Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Education & Outreach
Here we will explore how Adriane and Jen reach out to the public to explore geology, paleontology, evolution, and climate! We are very involved with getting young minds engaged in science – enjoy a peek inside the outreach aspect of our careers.
Maggie and I recently traveled to Clayton-Bradley Academy to explore fossils and different animals with pre-K students. We have a set of fossils we usually bring with and a guideline of topics to hit with various age levels but planning for pre-K never works out!
We tried to keep it simple and hands on. Each of the samples we brought with us was relatively large and the students were able to touch everything. We first showed them a sample of Lepidodendron – which is often mistaken for scales or dinosaur skin. We discussed how it was a plant, what the shapes meant, and how there is no plant material left.
We then examined various teeth and had the students compare them to their own teeth. The students could feel in their mouth and find the sharper versus flat teeth to compare to the fossils that they were exploring. We had a large mammoth molar that we passed around and most of the students thought that it was ribs from an animal. We oriented them and told them it was actually a tooth and to think about what sort of animal would have a tooth that big today. Younger children often have difficultly connecting words/names with the actual animal so we brought with images of these animals to help visually remind the students of what we are talking about. They couldn’t come to the conclusion of mammoth on their own but once we showed the image they remembered a similar animal from movies (mostly Ice Age) and you could see the wheels turning. It is always an adventure traveling to new schools and interacting with different age groups. It really tests your ability to modify your vocabulary and thought process.
Every few months, I get to host local troops at my university to teach them about rocks and fossils. I’ve done this a few times now, and I’ve helped several scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. The latest visit was from a local Webelos troop and their parents! We hosted about 15 scouts and their parents, and one adorable sister!
Two of the university’s professors, Mike Williams and Sheila Seaman, a structural geologist and petrologist (in other words, they study rocks and minerals and the tectonics of the Earth), taught the group about key minerals that make up rocks. In addition, they brought out some really interesting rocks.
After Mike and Sheila wrapped up with the rocks, I talked with the troop about cool things geologists get to do (mostly traveling all over the world), and the importance of the fossil record. I then let everyone walk around the room to examine three tables full of fossil specimens arranged by the different geologic eons.
Outreach such as teaching scouts about rocks, minerals, and fossils is vastly important, as many public schools do not teach their students about these nor let their students get hands-on experience testing minerals and identifying fossils. Many students do not get exposure to geoscience classes until they reach college or university, so students are missing the opportunity to learn about Earth’s vibrant and complex past. After all, learning about past organisms and climate events has important implications for understanding how ecosystems and climate will react to future climate change.
In early April, my lab group and I attended a conference that was specifically for people who work with microfossils- fossils so small, you need a microscope to see and identify them. These fossils are so important because we use them in the oil industry and in research to tell time. At this meeting, which was hosted by the North American Micropaleontology Society, there were about 200 attendees from both universities and oil companies. The meeting, which is held every 4 years in Houston, TX, is unique in that it is one of the only meetings held in North America specifically for micropaleontologists.
All of our lab group presented posters of our research. In addition to presenting, I also attended two workshops. The first was hosted at Chevron, and focused on identifying different types of microfossils in thin sections. Thin sections are very thin slices of rocks that have been polished and glued to a glass slide so that scientists can identify what fossils are in the rock when looked at under a microscope. The second workshop was about how fossils and animals respond to changes in sea level, and how that would look in the fossil record.
There were several highlights of the meeting. First, it was great to catch up with previous members of our lab, as well as talk with colleagues and friends we haven’t seen in a long time. Second, I made some new friends, one of which will be sailing with me this summer in the Tasman Sea. But probably the best part of the meeting was the dinner held in the Houston Museum of Natural History. The meeting planners (two of which I’m proud to say are alumni of our lab group) arranged for UMass’s own climate modeler, Rob DeConto, to give the keynote lecture in the museum after dinner. Rob gave a fantastic talk about ice melting on Greenland and Antarctica, with some compelling new data that indicates that sea level will rise drastically if we do not curb our emissions quickly.
Recently I took several the undergraduate students working with me to the regional Geological Society of America meeting in Richmond, Virginia. This is a good starting place to learn to present in an academic setting. The regional meetings are much smaller than larger national geoscience meetings. The last annual national meeting had ~8,000 attendees, whereas this meeting likely had only ~600-800. An order of magnitude smaller! This makes the meeting much less overwhelming! I had one student giving an oral presentation (Michael) and another with a poster presentation (Logan).
Michael gave a talk on a new model he created within GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to discover rock outcrops along roads. Something that is a huge issue in geology and paleontology is trying to find old collection localities from 10 to 50 or even 100 years ago! Often these descriptions are vague and do not include precise GPS coordinates. This means you spend hours browsing Google street view or physically driving around searching for the location. This model should help point you in the correct direction! You can watch a recording of his presentation here.
Logan was presenting on work we have recently completed on modeling the internal respiratory structures of blastoids. She has recently completed two models of a type of blastoid, fissiculate, that has never been modeled before. The results were incredibly interesting: we found that it is likely that the two main classifications of blastoids are likely not as different as everyone originally thought! This means that when classifying these animals you should look at the outside and the inside to get a complete picture of the total anatomy! You can watch a recording of Logan’s poster presentation here.
This conference was very important practice for myself as well. As I progress academically I will continue to advise and mentor students. Having the opportunity to prepare, practice, and execute the presentations allowed me to see what works and what doesn’t. Considering things like: what it takes to prepare a talk versus a poster, or how do I frame feedback to be constructive and critical. Preparing a presentation of any kind takes a significant amount of time and sometimes practicing is scary, even when it is just in front of one person. Both of my students had an incredibly successful conference and I can’t wait to see what we get into next!
I (Jen) have been heavily involved with our Darwin Day events since starting at University of Tennessee (UT). Darwin Day is an international celebration of the life and work of Charles Darwin. It happens annually around his birthday (February 12th). Our Darwin Day events at UT are the longest running in the nation – this year was our 20th anniversary. The whole idea behind Darwin Day is to provide information on Darwin’s work and to dispel any misinformation surrounding evolution.
This year, I planned a birthday party with our local museum and organized a teachers workshop. The teachers workshop was today (02/25/2017), ran from 9 – 2 PM, and provided five professional development credits to local educators. This event was co-hosted with the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) and held at their facility on campus. This workshop had icebreakers where we discussed evolution, hypothesis testing, and issues that arise in the classroom. Recent laws in Tennessee allow the teaching of ‘alternative theories’ in the classroom, specifically Intelligent Design. Our workshop was centered around ways to respectfully and honestly show students evidence based work and hypotheses.
We had a guest speaker from the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum give a lecture on gardening in the classroom. This provided the teachers with a framework and an idea of the effort and management that goes into creating a garden at school. There was a mini lesson on understanding hypotheses, data, and general science and evolution. We finished up with breakout sessions that incorporated scenarios that teachers could encounter with students and how they could combat them by coercing accountable/argumentative language and thinking. The idea being that we want students to be thinking about what evidence they are basing their statements off of.
This is an incredibly rewarding experience because we get to share what we know as college level educators with K-12 teachers. There is learning on both ends because sometimes college level instructors can provide too detailed of information, which is confusing for younger students. Outreach opportunities such as these provide a critical outlet for young professional scientists to practice their colloquial science skills.