Recently, I participated in the first-ever Amherst Elementary Science Night. This event, held at one of the local middle schools in Amherst, Massachusetts, was designed to introduce elementary-aged children to the different areas of science. Several professors, graduate, and undergraduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst attended to help out with fun activities for the kids! Several professors and students from our department also attended to teach the kids about aspects of geology. Of course, I was there to tell anyone who would listen about the wonderful world of paleontology and showcase different fossils.
The event was held in the cafeteria space of the middle school, which was divided into two areas. The first area included tables with activities and fun science stuff for the younger kids. The second area was for older kids, with more advanced science activities. Altogether, there were eight of us from the geology department who attended, with three of us (me, Solveig, and our advisor, Mark) who were in the younger section with a table full of fossils!
At our fossil table, we brought specimens from the three major time periods: the Paleozoic to show people what early life looked like, the Mesozoic (or time when the dinosaurs were alive), and the Cenozoic (the time after the dinosaurs went extinct to today). Some of the awesome fossils we brought along were stromatolites (fossil cyanobacteria), brachiopods, a piece of a Triceratops dinosaur bone, a ~350 million year old coral fossil, coprolite (fossil poop), a mammoth tooth, whale ear bone, a piece of whale baleen, and a modern coral (to compare to the fossil coral). Of course all the kids wanted to touch the dinosaur bone, and the mammoth tooth is always a big hit! But my favorite part of the night was asking kids what they thought the coprolite was. Most didn’t know, whereas other kids would throw out a guess. When I told them it was fossil poop, almost all immediately started giggling, and some even made some really funny faces! It was great fun!
In the second room, two of our UMass Geoscience professors (Bill and Julie) and three other graduate students (Helen, Hanna, and Justin) ran two other tables. Julie and Helen did an activity in which they taught kids about sediment lake cores, and the different types of sediment layers in cores that can be used to interpret Earth’s ancient climates. To do this, they rolled different-colored Play-Doh into thin layers and stacked them into bowls. The different colors represented different sediment layers on the seafloor or lake bed. The kids then took their own ‘cores’ from the Play-Doh using segments of clear plastic straws! Helen and Julie also had images of real sediment cores laid out on the tables so the kids could see what these look like.
Next to Julie and Helen’s table was Bill, Hanna, and Justin. They brought along our sandbox, which we use in our classes to illustrate how faults are made. The sandbox is a bit more complex than it sounds: the box is wooden, with clear plastic sides. One side of the box has a hand crank, which will push the side of the box towards the other, thus pushing the sand in front of it. The sandbox is meant to demonstrate plate tectonics, specifically what happens when one tectonic plate moves towards another. The sand represents the upper layer of our Earth’s crust. To begin, we fill the sandbox with a neutral-colored sand, then add a thin layer of blue sand, another thin layer of neutral sand, and a second layer of blue sand. Then, when we crank the handle and the sand is pushed, it creates tiny ‘faults’ that can be seen in the sand layers. This is always a fun activity for the kids (and our students!), and is a great way to communicate how an otherwise complicated geologic phenomenon occurs.
The event only lasted about two hours, but we all interacted with several kids, their siblings, and parents! Doing outreach activities like this is always fun, and reminds me of when I was younger and excited about the natural sciences. For us scientists who do a lot of serious work, events like these are important reminders of why we love doing what we do, and share that passion with others around us.