t collecting vertebrate fossils (east Tennessee is chock full of lovely invertebrate fossils-I might be a little biased in calling them lovely!), many of our students grew to appreciate paleontology over the month-long course and were excited to be able to collect their own fossils to bring home. Most everyone found crinoid stems, receptaculitids (an algae that looks a lot like the center of a sunflower), and bryozoans (small colonial organisms). We also stopped to look at a wall that was made almost entirely of trace fossils!

While we spent a lot of time in the classroom discussing vertebrate evolution and all of the different aspects of science that play a role in understanding how life and humans evolved, our field trips provided our students with real world applications for the science that they were learning. And from my perspective, the field trips were a way to get ideas of how to present this kind of material in my classroom, as well as to collect current research examples to help answer questions of why biology and vertebrate evolution are important to our understanding of the world! Governor’s school is a really intense month for both the students and the teachers, but the field trips gave us all a chance to connect and have candid conversations about science. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the field trips I took as a young scientist, and how they shaped my desire to become a scientist–so remember, field trips may appear on the surface to be just fun and games, but are incredibly important to the learning process!

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