The past year has been extremely hard for all of us, and has really stifled our abilities to do the things we love most. For me, one activity that I love doing but haven’t been able to do is outreach with K–12 students and the public. However, that all changed last week when I received an email from a second-grade teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan, New York.
These second-graders were learning about fossils and paleontology, and the teacher was reaching out to ask if I would speak to the students. I was thrilled, and quickly agreed. The teacher and I chatted over the phone before the Zoom talk with the students to be certain we were on the same page about what the students had learned and some topics that would be interesting and fun to touch on. From this chat, I made a quick PowerPoint with some images of topics that we wanted to touch on for the students.
The day of the chat with the students, I gathered a bunch of tools that geologists and paleontologists use in the field and in the lab. These tools included rock hammers, chisels, picks, a Brunton compass (a special compass that geoscientists use in the field), and of course the tools I most commonly use for my research, paintbrushes and a microscope. I also gathered some of my flashier, attention-grabbing fossils to show the students, such as an ammonite cast, a modern coral, an ancient coral for comparison to the modern, and my Mammoth tooth. I also gathered some smaller fossils, like brachiopods, trilobites, and shark teeth, to showcase some other commonly found fossils in New York and along the eastern coast.
When I logged into the Zoom chat, the teachers and I chatted while the students filtered in. While waiting, the teacher played the song ‘I Am A Paleontologist‘ (seriously, if you haven’t heard this song yet, check it out!). Once we began the short introduction, there were over 100 students and teachers on the Zoom call! This was incredibly cool, to be able to reach so many students at once.
I began by just introducing myself and telling the students about different types of fossils that paleontologists work on, and showcasing some of the fossils I had with me. I then showed them 3D models of the plankton fossils I work with, and explained how we get these tiny fossils. I quickly went over scientific ocean drilling, showing the students pictures of the drillship JOIDES Resolution, and explaining simply how drilling at sea works. I also discussed what type of research I did and where, and what I had learned from this research.
For the second half of the presentation, we opened the Zoom room to the students for questions. All of the questions were very good and thoughtful, and fun to answer! The students asked such questions like ‘What is your favorite fossil?’, ‘How many fossils do I have?’ (a hard one to answer, considering I have hundreds of jars of sediment samples that each contain thousands of fossil!), and ‘Tell me about one of your friends you sailed with’ (in which I talked about my friends I sailed with on the JOIDES Resolution in 2017). Someone also asked about marine dinosaurs, so I mentioned Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles. I also alluded that the first skeleton of this ancient animal was found by a woman in the 1800’s, who lived in Europe. It turns out that the students knew exactly who I was talking about: Mary Anning!
All in all, this chat with so many bright young students over Zoom was so uplifting and refreshing. The experience really highlighted that even in a pandemic, we can successfully conduct outreach, with a major plus being able to talk to so many students at one time!