Planetary Geologic Mapper’s Meeting

Rose here –

The meeting room with several posters of maps that were presented.

One of my favorite events every year is called the Planetary Geologic Mappers Meeting. This is a meeting held annually at which all scientists with a NASA grant to do geologic mapping come and present updates on their maps. It’s really cool because there are maps not just of well-known or major planetary bodies (Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Moon) but also of smaller or less well-known bodies, including asteroids, dwarf planets, and several moons of planets in the solar system. Earth is of course a planet too, but to distinguish science done on and about earth from that done about any other place in the solar system or universe, everything not on Earth is called “planetary” and Earth-specific research is termed “terrestrial”. The main point of this meeting is to update NASA, although it has also become a place to get feedback and support from the USGS Astrogeology mapping support team and fellow mapping scientists, but it’s also a great opportunity for students to network and learn more about planetary geologic mapping.

This meeting is very small, generally less than 50 attendees, unlike the big geology conferences like GSA (Geological Society of America) and AGU (American Geophysical Union). This means that even though this was only my third time attending, I was familiar with many of the people there and what they were doing. There were a number of new faces this time, which is very exciting. It’s always fun when people start doing planetary mapping for the first time, and the community is very welcoming of new-comers and willing to help.

Several members of Dr. Burr’s research group discussing a map of fluvial features on Titan (a moon of Saturn).

This year it was held in our department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My advisor, Dr. Devon Burr, was the local organizer this year, so I got a chance to see everything that goes into hosting a conference like this. It was great fun to welcome all the mappers to Knoxville. I’ve made a few friends at this meeting over the years and I loved the chance to show them around my city.

The first two days are poster and oral presentations. One person from each mapping team gives an oral presentation on their project, with some time for questions they have for other mappers or thoughts and questions from the mappers and USGS mapping staff. Most mapping teams also have posters of their maps. There is lots of time built into the schedule for poster presentations and networking. There are teams of mappers from different universities or institutions who use this time to meet and discuss their work in person rather than phone or e-mail as they usually have to do during the school year. It’s also a good time for student mappers to ask more experienced mappers or those with expertise in a particular field for advice and feedback on their projects.

This photo shows members of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department who participated in the Planetary Mapper’s Meeting this year. On the far right is Dr. Devon Burr, who led the local organizing committee for the meeting.

The first night we had a social and all went out for dinner at a local restaurant. It was a great break from all the science we’d been discussing. We got a chance to catch up and talk about where we’re all living and working, show off pictures of our pets and families, etc. It’s good as scientists to take time to appreciate each other as humans too with lives outside of our jobs each day. While this meeting is short and sweet, it’s always great fun and I look forward to the next one!

8th Grader Fossil Fun!

Adriane here-

Here at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I do a lot of science outreach with kids of all ages! Early in the summer, I had the opportunity to show 45 8th grade students fossils from all major times in Earth’s history and teach them how we can use fossils to determine how the Earth has changed through time. My advisor, Mark, was also there to help teach the kids!

The front table had all Paleozoic (~550-250 million years ago) fossil; the middle table contained Mesozoic (220-66 million years ago) fossils; and the back table contained Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago) fossils.

The first thing Mark and I did was to gather fossils from the three major eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic (time), Mesozoic (~250-66 million years ago), and Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago). We created three major tables in a classroom, one table for each era. I then labeled each fossil by the time period in which it belonged (and each era was associated with a different color paper) and what the fossil was. There are three white boards in the classroom, so we assigned each group a white board to write down their observations on. When the kids arrived, we broke them into 3 groups each, and let each group observe the fossils at each table for about 3-5 minutes. Then the groups switched tables so that all groups saw each table of fossils.

We asked the group to make observations about their fossils from each era. Questions we had them consider were things such as: Where did they begin to see animals with teeth? In what era were animals mostly invertebrates? What kinds of animals did you see in each era (dinosaurs, mammals, etc.). The students wrote these observations on their white boards. Of course, some of our questions and their answers were biased by the specimens we had available (for example, we have TONS of Paleozoic brachiopods and trilobites, but no fish or other vertebrates with teeth).

Students writing their observations about the fossils from the three major eras on their white boards.

After all the groups had seen all the fossils, we then asked them to assemble by their boards and think about the differences among the major eras. They came up with some great answers, such as that the land animals with big teeth (such as mammoths, horses, and bison) dominated the Cenozoic, and the majority of shelled animals were dominant during the Paleozoic. And of course, they were totally tuned into the fact that the Mesozoic was the age of dinosaurs.

At the end of this exercise, we then gave the students and their teachers a chance to ask us any remaining questions they had about geology or fossils. Both the students and teachers asked really great questions! One of the teachers asked if all mass extinctions were caused by major climate change events (they were, except for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which was caused by a major impact). My favorite question of the day was from a girl who asked why all geologists wore earth-toned clothes! It turned out that both my advisor and I were wearing forest green shirts, so we found this quite amusing 😊

All in all, it was an excellent day spent with the students! They really enjoyed being able to pick up and hold the fossils, and learn about how paleontologists use them to interpret changes in Erath’s climate through time.

Advising High School Seniors

Adriane here-

Jordan and Sophia in front of one of the display rocks at the granite counter tops outlet.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to help advise two high school seniors. Both students, Sophia and Jordan, attend a private school here in western Massachusetts. As part of their graduation requirements, all the seniors that attend the school must participate in a two-week internship with a local company, college, university, hospital, etc. to gain some employment and/or lab experience. Sophia and Jordan have both been accepted into universities beginning this fall, and both want to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. So it made sense that the girls work at UMass in labs to gain some hands-on experience.

The high schoolers initially contacted our department head, Professor Julie Brigham-Grette, in the Geosciences Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Brigham-Grette has worked with high school seniors from this particular high school in previous years, and thus the teachers at this school know her well. That is how the students knew to contact her. I was able to be involved with the girls and their internship because Dr. Brigham-Grette knew I was doing a lot of lab work, was around this summer, and could use the extra help. And indeed, I did need the extra help around my lab!

Sophia at the microscope in my lab looking at foraminifera.

Dr. Brigham-Grette and I met before the students started to discuss what projects we wanted them to work on. We made a list of four major tasks. The first was to identify the types of rocks that our classroom desk tops are made of. My department purchased the counter tops (which were cut down to desk-top size) from a local company. The second task was to begin building a blog to tell students and people about the different rock types and what minerals they contained. The third task was to help me organize and label all my samples from the four ocean sites I’m currently working with. The fourth task was to learn how to weigh and wash sediment samples. The students were only with us for two weeks, so we had plenty of tasks to keep them busy and learning!

The first day the students arrived, I had both of them work with me. The first thing I did was to show them around our department, which included peeking into the different labs and explaining the major types of science that our professors and graduate students conduct. Then we went to lunch on campus (fun fact: UMass Amherst is ranked #1 in the country by the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food). After lunch, I taught Sophia and Jordan how to read the labels on my samples (for an overview of how we label our sediment samples from the deep sea and how to read them, see this post). Then, I had them color-code each sample with different colored dots. I’ve done a number of different analyses with my samples, so it’s useful to know which sample I’ve used for which analysis. The students were able to finish this task of sorting and labeling by the third day! From this activity, they learned how to read sediment samples and how scientists collect the sediment cores.

On the second day, I began teaching the students how to process my sediment samples. These samples were from sediment cores we collected last summer in the Tasman Sea. The way I needed to process these samples differed from what I normally do. First, we needed to weigh the entire sample when it was dry (which is basically a chunk of dried mud). Then, we needed to wash the dried mud sample over a sieve in the sink to collect the tiny microfossils contained in the mud. After the sample was washed, we then dried it in the oven overnight. Once completely dried, we re-weighed the sieved sediment. With the weight of the mud sample and the weight of the fossils, I can then calculate what weight percent of the mud is from foraminifera, the microfossils I work with. This number also tells me how much carbonate (the mineral that my microfossils make their shells out of) accumulated in the oceans at any one time! Sophia and Jordan both donned lab coats and glasses and worked together to get a good amount of the mud samples weighed.

Jordan with the rock tables in one of our classrooms. Each table top is a different rock!

In the afternoon, we split Sophia and Jordan up: Sophia stayed with me in my lab, and Jordan went with Dr. Brigham-Grette to begin identifying the desk top rocks in one of our classrooms. I had already weighed and dried some of the mud samples before the students started working with us so I could teach Sophia all steps of sample processing in one day. Sophia spent the afternoon washing sediment over the sieve. By the end of the day, Jordan had compiled a list of names for most of the rocks in our classroom!

The rest of our time with the students included them bouncing between my lab and the classroom to ID desk top rocks. After about a week of both girls working with the desk tops, they had created a spreadsheet with information about each rock type, such as the types of minerals in each rock, the age, the name of the formation from which each rock came from, and where the formation was located. However, we were still missing a lot of this information, especially the age, name of the formation, and where the rock actually came from. So, Dr. Brigham-Grette and I decided to take the students to the company where the Geosciences department purchased the rocks. I had never been to a  countertop outlet, but needless to say, we all had a blast! The company, Granite Creations, had an awesome selection of different rocks used for countertops on display outside of their warehouse. Every rock slab was polished and absolutely beautiful! Dr. Brigham-Grette and I nerded out for about half an hour looking at all the rocks and trying to identify the minerals in each. After taking tons of selfies and images of the rocks, we then talked to the sales representatives about the information we needed. They didn’t have all the information at hand, but were very happy to take our information and look it all up for us!

One of our last days with the students, we still wanted to teach them how to set up a website/blog about the rock tables they’d worked so hard to identify, and introduce them to some HTML coding. So, since I have now been involved in creating three websites, I sat down with the students and Dr. Brigham-Grette and showed them how to make static pages on a site, and how to make blog posts. After the framework of the site was up, we let the students add in information and images. The site it far from finished, and different people in our department will continue to flesh out the information in the coming months, but here’s the site: Geo Rock Tables. We were thrilled with the layout and images that Sophia and Jordan picked!

Dr. Brigham-Grette teaching Jordan and Sophia about the different minerals in a rock slab at the counter top outlet.

All in all, Sophia and Jordan worked a total of 40 hours with Dr. Brigham-Grette and I at UMass. From our four main activities, the students learned a lot: how to process sediment samples, what data can be obtained from weighing the mud and sieved sediment, the importance of scientific ocean drilling, how to set up a website and blog, introduction to HTML coding, and the different types of rocks used in the countertop industry. They also gained valuable work experience, such as showing up to a job on time, learning how to do tasks, and learning how to successfully execute those tasks. I was very proud of the work both students accomplished while they were with us, and was sad to see them go! Because of Jordan and Sophia’s hard work helping me process my sediment samples, I was able to begin other analyses with them, and am currently ahead of schedule on a particular project!

Some personal thoughts: Not all high school students get the chance the explore a field, career, or job they might be interested in before committing to college or trade school. But I think exploring different types of careers is great for students, and gives them an idea of what type of career they’d like to go into.

If you are a high school student, or a parent/guardian of a high schooler, and think they’d be interested in working in a lab, reach out to your local university! If your student loves animals, for example, go to your local college or university’s website and find their Biology department. Each department should have a page that lists the professors (commonly under ‘Faculty’). Look for the department head, and shoot them an email asking if your student could intern with a professor or graduate student. I guarantee that there is at least one graduate student or professor who would jump at the opportunity to have an extra set of hands help in the lab over the summer!

Judging the Wyoming State Science Fair

Megan here-

There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

What do you do as a judge?

In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:

    Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
    Interviewing students about their projects
    Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team

All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.

What’s it actually like being a judge?

The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.

What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.

What was the hardest part?

The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.

In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.

If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.

Boy Scouts Oceanography Badge at UMass

Adriane here-

Caroline leading the discussion on reasons why studying our oceans and its animals is important.

Every year, University of Massachusetts Amherst hosts hundreds of local Boy Scouts on campus through the program Merit Badge University. This is an awesome program that introduces the boys to different careers and fields of study. Most years, the UMass Geosciences department participates in the event. In previous years, we have helped the scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. In addition, we have also hosted local Webelos Cub Scouts in the department to teach them about local rocks and geologic processes.

This year, a small group of graduate students, including myself, worked with the boys to earn their Oceanography badges. The Merit Badge University program is spread over two Saturdays: one in February, and another in March. The boys are required to attend both weekends to fulfill the requirements for their desired badges. The first week was co-led by our Time Scavengers collaborator, Raquel, who focused on teaching the boys about our oceans and the different properties of these huge bodies of water.

Benjamin leading the discussion on underwater topographic features while the boys draw their underwater scenes.

I participated in the second week, along with two other graduate students, Benjamin and Caroline, and my two undergraduate students, Adam and Solveig.   We taught the boys about climate change and its effects on the ocean, marine life, and plankton, and they learned about seafloor features and the different branches of oceanography.

The first activity included the boys breaking into 4 small groups. Each group was assigned a branch of oceanography (physical, chemical, marine ecology, and marine geology) to research. Then, each group presented their findings to the rest of the participants. We also had the students come up with reasons why they think oceanography is important to study.

Adam helping a scout identify planktic foraminifera!

The second activity included a short presentation on climate change, and how increasing atmospheric CO2 is affecting our oceans and marine life. Topics we discussed included ocean acidification, ocean warming, and ocean stratification, as well as the effects of pollution on marine life. We were all pleasantly surprised with how well-versed the boys were on the subject, and many had their own climate change or pollution stories to share.

The third activity of the day included teaching the boys about the different types of underwater features, or topography. Benjamin gave a short presentation, then we had the boys draw their own underwater scene with the most common seafloor features included. The boys had a great time drawing their underwater scenes while chatting!

Solveig (right) looks through the microscope to confirm a scout’s (center) identification of a radiolarian, while Benjamin (left) listens to his reasoning!

The last activity of the day included teaching the boys about marine ecology. For this section, the boys were required to learn about marine plankton, food webs, and how the ocean produces and holds so much life. To get the boys thinking about what makes up the food chain, we set up microscopes around the room with samples of marine sediment and pond sediments. This way, the boys could see the vast number of marine plankton that make up the sediments. These plankton also make up the base of the food chain in marine systems! We created a short handout with pictures of some common plankton, such as planktic foraminifera, benthic foraminifera, and radiolarians. We also encouraged the boys to look for other odd things, such as echinoderm spines, ostracods, and fish teeth! Everyone (including us graduate and undergraduate students) had a blast looking through the microscopes!

We ended the event by quickly talking about the ways in which scientists can study the ocean. Unfortunately, we had so much fun doing our other activities, we didn’t have much time to discuss the various ways in which we do this! However, we were able to complete all the requirements for the Oceanography badge, so all of the scouts we taught earned this badge this year!

Teaching effectively for all students

Sarah here –

I’m in my first year of teaching at the University of South Florida. I’ve had almost 700 students come through my classroom, just in my first two semesters! I wanted to write a little bit about what I’ve learned about making my lectures work for students of all different backgrounds. USF is a wonderful place to do this because our students come from every background imaginable! We have students from nearly every country on Earth, every native language, religion, socioeconomic and veteran status, etc. imaginable! It’s one of the things I love most about USF- I get to learn all about the world through my students. This unique community also presents me with the opportunity to make my lectures and my teaching style accessible to students who are English language learners (ELLs)-you may have referred to these students as ESL (English as a second language) in the past-educators have moved away from using that term because many students are actually learning English as a third and even fourth language! A large percentage of USF students are classified as ELLs-and they come from all over the world! Just in the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with students from Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and more.
The introductory course I teach-History of Life-is very heavy in scientific jargon, no matter how you slice it (e.g., the names of dinosaurs, geologic time periods, etc.), so I’ve been working with my ELL students to help them feel more confident in the class. I’ve listed some of the methods I’ve found useful below!

Essay questions

All of my exams have short answer components, where they have to take scientific evidence and present conclusions. I write 2-3 questions per lecture topic and post them as a discussion board on Canvas (or Blackboard, or any sort of other online gradebook/digital classroom environment). I have seen dramatic improvements in the confidence levels of ELL students, as well as native English speaking students, when handling the essay portions of the exam. Allowing them to practice their communication skills in advance has allowed them to excel. I never tell the students which questions I am choosing for the exam, but this way, students can post their answers on the discussion boards, so that I can spend a few seconds working with them one-on-one. It might seem like a lot of work, but truthfully, it’s only about a ½ hour out of my week, usually.

The geologic time scale

To help students learn these very odd words more easily, I have located geologic time scales in as many languages as possible. Students who speak languages, especially, that aren’t rooted in the Roman alphabet have found that it is much easier to make connections with these terms. (The ICS has a bunch of those time scales listed here)

A vocabulary list

As a rule, my exams are not about vocabulary. Meaning, my multiple choice or essay questions are not asking you to define terms-students have to use the terms to explain phenomena we see in the geologic record. However, the amount of vocabulary in a science class is daunting for many, so one way that I can boost students’ confidence is to provide a list of vocabulary I expect them to know (e.g., Tyrannosaurus, Devonian, albedo) so that they know on the exam what words they will be expected to know.

An example of one of my slides with the term defined (this day, I had a  Star Wars themed lecture).

Posting unfamiliar terms on the PowerPoint slides

I generally don’t use too much text on my slides-but I do make sure to put the topic of the slide, any scientific words, and image descriptors on the slides (or at least in the notes). This helps students who may feel overwhelmed with just trying to figure out vocabulary words merely from me saying them out loud (English words really aren’t the easiest to spell, are they?)

Using familiar words

I’m still working on this one, for sure. I try to make sure that my lectures and my exams use common words. For instance, I have used words like ‘hypothetical’ and ‘plummet’ before on exams. ELL students who might be unfamiliar with some of these words can often feel overwhelmed. I do my best to a) make sure students know that they are welcome to ask me to define non-vocabulary words b) provide alternatives to these words on the test (for example-hypothetical (imaginary)) or c) avoid using words (e.g., use “drop sharply” instead of “plummet”) that might add to the stress of exam day.

Only assign videos that have great subtitles

I have my students watch a number of documentaries to learn more about certain materials. However, I have noticed that a number of videos posted on, for example, YouTube, might not have reliable captions, making it very difficult for ELL students to fully capture the science presented.

Use the microphone

My classes are big-my largest is just under 200 students. I am not a very loud person, usually, but if I need to, I can make myself heard for a 75-minute lecture. However, many students find it harder to understand words if they cannot hear them as loudly and as clearly. Using a microphone relieves the stress of many students. Even if you feel that you are loud enough, still consider using the microphone! (Bonus-this is also a huge help for hard of hearing students).

These techniques are meant to help my students feel more confident about their knowledge in my class. By making these small changes, I have found that my class is much more accessible to a larger percentage of the class and that students are giving me better and more detailed answers and they are able to make higher-level scientific deductions-which is what any science instructor wants, right? As an added bonus, many of these methods are also very helpful to students from any background who aren’t so confident in their writing skills, or who missed class due to illness or emergency, or to students with accommodations (e.g., ensuring that there are captions on videos and that your PowerPoint slides have image descriptions) also allows Deaf and hard of hearing students to have full access to your class, too! I hope that I can continue to make my classes more accessible-if you have any tips, please feel free to comment below!

Hosting, preparing, and presenting at a regional conference meeting

Audrey’s title slide before her presentation started!

The Geological Society of America has section meetings in addition to the large annual meeting. These are separated out by regions, so here in Tennessee, we are in the Southeastern section. Each year a different institution takes the lead on hosting, planning, and executing the meeting. This means that there is a ‘chair’ that oversees all others and has to get faculty and students to help run the meeting.

Some of the faculty in our department played roles in coordinating volunteers, field trips, exhibits, the presentations, sponsors, and finances. That’s a lot of different jobs and a lot of work! In order to get registration covered, many of the graduate students in the department volunteered to help run the event. This included tasks such as helping people with registration, or upload their talks, or being present in the session rooms in case something went wrong. All of these are rather simple tasks, but really vital for a well- functioning meeting. I helped with registration the night the meeting started and then again at 6:30 AM the next morning. I also don’t drive in town so I was biking in and out each day; needless to say I was exhausted by the end of the meeting.

Audrey Parker with some of her 3D printed foraminifera models!

In addition to volunteering at the event, I was helping three students prepare, and preparing a talk myself! Maggie and I have been co-advising Audrey, who has been working on developing lesson plans around digital models of microfossils! She gave a talk on these microfossils during SE GSA! This meant we prepared and practiced a talk for the two weeks before SE GSA happened. Practicing talks helps you remember what you want to say and get comfortable in a professional talk setting. There are often podiums so you can’t move freely and you can’t always move toward the screen so you have to get comfortable with a laser pointer!

Logan’s title slide!

Logan was also gave a talk during the meeting on her own research. I’ve been working with her on using two different methods to reconstruct internal anatomy of fossil echinoderms. One method involves cutting the specimen up into tiny pieces, and the other part of her research includes using fancy X-ray imaging to see the differences in mineral density within the specimen. The X-ray imaging does not destroy the specimens, which is a big perk. However, fossil echinoderms have calcite skeletons and the sediment that fills inside their bodies is the same mineral, so the density differences are quite minor. Logan and Audrey both picked times the two weeks before to practice in front of Maggie and I. Each time they improved and we provided them with feedback!

Logan presenting her research on evaluating model development of blastoid respiratory structures.

Chris was presenting a poster, so a little less stressful but he did have to field questions for about two hours. His work was on uncovering specimens that were less than 5 mm in height to aid in our understanding of blastoid growth! It’s really cool because there are two differently shaped blastoids from this same location and you can see the differences in shape all the way down to specimens smaller than ¼ mm. We practiced presenting his poster several times before the meeting. Once was on a big projector where he pointed out his work to us and then several more times once his poster was printed.

Chris Smith presenting his undergraduate research on blastoid ontogeny in the Thursday afternoon poster session.

Everyone did incredibly well presenting their work at SE GSA! Regional conferences are a really great starting conference for young scientists because there is typically less than 1,000 people in attendance. The larger annual GSA meetings include upwards of 8,000 people. That’s overwhelming! So, after I made sure the undergraduate students were feeling confident with their work, I was able to start my talk. I took a portion of my dissertation and went into more detail on specific aspects of the project and how it related back to Paleozoic echinoderms in general. I only had a few days to prepare my talk so I didn’t have much time to really practice or even write a script but it went well! Since I have more experience presenting, I made the right choice in focusing more on the undergraduates’ experience at SE GSA.

Mock United Nations Climate Negotiations Game

Andy here-

A key question for society is how do we transfer the ability to understand other people’s perspective, to value one another? How do you teach somebody to care about other people?

I tackled that in a physical science class this semester. Since I teach Historical Geology, we spent time on climate change. Specifically, I implemented a climate change game in the class in which the students organize and lead a mock-United Nations climate negotiation.  The exercise is designed to teach students climate awareness and the impacts of climate change on the global system. All of the materials to teach this exercise are available online for free.

At the end of our exercise one student wrote:

I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk.

I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.

Want the same outcome and understanding from your students? Here’s how:

I teach a 60 or 30-student Historical Geology course at Sam Houston State University. It covers a multitude of different subjects; from evolution, to the birth of the solar system, to the climate system. One of the aspects of climate science that I wanted the students to leave with was an appreciation for modern climate change, and how it affects individuals in developing countries (this course was taught in a Hurricane Harvey affected region). While this course doesn’t shy away from controversy, this is the first time that we had to address our modern political (ir)reality head-on.

Our activity was a mock-UN climate negotiation game. World Climate Simulation is a well-respected activity. It’s been used in a number of different contexts from high schools to practicing for UN negotiations, and is available in several different languages.

In my course we played the 6-region version. There were delegations from the United States, European Union, Other Developed Countries (Russia, Australia, etc.), China, India, and Other Developing Countries. Each student gets a page (front and back) write up about their region and its position on climate related issues.

The goal of the exercise is to keep the world to 2°C of warming and to have $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund. Using this game in class gives students a taste for the complicated nature of these negotiations and an understanding of how the climate system works. The game in particular highlights the difficulty of being in a developing nation, by making abundantly clear the inequity between groups. The students also see, by experimenting themselves, how quickly emissions have to peak and reduce to keep us at 2°C. Gaming wise, in the end, the students should get that the key is to reduce the consumption of developed nations, and for those nations to include enough money into the Green Climate Fund to allow the developing nations to skip the fossil fuel age.

Here’s how the game works in practice

The facilitator (the teacher/instructor) opens the summit with an address asking the delegates to feel the full weight of their duties, and to consider the world they would like their children to live in. Then, they attempt set several positions:

  • Year to peak emissions
  • Year to begin reducing emissions
  • Yearly percentage of reductions
  • Contributions to the green fund

After the group sets their initial position they begin arguing with the other groups. After 20-25 minutes the summit reconvenes, the facilitator asks them to present their positions in 2 minutes each. Then there is a discussion of if they think they have made it. Lastly, their positions are transferred to C-ROADs, a complicated-enough climate model (click here for model), and the delegates can see how they did.

I had two helpers help me facilitate the course, Time Scavengers Editor in Chief Susanna Fraass and an upper-level geology student. They were most helpful the first day, as set up can be overwhelming when you’ve got 60 irritable undergrads. Each group has a placard to show their area. The more developed countries get snacks and tablecloths, while the Developing nations have to sit on a tarp. In one section the India delegation got a table and no chairs, while the Chinese delegation got too few, so several had to stand. Susanna walked around the room recording interesting events or statements from students while the upper-level geo student either made mischief as a fossil-fuel representative or helped with running C-ROADs and ensured everybody was ‘on-task’.

Group dynamics obviously play a big role in this. I found that in the smaller class ~5% of the students opted out and just played on their phones, while in the bigger one it was closer to 15-20%. I made attendance for the week of the negotiation 5% of their grade, so there were students that were less than enthusiastic about being in class who normally skip. In the coming semester I will probably have a few of the students in the larger class play the two lobbies, Environmental and Fossil Fuel, in order for them to have more to do. 10 students-per group was too many. The Fossil Fuel Lobby gets candy to sway emissions levels, while the Environmental lobby gets to make signs and organize a demonstration.

The way that the two iterations of the game preceded was very different. The 30-student class ended up modeling how climate negotiations proceed in 2017, while the 60-student class modeled circa-2015 negotiations. In the 30-student class, the US stayed at their table in the back of the room requiring other students to come up to them to discuss policy. When discussing policy, they were inflexible in their positions, even going so far as to attempt to run a scam on the Developing Nations. The US told the Developing Nations they would reimburse them for their additions to the Green Climate Fund (the developing world is to be the recipient of those funds, not pay in). They made a big statement about how they were going to engage their philanthropic community and advocate for individuals from the US to donate. None of that actually is included in the game, so it was in essence, ‘hot air’. In that vacuum the EU stepped in and attempted to lead negotiations with the rest of the world, though somewhat ineffectively. That is not a comment about the ability of the EU to negotiate in that class, one student in particular was giving her all. It’s more an observation that the ire in the room was directed at the US and most actions seemed to be inspired by anger in the directions of the US representatives roleplaying the Trump administration.

In the 60-student class the US took an active role in negotiations, mirroring the Obama administration’s more active role. In the middle of the second round of negotiations the US hosted a miniature G-20 summit behind their table, or a ‘G4’ where the US, EU, Developed Nations, and China tried to hammer out a deal. A EU representative found the website for the climate model and she was attempting to solve the problem for their maximum benefit while still trying to keep to 2deg C. She quickly reached a conclusion and then led her group in refusing to budge from their initial bargaining position. Though their initial position was fairly aggressive with its targets, the rest of the class did not agree with their inflexibility. Their inability to write their position on the board correctly also was met with shouts of displeasure from the other delegations.

The larger class also made for some more entertaining shenanigans. China, apparently unsatisfied with their ‘G4’ deal, changed their position on the board after seeing the other’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The room exploded in shouts, 30-40 students were pointing at each other while watching the transcription of positions onto the chalkboard. India and the US got into a shouting match with a representative from India saying, “We’re just trying to feed our people!” and the US representative throwing up his hands saying, “I’m just telling you what we need to have happen, man.” The Developing Nations, sitting on the ground in front of the board, snuck in to change the Green Climate Fund, adding a zero to a group’s contribution. The game builds in tension, and having to stretch it over multiple periods dissipates that tension, unfortunately.

Neither class solved the problem, but they got to 2.4 °C and both had 100-110 billion dollars in the Green Climate Fund. That’s far better than the real negotiations, as they’ve gotten us to 3.4 °C and ~10 billion. The quick influx of money makes it apparent that the students do not really fully understand the massive sums of money that are required within that fund, as they rather quickly built that up. From a purely gaming standpoint, the goal of the Green Fund is that the Developing Nations require massive capital investments to skip over the fossil fuel age. If the US, EU, and Developed Nations add money in too quickly, then the leverage for the Developing Nations is gone. It misses the difficulty of trying to decarbonize the developing nation’s economy.

At the end, there’s a discussion of why peaking emissions now is key to solving the problem, how the Green Fund money gets distributed, among other aspects. After I talked for a bit I had them talk through their positions, if they had individual goals while engaging in the game. This didn’t really work, but it did give me a chance to talk about the differing US positions in the different classes.


I had all the students write answers to three prompts:

1. What did you learn?

2. How do you feel?

3. What actions will you take?

We then passed the cards around so that each student passed cards 5 times, essentially making their card anonymous. They could then say their own comment or their card’s comment.

In the 60-student class it became quickly apparent I was being ‘trolled’ by the comments the students were choosing to share, which made the conversation fairly negative. It started as comments about the EU delegation refusing to negotiate, and then quickly turned to quoting the Trump administration’s position on the Paris Agreement (which would have been a good teachable moment, but I admittedly was flustered), followed by comments about how time could have been better spent reviewing for their final. Classes have their own energy, and that section had moments of general antagonism throughout the semester, though usually minor, so I should have been better prepared. I think with practice this portion could be engaging and useful, but it requires the facilitator to be ready to handle a variety of comments and to reposition the comments quickly. While I like having the activity come at the end of the semester, it does lend to a stressed student body.

The other, smaller, class had a much more genuine response. I expect a big portion of their genuine response was because of a statement from an international student prior to the card writing. She described how the activity had been gratifying, having been in the country during the Obama administration and seeing the change to today’s administration. She described the tone of the American diplomacy abroad these days, and described it in reference to the US position in the game we’d just played. That class was also more good-natured in general. They brought up empathy, and how they learned about needing to peak emissions early, for example.

Student response cards:

  • I don’t know what actions I could take.
  • I think the world is screwed.
  • I feel kind of scared with how our countries are handling climate change.
  • 1. We need to get our sh*t together. 2. Scared for our future. 3. Be more conscious.
  • How do you feel? Absolutely exhausted.
  • I learned that no matter how much we try the world is screwed because of climate change.
  • 1. From this I learned that this world is dying. I don’t like how sh*tty it is. 2. Sh*tty about how many people may or may not die.

37% of the cards were what I categorized as nihilistic or frightened. This is, frankly, not an unexpected response to an activity like this. I spent a lot of time talking about impacts in order to impress upon them the importance of engaging with this activity. Some of the folks in this group however, saw that this was a problem and said “It will take a lot more money to fix these climate problems. Not worth the money.” They also stated that they felt “Fantastic”. While that was one particular student, one might expect that statement from a more conservative audience. I attempted, in the moment, to describe the economics of climate change as a loan we take out that our children have to pay back with considerable interest, I’m not sure that analogy really stuck.

Some of these cards are also a peak into a group of students who are interested in the issue, however do not know what to do. While we talked about various responses to modern climate change, I am very wary of appearing like I’m advocating for a particular action. Many of the cards state the students are unsure of actions they individually can take, or that individual actions are ineffective. This is a particular point that I will try to address in the future, to describe the nature of climate as a collective action problem requiring that individuals, yes, do their part, but that the onus of action needs to be on governments to enact and enforce legislation.

What did you learn:

  • I learned how important these issues actually are. Our world is strongly impacted and if there is no change we will be drastically hit with consequences. How do you feel: Lost for words at the fact that the US is truly hated. What will you do: I will try to take part in the change.
  • I learned about the view of points of an outside nation towards the US, this experience gave me a chance to look from the outside in. I also have a better understanding of world climate, and how to go about finding a solution. I will continue to find ways to go green and continue recycling and not litter.
  • 1. That several nations really can’t help as much simply due to the amount of poverty in their nation. 2. That it will take more open minded plans to actually make a serious difference. 3. I will try to keep my mind open to interpretation of how other countries function and operate.
  • I learned that the developing nations make a big difference with their changes. I feel frustrated and disappointed. I will talk more about the issue. Look for petitions folks.
  • I learned that getting all of the countries to come together is damn near impossible. We don’t care about each other enough. We need to see the bigger picture that is all of us as a whole. Be the change you want to see in the world. Live as green as possible.
  • I feel if we [are] to really understand each other and realize we need to have the same goal to better our world, we would come together.
  • I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk. I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.
  • I feel so small.

The last group is the most optimistic. While there is considerable anger expressed by the group, they wrote about the need for a group solution, and expressed frustration that it was so difficult for people to actually ‘care about each other enough.’ These are the folks that want to accomplish something to positively effect their lives. It’s roughly a third of the class. Given the pre-class surveys that I gave them at the beginning of the semester, there’s considerable movement on student interest in climate change and their desire to engage with solutions.

Advice for employing this game:

Make sure you have something to have a positive action they can take with their new desire to fix the climate. I have not solved that problem given the classroom setting, but I hope to by this time next semester.

10 students in each group is probably as large as I’d go with students. I know there are modifications for large groups in the facilitator guide, so check there if you have large sections. I think having a larger “Other Developing Countries” block and forcing them to negotiate within themselves before bringing their position to the UN would be fascinating, but too complicated.

Build a case for optimism. I had a lot of students walk out of that room without hope. That’s counter productive, when the goal of the activity is to give them an understanding of the scope, a feeling that they’re in this with lots of others, and then a guiding hand in what they can to do help in their way.

Inequity is key. While it may seem like a small detail, making the developing countries uncomfortable, and the US/EU feel like royalty adds tension.

The first round requires a decent amount of learning on the fly. While both sections caught on quickly, 5-10 minutes of additional time in that first negotiating round is very useful.

Be prepared for an adversarial comment within the ‘debrief’ period if this is an in-class activity. While the vast majority of the comments that I looked through were supportive of the activity, there are several that think it was a waste of time. Such is the nature of having 90 students engage in a, sadly, politically controversial game.

The main advise I have, however, is to do this. It is a phenomenal way to engage a class in learning about their world, and what is happening to it.

Darwin Day Celebrations 2018

Maggie here –

The Darwin Day events at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville have been running since 1997 and I was one of the leaders for the 2018 events. Darwin Day is all about celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin, and sharing that information with members of the UT campus as well as the surrounding community in Knoxville. For this year’s celebration we hosted a birthday party in collaboration with a McClung Museum Family Fun Day and had a special keynote lecture by Dr. Nizar Ibrahim.

Darwin and Wallace puppets that are used to advertise our Darwin Day events. These puppets are ~10 feet tall and our very wonderful friends wear them and walk around or even dance in them!

The birthday party had cake (of course!), games, crafts, a scavenger hunt, and a larger-than-life puppet of Charles Darwin. This year, we wanted to make sure that our activities were designed to be able to really teach about evolution. One of the activities was to test out different “finch beaks” to see how easy it was to pick up “food”. Our finch beaks consisted of paper clips, binder clips, and wooden skewers that were used to pick up different objects. For our younger guests this activity concluded with a quick talk about which beak they thought was easier to use and how that might translate to real beaks on birds. For our older guests we were able to bring in the ideas of adaptations, natural selection, and speciation during the wrap up conversation. We were also lucky enough to have one of the McClung Museum docents come in for the birthday party to lead a couple of tours through the Human Origins exhibit. This was the first time that these tours had been led during Darwin’s Birthday party and helped us engage in evolution discussions with our older guests. As with any large scale event, each year is a little different and we continually try to come up with new activities and try to reach new areas of the Knoxville community. While this birthday party was incredibly successful (we had ~260 people come!) we are already looking forward to next year and making the birthday party even more successful!

Leslie Chang Jantz, Curator of Education; Callie Bennet, Asst. Museum Educator; Emily Nield, Earth and Planetary Sciences graduate student all work to pass out cake and snacks to birthday party guests.

The evening lecture with Dr. Ibrahim was a rewarding excursion through the past. He has done significant work reconstructing the ecosystems of the Cretaceous of Morocco. He has primarily worked on uncovering an ancient river system community that was dominated by many types of predatory animals, namely Spinosaurus. There was a special underlying story on a German paleontologist, Ernst Stromer, who originally discovered Spinosaurus, but the specimens were lost during World War II in the bombing of Munich. Dr. Ibrahim was able to find another specimen of Spinosaurus in Morocco -his “needle in the Sahara”. He worked with local fossil hunters as well as a museum in Italy and was able to find more bones that belonged to Spinosaurus. There is not yet a complete skeleton of Spinosaurus.  However, with new technology researchers were able to 3D print the skeleton of Spinosaurus that tours museums today. Dr. Ibrahim’s talk impressed upon the audience that paleontology is hard work, but that collaboration with other scientists and foundations can ease that burden and make discoveries that much more rewarding. He also gave great insight on the challenges that come with doing field work in the Sahara desert and how terrifying it can be when two of your three vehicles break down in the middle of the desert! I think I’ll stick to local field work and museums…

Artists rendition of Spinosaurus in the Cretaceous river system of Morocco. Painting by Davide Bonadonna.

Putting on a large scale event like Darwin Day during the last year of my Master’s degree was very challenging-I often felt that if my days weren’t planned well or if I wasn’t working a month ahead of schedule that I wouldn’t be able to pull off writing my thesis and planning a birthday party and speaker visit! It was incredibly difficult, but doing outreach events like this are what makes science rewarding in my eyes. I have spent several years cultivating my scientific knowledge, but my passion (outside of research!) is doing outreach and talking to the communities that I work and live in about science and sharing my excitement about research with them. Darwin Day at UT changes and morphs every year based on who is leading it, but it continues to grow and continues to reach more people as the focus becomes more centered on reaching the communities surrounding the university. I also have to thank Jen Bauer, Joy Buongiorno, and Audrey Martin, as well as all of the other volunteers, for their help and support with executing this year’s Darwin Day events-these events could not have happened without the help of other amazing scientists who want to share science with the public!

Click here for an interview that discussses the Darwin Day program at UT.

Dragons and Dinosaurs at the Museum!

Adriane here-

A few weeks ago, the local group I volunteer with, Jurassic Roadshow, participated in an outreach event at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every year, the museum chooses a theme and builds educational events and activities around the theme, which lasts an entire week. This year’s theme was Dinosaurs and Dragons, as the museum was showcasing its fossil collections (including dinosaurs) and the collection of art featuring dragons.

The Archaeopteryx toy used along with the dinosaurs vs. dragons activity to highlight the differences between dragons (mythical creatures) and dinosaurs (extinct animals). Photo by Sarah Doyle.

When I volunteer with Jurassic Roadshow, I usually set up about two tables full of fossils from the major geologic eras so people can see the different groups of organisms that lived during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. But this outreach event was different: I was tasked with creating a display and/or activity that incorporated both dinosaurs AND dragons! I’m no mythical creature expert, so I was a bit perplexed as to what I could do to tie into the museum’s theme.

Solveig and I talking to the public about the dinosaur trackways preserved in Massachusetts. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

Inspiration struck when I visited a local toy store (paleontologists LOVE toy stores, especially one with lots of dinosaur figurines) and found Tyrannosaurus rex, Archaeopteryx, and dragon toys. I bought one of each and took them back to my lab. Next, I found a mythical dragon skeleton drawing online, along with scientific drawings of T. rex and Archaeopteryx skeletons (check out the awesome paleo art by Scott Hartman) and positioned them next to one another on a small poster. Then, I wrote down observations and features of the dragon skeleton, and did the same with the dinosaurs. I printed these onto cards so that kids could label the correct features on each organism. This way, they could see the major differences between dragons and dinosaurs and begin thinking about how we identify and name the animals we find in the fossil record, and why we interpret dinosaur fossils as dinosaurs, and not dragons.

Gini Traub assisting kids with breaking rocks. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

The day of the event, I took my student, Solveig, with me to the museum. We set up our table with a few representative Paleozoic and Cenozoic fossils, then made a larger display of Mesozoic fossils with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity. In addition, I also took an articulated (complete and together) pigeon skeleton and eagle skull with me to show the public the transition from dinosaurs (T. rex) to more bird-like dinosaurs (Archaeopteryx) to modern birds.  As if this weren’t enough, we also took ~150 oyster fossils and ~20 ammonite fossils from the Cretaceous (~90 million years old) to give away to kids.

Professor Steve Winters from Holyoke Community College assisting young scientists with their microscopes! Photo by Sarah Doyle.

The biggest hit of the day at our table was the dinosaur and dragon toys. Younger kids automatically picked up the T. rex and engaged it in an epic battle with the dragon (one enthusiastic patron informed me the dragon I bought was a European dragon). We made certain that every kid (and adults!) left our table with an oyster or ammonite fossil. Several families engaged with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity, and most kids found it fun to point out the differences between mythical and real creatures.

Getting a close look at modern bugs, bird skeletons, and corals. I used modern organisms to talk about how these animals are threatened today by climate change. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

Other Jurassic Roadshow volunteers who attended the event also had tables with activities for visitors related to the geology and paleontology of western Massachusetts. A professor from Holyoke Community College brought along several mineral specimens and microscopes so people could look at them under high magnification. Other members brought representative rocks from around the valley, hammers, googles, and hand lenses so kids could break the rocks and look at the minerals under the lenses (this was also a huge hit, pun intended). Another volunteer had two tables full of fish fossils from the Triassic-aged lake that once covered parts of western Massachusetts. One table included dinosaur-themed crafts for kids to make and take home!

As usual, the day ended with all of the Jurassic Roadshow team content and happy to have shared our love of geology with others. Although these outreach events do take time, I love participating in them, as it’s a way to connect with the public, practice and sharpen my science communication skills, and be visible to other youngsters who may, one day, decide to become a scientist.