Fossil Summer Camp

Jen here –

Discussing teeth next to the T. rex replica in the geology gallery!
This past summer I was given the opportunity to redesign a summer camp that has been taught at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture for many years. I spent a long time going over the previous content from the summer camp and making it more engaging for the students. This meant coming up with new activities and crafts to keep the students occupied for three hours a day for one week.

The museum staff and I worked hard to promote the summer camp alongside the other camp for older students, Archaeokids! Archaeokids was a similar camp as the fossil camp but focused on archaeology rather than paleontology. Both archaeology and paleontology are fantastic sciences to get young students excited about learning. Both fields involve active learning by engaging the students with specimens from dig sites or fossil localities! I was asked to do a short interview to promote my camp to get more students enrolled, you can view it here.

Starting our sediment excavation outside on a beautiful day! The students also learned the importance of note taking.
Each day of the summer camp had a different theme that we could organize activities around. Here were the different themes in order: Fossils and fossil formation, rocks and the rock cycle, vertebrate anatomy, trace fossils, and artistic license and interpretation. The last activity of every day was exploring sediment to identify different animals that would have been found in the ancient environment. We had two teams one had sediment from the Ordovician and the other from the Mississippian. The first day we spent focusing on surface collection, just using our eyes to collect fossils from the pile of sediment. The following two days were spent sieving the sediment to see how things changed when we looked at a specific size of sediment and animals. The students really enjoyed being able to pick through the sediment to find the critters.

Exploring geologic time and taking about events that happened along the time scale.
The culmination of our sediment excavation was to draw out the environment that the sediment is recording. They were able to use a fossil guidebook that I made for them and the gallery exhibits of the reconstructed environments. They then were able to present their environments to their friends and discuss the differences! Both environments had some similar and some different animals. They got to pass around the different ones and talk about them. It was a very successful week and we all had a lot of fun!

McClung Museum Temporary Exhibit on Echinoderms

Sarah and Jen here –

The outside of the McClung Museum with Monty, a replica of an Edmontosaurus.

Our local museum, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, has a rotating small exhibit in their permanent geology gallery. They often contact the graduate students to showcase current research within our department (Earth and Planetary Sciences).

Our lab group (at the time) had three students, Sarah, myself (Jen), and Ryan. Each of us work on a different type of echinoderm (sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars). Sarah works on these strange creatures called diploporitans, Ryan works on heart urchins, and I work on blastoids! We did an exhibit showcasing each of the different things that we do with our fossils. This ranges from finding new fossils on field excursions, visiting museums to study their collections, or running new experiments. Even though we study different organisms from different time periods, we all share a similar goal: to better understand these animals so that we can better assess relationships through time.

A photo of our echinoderm exhibit at the McClung Museum.

Paleontology with Girls Inc.

Sarah and Jen here –

Jen walking around with a Spinosaurus tooth.
We went to a local elementary school to participate with the local Girls Inc. chapter in Knoxville. The goal was to get these young girls (K-5) excited about science and explore our science with them! We are both paleontologists so we brought a ton of really cool fossils and some of our common field equipment.

To begin, we had each of them draw a scientist. Many of them drew themselves conducting science! This is exactly what we were hoping for; often, girls will draw a male scientist rather than themselves or other females. We had a variety of scientists: engineers, botanists, aerospace engineers, soil scientists, oceanographers, and chemists! Many of them drew themselves out in the field or in a laboratory setting. It was very refreshing to see so many awesome career ideas from these young students.

Sarah walking around with a trilobite.
We went through the basic field gear we bring out in the field: a hammer, sunscreen, a hat, a compass, a notebook, fossil guidebook, and pencils! We explained why we need this basic gear and how we use it in the field. We then discussed different types of fossils. To do this, we brought mostly large specimens that they could visualize the modern relatives. We walked around with each specimen, allowing the girls to make observations, touch the specimen, and think about what it could be. It’s always easiest to prompt them into figuring out what the specimen could be. We would ask “Is it a plant or an animal?” A very simple question but not always clear from the fossil record! We would then discuss specific features of the specimen. Are there patterns? Could you see any strange features? Does anything look like something you see today? The questions help the students interact with us and they were not afraid to speak up. It’s always such a pleasure to interact with young students that are so curious because they ask the best questions!

FossiLab Outreach at the Smithsonian

Andy here-

One of the most enjoyable activities I got involved with while at the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History was FossiLab. FossiLab is a windowed room where volunteers and scientists go about doing work that needs to be done in the museum. Some of the volunteers there do is look through sediment samples for tiny fossils. That’s time consuming work, but it can be done, and done well, with a few afternoons of training. Most of what the volunteers engage in re-housing fossils. Besides research and education, the Smithsonian also very importantly stores lots of items. The NMNH stores over 40 million fossils, and the fossils are only one part of what that particular museum has. Some of these fossils need to be put in new boxes, since the old ones aren’t doing a good job storing them anymore. So, they spend hours cutting new styrofoam to cradle to fossils just so, making new custom ‘housing’ that will keep the fossil safe for decades to come. This means I’ve gotten to see many cool fossils, like Miocene aged dolphin ancestors collected by the scientist who found (though didn’t name) the first Triceratops.

The rare view from the other side of the glass in FossiLab with an empty museum.
An example of some of the measurements on a planktic foraminifer (image generated by Melanie Sorman)

I, as a scientist, was doing research while I was in FossiLab. I study planktic foraminifera. In particular I’m interested in how their history is changed by climate. Can we detect how their evolution was altered by changing climates in the past? While upstairs in FossiLab I spent lots of time measuring individual foraminifera to understand their shape. I was doing this with forams which lived about 100 million years ago in a warm interval, trying to understand the evolution of one particular aspect of their shape. Certain species of foraminifera develop a ‘keel’, a build-up of calcite on the outer-edge of the shell. Yes, if you look at it just right, it does look like the keel on a boat. The question that we’re attacking is ‘did the keel develop from one lineage, or did several independent lineages develop keels simultaneously?’. This is important for a few reasons. The keel is a key feature of the test (internal shells), and has been thought for years to indicate that the foram lived deeper (though that’s not always the case). Also, much evolutionary research in forams depends on understanding how different species are related. We know this really well for the Cenozoic (65 Million years ago to the present), but the Cretaceous has several really important ancestor-descendent relationships that we just haven’t figured out yet. This is one of those. There’s a sign in front of the microscope that I used explaining much of this, and a little slideshow that plays with more detail.

FossiLab also has a door that lets the volunteers or scientists walk out and talk to folks. If people watched for a while, then I’d usually get up and go talk to them. I have a little tray filled with objects to talk about what I do. First, I’d hand them a tray of microfossils (which to a naked eye, look like sand) and ask them to make observations about what they saw. Usually I’d get “It’s sand!”. I then put the tray under my WoodenScope and show them that each ‘grain of sand’ they saw was actually tiny shells. We’d talk about what forams are, and how we use a big boat called the R/V JOIDES Resolution with a drill on it to get them. Describing coring goes like this: 

“Have you ever stuck a straw through a cake?”

“Yes!” Oddly, 80% of the groups have somebody that’s done this.

“OK, so what happened? What’s in the straw?”


“But what’s on top?”

“Right, you get the cake layers. There’s icing on top, then cake, then if it’s a really good cake, there’s another layer of icing and more cake. The ocean is just like that, there are layers. The JOIDES is our straw, and we’re using the cores to sample the layers in the bottom of the ocean.”

Then we finish up by talking about what forams can tell us. We count up forams because if we have more of a kind that likes warm water, then we can tell the water was warmer at that time in that location, or more cold loving forams means colder water.

To finish the interaction, I let the kids or adults ask as many questions as they want. Usually it ends with the parents telling them they have to go.

Fossil Fun with Pre-K Students

Jen here-

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!

Exploring different fossil forms with young scientists! They had great questions.

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 difficulty 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.

Letting the young students touch some very old dinosaur teeth!

Hosting the Webelos Cub Scouts at UMass!

Adriane here-

Me telling the Webelos how fossils are used to infer where the continents were located in the past.

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.

Raquel helping one of our younger guests identify microfossils!

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.

Geologic Problem Solving with Microfossils IV Conference, Houston, TX

Adriane here-

Previous and current members of Mark Leckie’s lab group at the NAMS dinner at the Houston Museum of Natural History’s Paleontology Hall (note T. rex  looming behind us). (Photo credit to Mark Leckie)

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.

Professor Rob DeConto giving a talk about melting ice sheets for the NAMS keynote lecture. (Photo credit to Mark Leckie)

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.


Southeastern Geological Society of America 2017 in Richmond, VA

Jen here –

Recently I took several of 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 explaining how he filtered all of the imagery data.

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 walking Steve Leslie through her recent results on the respiratory structures of blastoids.

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!

Darwin Day Teachers Workshop

Jen here –

I 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.

Teachers filling out their responses to ice breaker prompts.

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.

Lecture on Gardening in the Classroom.

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 of this is that we want students to be thinking about the evidence on which they are basing their statements.

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 information that is too complicated, 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.

Breakout session for K-8 educators where we could discuss issues they have had and ways to combat misinformation.