Information Sciences: What are they?

Rose here –

I study information sciences at the University of Tennessee. Why is it called information sciences and not information science? The information sciences are a very broad field, containing many other fields such as data management, knowledge management, librarianship (public, academic, and specialized), archiving, museum studies, and information-seeking behavior studies, among others. This is really true of most sciences, as biology, geology, physics, and chemistry all contain multitudinous specialized fields within the broad discipline.

Here at UT, we have some undergraduate and doctoral students in the School of Information Sciences, but the majority of the students are in the master’s (MS) program. This is because in the library and information sciences, an MS is considered the terminal degree. It is a professional degree, meaning that rather than a focus on research and producing a thesis or dissertation like many grad school programs, there is a focus on learning theories and practical skills that librarians and information professionals need to do their jobs.

Standing in front of the library at Central Washington University, where I got my undergrad degree in geology. This library was one of my favorite places and I spent many hours there studying or just reading in a quiet corner.
Librarians at many colleges and universities have faculty status, even though they are not doing full-time teaching or research. This is important because the services they provide are integral to all of the research and teaching that occur on campus. Many information professionals and librarians, especially academic librarians, already have graduate or undergrad degrees in other fields, which gives them a good foundation for knowing the potential information needs of the patrons they serve. Many librarians spend some amount of time on their own research, either within the information sciences or in other areas they have expertise in.

I also have a previous graduate degree, an MS in planetary geology. I decided to continue and get another MS in information sciences rather than try to find a job as a geologist right away. I knew I did not want to get a PhD and be a professor doing full-time research or teaching. However, I did want to find a way to stay involved in the planetary research and teaching community in a support role. With a degree in information sciences, I could work as a GIS specialist (What is GIS?), a technical information or data management specialist, or as a librarian specializing in an area related to planetary science. These are all jobs that exist within organizations such as academic and specialized libraries, USGS/NASA/NOAA, and private planetary science institutes and industries.

One of my favorite holiday activities: sitting by the fire reading about awesome women in science!
Since joining the School of Information Sciences last fall, I have had several opportunities to explore career options in this field. I got a position this as a Community Fellow with the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP receives funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS, and contains many member organizations who are working to improve all aspects of information and data management in the earth sciences. In my position as a fellow I get to attend their two annual meetings for free and to participate in any of their clusters (groups focused on a specific topic), as well as working more closely with one particular cluster. This gives me the opportunity to see what is going on in earth science data, as well as find new people to collaborate with. I have also been able to participate in a couple of research projects focused on Earth and planetary science data. I got the chance to travel to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC in December to collect data for one of these projects. I had never been to Washington DC before, so that was a cool experience. I will even get to travel to the 4th Planetary Data Workshop in Flagstaff in June to present some of my research, so stay tuned for a post about that!

Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI Meeting 2019

Jen here –

The opening slide for the meeting! Everyone was set up at round tables in the main ballroom of the hotel conference area.
Part of my new job is working on the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded FOSSIL Project that has created a social community that shares resources, help, and more on paleontology related ideas (myfossil.org). Every few years the funding group, Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) has a Principal Investigator (PI) meeting, to bring all of the project leaders together to share updates and brainstorm new ideas. I was selected as the FOSSIL Project representative to attend the event. This involved putting together a poster summarizing our project and what has happened over the past four years the project has been operating. I also included where we hoped to be heading in the future as we are working to make the platforms more community driven.

This was my first real dive into NSF. I had submitted several postdoctoral fellowships to NSF but never really engaged with program officers outside of emails or been in the audience of talks by different NSF staff members. The first day was primarily listening to different NSF staff explain and explore the various outlets of funding through NSF, the different programs to apply for funding, and the importance of the annual report. I took a considerable amount of notes because as an early career professional, it’s likely I will need to know some of these people and programs as I move forward in my career.

This was my first breakout session where we thought about informal learning in strange, or unusual, places.
There were breakout sessions where we could explore specific things in more detail. The first session I attended was on identifying informal places where people have some time to engage in science content. There was a brief introduction to different projects going on right now and then we spent much of the remaining time in small group discussions. We shared our own experiences with conceptualizing and implementing programs in different places and then discussed other spaces where we could introduce people to science. Some of these include: sporting events, airports, bus stations, and much more! Places where people go on a regular basis that we could introduce some brief content into. The next session I attended was on three key components: identity, interest, and engagement. There was a recent task force that really dove into these three topics and interviewed members of the research field to get at the components from all viewpoints. If you are interested in learning more head to: Informal Science.

Here I am with the poster I made for the meeting.
There was a poster session where we could explore the other AISL projects and network with potential collaborators. It was split into two sessions but I didn’t feel this was very effective because the rooms were sort of spread out and no one seemed to really stick to the schedule. So, I didn’t get to interact with as many people as I was hoping to but those that I did engage with were interested in the program and were very friendly. The final day of the event included a morning filled with small group discussions on broadening participation in STEM. I had a really interesting small group and we had a lot of interesting conversations about our projects and experiences.

Overall, this was a greatly informative experience for me. It was sort of a last minute trip but I really made the most of it and left with a lot of knowledge. I think getting to meet and listen to some of the NSF program officers really helped personalize them. It’s difficult sending proposals into the internet void and only having a few interactions with a staff member. Everyone I listened to and interacted with was very eager to help others succeed.

Teaching Science Communication to Biology students

Adriane here-

This semester, I was given the opportunity to do something new: lecture to an undergraduate Biology writing class about how to communicate science to non-scientists! I was invited to speak to this class because the professor knew about my education outreach and blogging experiences with Time Scavengers.

One assignments the class had to do was summarize a published scientific paper for the general public. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a short slide show for the students about who I am, how I got involved in science communication, and an overview of Time Scavengers. I also told the students about some of the lessons I’ve learned as a science communicator, and some best practices. Although there are several tips and tricks for writing for the general public, here are the four I chose to focus on:

  • Science writing for the public should be the opposite of formal scientific paper.
  • Explain figures in the figure caption, even if it is repetitive with the text
  • Use figures that are simple, labeled, and not too overwhelming
  • Reduce the jargon- include explanations and define any jargon words that are used
The students working on their summaries.

The paper the students summarized was about the amount of microplastics, or very small pieces of plastics, that are found in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. The paper and it’s findings are very important because it highlights the fact that our plastic waste is making it into the farthest reaches of our oceans, into the food chain, and affecting our wildlife. So it was a great paper for the undergrads to practice their science communication skills. There was only one catch: they could only use the ‘ten hundred’ most common words from the English language to write their summaries, thus ensuring they couldn’t use any science jargon words. This was done on the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which allows you to type text directly into a word box, but notifies you if you use a word that is not part of the 1,000 most common words.

When we began the activity, the students were a bit frustrated at first, as words such as ‘ocean’, ‘Earth’, and ‘salt’ aren’t words they could use! But then, they got creative and began coming up with ways to explain some of the more difficult concepts!

Needless to say, this was a really fun activity that resulted in quite a few laughs! I was impressed at how well the students’ summaries really captured the messages in the paper they were summarizing. This activity really highlighted the fact that we (scientists) don’t have to use large jargon-y words to get across important messages!

Below are some of the students’ summaries:

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

“The fine pieces thrown away by human after using are getting into the deep water and hurting the animals that live in the deep water. Many kinds of these used pieces are found in different places of the water, even in the deepest part. This is because that the pieces on the top of the water would go deeper when the land shakes or water moves. Studying these piece can help us better understand them and clean them from the water, keeping animals save in their home.”

“Humans use a lot of stuff that eventually finds its way into the water. These small pieces of stuff start on land and eventually move to the water where it takes a lot of time to break down. Eventually this bad human stuff finds it’s way to the deep parts of the water where it is not supposed to be. Animals living in the water can easily be hurt and get sick by this bad human stuff. With this stuff in the water it will be very hard to take away. In order to keep a lot of life, humans must do something to clean the water. Clean water will help human life as well.”

“We studied problems in bodies of water like bad things on the ground under water. Further down we go, more build up of the bad things is seen. The deeper down in the water, the worse the problem is. Many pieces of bottles and other man made things sit and bother surrounding life. Another problem that was presented in the reading was the ground taking in the man made things-which makes it harder for animals to eat, breathe, and live. The changes that have happened because of the man made things are still not known and being looked into.”

“A big problem that is growing is making the bodies of water, and what lives there, sick. These bad things are small and can be found more in deep water. Humans are bad because they are not safe with throwing away these things so it hurts water animals by making them sick. The well-being of water and animals needs to be helped by humans. Cleaning up water is good, as well as watching what is put into water to stop the problem before it happens. Water is very important to human and animal life, so bad things being put into bodies of water needs to stop. ”

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

Humans placed too many bad things like bags and bottles in the deep water. This, in the end, hurts the tiny animals living in the water. If this goes on, it will even hurt our entire home later on. We first thought that the bad things were only near the top of the water, however it seems that the bad things are even in the deepest parts of the water as well. The people who study this are explaining how they found this out in this paper.

Scientist of the Week

Sarah here-

I took a geoscience education class as an elective my senior year of college. One of our first assignments was to draw a picture of a scientist. That was all the direction we received from the professor. And yet, even with this vague assignment, all of the students (yes, including me) drew the exact same thing: a white man with messy hair and a lab coat. Why?

Science has had a long history of discrimination and exclusion. This shouldn’t be a surprise: since science is done by humans, and humans have shaped how we view scientists through centuries. Because of this, many of us have shaped in our minds the image of a scientist- the one I described above. And that’s something I want to change.

My geology classes are primarily taken by introductory students-I teach hundreds of students every year, from every conceivable life experience. And many of these scientists that we talk about in class-Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Alfred Wegener- look very similar. And while all of these scientists made incredible contributions to science, we often overlook equally incredible contributions by scientists that didn’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ scientist. I wanted to change that. So, in my classes, we started a “Scientist of the Week” segment to highlight the achievements of all kinds of scientists. I began making a list for myself- this list started with the scientists that I have heard of- famous scientists that lived long ago or scientists that I’ve read about recently and even scientists just starting out their careers. My list was subdivided into many categories-women in STEM, Native/Indigenous in STEM, Black in STEM, military veterans in STEM, Deaf/hard of hearing in STEM, LGBTQ+ in STEM, etc. So far, I have over one hundred scientists on my list and I’m adding more daily.

This is an image of Dr. Wangari Maathai (Photo Credit: Patrick Wallet), one of our past scientists (and one of my personal heroes) of the week. Dr. Maathai was born and raised in Kenya; in the 1970s, she became the first woman from east and central Africa to earn a PhD. She is the founder of the “Green Belt Movement”, which paid women in Kenya to plant trees. This program had extreme success, both at lifting vulnerable populations of women out of poverty and at rebuilding forests across her country. She had so much success in this project, that it was modeled in other nations. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and she remains one of the only environmentalists to have won this prestigious award. To learn more about Dr. Maathai’s work, read this biography.
I show a photo of the scientist to my students and tell them a little bit about their story during lecture and provide a written blurb of their achievements for my students to read later. One of our recent scientists was Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astronomer from Puerto Rico (who now works in South Africa). She lost her eyesight during her undergraduate education; after she lost her sight, she developed programs to transfer her data into audible sound so that she could continue to analyze her research in a method that best suited her. Another recent example was a friend of mine, Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, who is a paleontologist. She is also a veteran and served in the US Navy-she gave good advice to veterans returning to college on how to find their future path. Many of the scientists I highlight, I also highlight how discrimination shaped their experiences in the sciences and how discrimination has shaped how some of these scientists are remembered in history. For example, we recently talked about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the first image of DNA’s structure. Her work was famously shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her data to finish their analysis of DNA. They later collected the Nobel Prize for their work, while Franklin’s work was left largely ignored. James Watson later wrote in an autobiography about Franklin, insinuating she wasn’t bright enough to understand her scientific data. James Watson has been recently featured in the news for asserting racist views. My class and I discussed how the science community for many decades chose to ignore Watson’s racism and sexism, to the detriment of the career’s and safety of traditionally discriminated groups of people in science.

I want to share these stories because they mirror the experiences of many of my students. My university, The University of South Florida, serves a broad diversity of students. I want students to see scientists that share their backgrounds-science doesn’t belong to men, to able-bodied people, to white people, to heterosexual people, to cis people, to people with Phds., to any religion or lack of religion, or to any economic class. Science belongs to everyone. However, I don’t feel that it is right to only highlight the awesome stories of scientists in underrepresented groups without also highlighting how discriminatory attitudes have shaped our history of science. Scientists must reflect on this history to always make sure that we are working towards building an inclusive community.

I have only been doing this for a few months, so I haven’t been able to compile data on how my students are engaging with the material. I have had a few students tell me their feelings, so I do have some anecdotal evidence. One student told me that she felt more confident to apply to medical school, after seeing scientists that looked like her and shared many of her experiences. Another student told me she had never seen a Native scientist highlighted in a classroom before-she sent the Scientist of the Week to members of her community and started learning about other Native scientists. I’m not naïve enough to believe that this Scientist of the Week exercise is enough to “fix” the significant challenges the science community faces in terms of diversity and inclusion. Changing the science community to reflect the diversity we have in the world will require much more work. But this is an effective way to introduce large groups of students to a history of science that isn’t nearly as often told.

If you’re interested in doing a similar project with your classes or if you have suggestions for scientists to highlight (self-nominations encouraged!), come talk to me! You can find me on twitter @sarahlsheffield

Jaws International

Jen here –

Not long ago I was invited to visit Dr. Gordon Hubbell’s personal collection and museum of modern and fossil sharks. Dr. Hubbell is a retired veterinarian who is a renowned shark expert. He has been on fossil collecting expeditions across the world. I’ve been fortunate to know many collectors with vast personal collections but Dr. Hubbell’s was on another level. He had a special room that was devoted to his specimens, preparation, and photography.

Wide shot of the main exhibit and specimen area.

There are curated specimens in display cases, that were designed specifically for Gordon’s fossil collection. The display cases each hold miniature exhibits on different aspects of sharks. For a non-shark expert, or even enthusiast, this was absolutely overwhelming. I like sharks, I think they are fascinating but I haven’t spent much time learning about them or exploring their fossil record.

Exhibit on shark vertebrae including detailed anatomy but with clear easy-to-understand diagrams and labels.
Biogeography of megalodon teeth. All regions of the globe were included but not able to be captured in a single photo.
Schematic representation of how shark teeth get replaced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comparison of fossil and modern sets of teeth. Notice the specific way the teeth curve.
The group that I visited the museum with included a graduate student researching some of the fossil specimens in Gordon’s collection. Another phenomenal aspect about Gordon – he understands the utility of his collection in active scientific research. In this case, the student and his assistant were photographic a complete set of shark teeth – by complete I mean a set from the top and lower jaw of the animal. Gordon had many complete sets of fossil teeth, which is incredibly rare.

Souvenir shark tooth from Dr. Hubbell’s museum.
I learned an incredible amount about sharks from their morphology (whole and just teeth), sexual dimorphism, geographic distribution, and some of the weird mutations that can occur in their teeth. But I think what was the largest takeaway is that Gordon wanted his visitors to learn and be excited about sharks. He didn’t have to make all of these incredible displays, he could have just pulled out specimens and I still would have learned a lot. But allowing the visitor to learn and ask questions about the content is much more effective and kept me engaged for a long time.

In addition to having one of the largest collection of shark remains, Gordon is also an artist. He sculpts animal life – modern and ancient. Some of these models were present in his collection and were so fun and lifelike that they really added to both my exploration of sharks and the exhibits. He even offers souvenirs on your way out – I got to take home an extinct mackerel shark tooth from Morocco that lived about 60 million years ago.

Take a virtual tour of his collection and museum here. Read more in the news about Gordon’s expertise and collection here.

Set of shark vertebrae sitting in under some of the displayed fossils. That is a six foot table.
Fossil shark called Helicoprion that had a spiral of teeth coming of the front end of the face.
Model created by Gordon of a complete Helicoprion whorl of teeth.
Carcharodon hubbelli from Peru. Specimen was found by Dr. Hubbell and he subsequently donated it to the Florida Museum of Natural History, specimen number 226255.

Can you dig it?

Rose here –

In the geology gallery at the museum, scientists explore their own research and help visitors better understand the process of fossilization. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we have a natural history museum on campus called the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. Every year they do a family fun day event called Can You Dig It? where scientists from different departments on campus come and set up various activities to engage families. The Earth and Planetary Sciences department always shows up with several fun activities for families and kids of all ages. This year we had quite a few things going on.

Outside we had two tables of planetary activities. One table was talking about volcanoes and how to tell the difference between rocks formed by volcanic eruptions and rocks formed by meteorite impacts. We had real meteorites and impact deposits, as well as some volcanic rocks, so the kids could hold them all and really see the difference.

Other graduate students outside with experiments dealing with impact craters for visitors to explore!

I was at the other planetary table, where we had some more meteorites and 3D-printed models of actual impact craters on the moon and Mars. We used these to explain how the shape of impact craters change depending on the size of a meteorite and the speed at which it impacts. We also had a tub of flour with a thin layer of cocoa powder on top. There were several marbles and small balls, and kids could hold one above the tub and drop it to make their very own impact crater. The layering using cocoa powder allowed us to show them how ejecta blankets work at real impact craters. An ejecta blanket is made of rocks from the impact site being blown up and out of the crater and landing to form a “blanket” surrounding the crater. In the tub, you could see flour on top of the cocoa powder after the impact, showing how buried layers get exposed at the surface surrounding impact craters.

Graduate students have a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) for students and visitors to get more information about a variety of topics. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

Inside the museum, we had a table where people could bring in rocks or fossils they had collected and geologists or paleontologists would help identify them. This is a really popular thing, and some people bring loads of rocks they’ve been collecting all year.
If you have a local museum, make sure to go check them out. Local museums are often cheap or free and also host fun events like this one!

Skype a Scientist

Rose here –

I recently got to participate in a different kind of outreach activity. Instead of going to a classroom or museum and talking to students in person, I got to share my research with students in a classroom all the way across the country via Skype! I had signed up with an organization called Skype a Scientist earlier this past fall.

I didn’t take any pictures during the session, but here are the rocks I used to answer their question “what are your favorite rocks that you’ve collected?” Clockwise from top left: a conglomerate a friend sent me from California, a jar of Mount St. Helens ash my gramma collected off her car the morning after the eruption, a piece of Columbia River Basalt I collected in undergrad, a gypsum rose from Morocco (my parents bought it in a shop in Oregon), a large quartz crystal my gramma collected in the Mojave desert, a piece of rose quartz I collected in the Sierra Nevada, and a piece of amethyst my roommate brought back from Uruguay.

This organization matches scientists with teachers who would like to have a scientist talk to their classrooms about their research, maybe related to something they’ve studied in class. Because it’s all conducted via Skype, the scientists and classrooms could be anywhere. I live in Knoxville, TN and the 7th grade classroom I connected with is in Seattle, WA. This was fun because I grew up in the greater Seattle area, so I could talk about the local geology. I got to share with them how growing up in the shadow of volcanoes, experiencing earthquakes as a kid, and learning about the glacial ice sheets that used to cover the land where my family now lives all inspired me to love and learn about geology.

My thesis research here in Knoxville has been on the geomorphology of Mars, which was perfect because this class was just finishing up a unit on Mars geomorphology. The teacher contacted me a couple of weeks before we met via Skype. I sent them some info on my research and the students sent back a list of questions they had for me. The topics of these questions ranged from undergrad vs. grad school to questions about Mars to questions about my favorite rocks or field areas. I was really impressed by the thought they put into these questions and the range of things they were interested in. During the Skype session, I started by answering as many of these questions as I could. This took about half the class time, so the teacher and students then had a chance to ask follow-up questions. The students were very engaged and interested in what I was saying. I was a little nervous beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions or the technology would fail on us, but it went really well and we all agreed it would be fun to do again. If you are a teacher or scientist I would totally recommend checking it out!

If you are interested in signing your class up, or a researcher interested in talking to a classroom, you can sign up for Skype a Scientist here!

Volunteering at Amherst Regional Middle School

Dipa here-

This past December, I got the opportunity to share my research and interests in climate change with a group of curious middle schoolers at Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, Massachusetts!

Amherst Regional Middle School during a beautiful New England fall day.

The school partners with University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) organization to connect graduate researchers to middle school students through 20-minute Science SoundByte presentations. The 7th and 8th grade students get to enjoy the presentations during their lunch times and learn about a variety of STEM research. As for me, I get to practice explaining my research and sharing my interests to the next generation of researchers.

An example of a fossil ammonite that I used for my outreach with the middle schoolers.

While I was planning my presentation I knew I wanted to get these students thinking about climate change, since it is a problem that affects them too. The students talked with each other and then shared out what they knew about climate change, sea level rise, and their impacts on the environment–they knew so much! To explain how I use fossils to study climate change in the past, I gave the students marine fossils (fossil shark teeth, mollusks, ammonites, and corals) and asked them to draw the organism and its habitat. Did it live in the reef, open ocean, at the seafloor, or in the water column? If these fossils were found in the same location, what does this say about sea level over time in that place?

The students had fun getting to touch and look at fossils, and they worked together to solve how much sea level rose over time for the activity! It was great to be back in front of a class and talk to students about their interests in STEM and how we can work together to understand modern climate change.

National Fossil Day at the Florida Museum

Jen here –

Our tables are the first two on the right! It was never jam packed but there were over 1700 visitors to the museum in 5 hours!

National Fossil Day is a holiday enacted in 2010 to celebrate prehistoric life. Each year museums, institutes, and organizations plan events around understanding geology, paleontology, and Earth’s history! This year, I helped plan activities for the FOSSIL project and the department of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The annual event has all the natural history departments and several local organizations set up as a knowledge fair. Adults and children can wander around to different tables to learn about Florida’s different animals, plants, and more!

View of the visitors at the museum for National Fossil day!

At the FOSSIL project table, we displayed real megalodon teeth, 3D printed teeth made of plastic, and digital teeth! On the myFOSSIL website you can look through a 3D gallery (click here) and move digital fossils around in your browser. We also had an app up that was developed by the iDigFossils group to estimate body size of the sharks based on their teeth! It was really fun and helped show the utility of the website!

A close up of my sticker! #NotADinosaur! My synapsid kin!

The vertebrate paleontology table had a modern turtle shell next to ancient fossil turtle pieces! The idea was you could select a piece of shell material and try to figure out where on the turtle shell the piece was fun. This was difficult with some pieces but others were very clearly the edge of the shell or contained ribs. As many of you may know, I am not a vertebrate paleontologist so I had to quickly learn as much as I could about turtles. Shout out to my friend Jeanette for teaching me how to identify turtle shell fragments the week before the event. Many of these turtle pieces were about 5 million years old and from areas around Florida! We also had a few jaws for people to look at different teeth and then play a matching game. The game had you match different animals and teeth, then we talked with the players about diet and how we can use differently shaped teeth to think about what food the animal was eating.

The entrance to the new Permian Monsters exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

I helped out at the two tables inside but outside we had a dig pit and wash pit stations. So one was where you would dig through sand to find different fossils and the other was where you would use a screen to sieve through material to find smaller fossils!

We had our National Fossil Day celebrations a bit early to coincide with the opening of a new exhibit, ‘Permian Monsters’. The Permian period is incredibly interesting because it was before dinosaurs when mammals were dominant and roaming the Earth. I was asked to be on the radio to describe the differences between dinosaurs and mammals in less than 30 seconds! At first I was thinking… what the heck am I going to say to these people but then I knew: ‘The major difference between these early mammals and dinosaurs is the amount of holes in their heads.’ The radio host lost his mind and then asked me a million questions after we were off air.

Right in the front door of the Permian Monsters exhibit was a giant eurypterid. I immediately requested a photo.

This was my first National Fossil Day at a new institution and I had a lot of fun! I hope everyone got to celebrate and share their love and knowledge for fossils!

The Value of Optional Field Trips

Adriane here-

Glacial potholes in the Shelburne Falls rocks. Image from Atlas Obscura.

This semester, I am one of our Introduction to Geology course teaching assistants (or TA for short). This class is offered through the Geosciences department at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and this semester, includes over 150 students! The course is designed to introduce our students, who are mostly freshmen and sophomores, to some fundamental principles of geology and important Earth system processes (such as volcanoes, plate tectonics, and earthquakes). Every time the class is taught, which is once a semester, we offer an optional field trip for the students. This trip is held on a Saturday, and we take the students all around the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts to show them the major rock formations and tell them the geologic history of the area. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what we did with the students and why field trips such as these, although optional, are of value.

We began the day at 8:30 am on a rainy October morning. For the trip, about 85 students had signed up. The class TAs, of which there were five on this trip, had decided to each share the responsibility of leading the field trip. We were going to 6 stops altogether, so we each chose a stop at which to talk. Because of the rain, cold, and early start, a large majority of our students didn’t show up. So we left the university with about 65 students in tow!

Three of the TAs using compasses to find magnetic minerals, called magnetite, in the rocks. At this location atop a mountain, the rocks contain a lot of magnetite, which will make compasses go squirrelly when in close proximity.

The first place we stopped was in a nearby town, which is sort of famous. Shelburne Falls was the filming site of the movie ‘The Judge’ starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. But the other (and more important, in my opinion) reason the town is famous is because it contains features called potholes, which were first created when the glaciers glaciers that once covered the area about 20,000 years ago began melting. Potholes are round impressions in the rocks, made by small rocks and pebbles swirling around in a depression in a large rock body. Over time, the small rocks, pebbles, and cobbles carve out a larger and deeper depression. Potholes usually form in or near rivers, as the swirling and moving water is key to their creation.

After we marveled at the Shelburne Falls potholes, we loaded up the vans and took the students into the Berkshire mountains. We stopped at several places in the mountains to talk about the tectonic history of the region, and marvel at the views. Generally, the rocks in the Berkshires have a very long and complex tectonic history. Most of the rocks are a billion to 450 million years old. These rocks are severely faulted (or broken) and folded from orogenies, or times when volcanic island arcs or other continents slammed into North America. The east coast of North America has experienced three different orogenies over the past ~450 million years. From these, the Appalachian Mountain chain was built, which stretches from southeastern Canada south into Alabama. We explained this tectonic history of mountain-building to the students.

Talking to students at the site of the 2011 landslide caused by Hurricane Irene. Here, rip rap, or large cobbles, were placed between the river and road to stabilize the soil. You can see we’re standing on the rip rap in this image.

But we didn’t just talk about really old rocks on the field trip. We also showed our students more recent geological phenomenon, such as the effects of hurricanes on local river systems. In 2011, Hurricane Irene tracked across western Massachusetts, bringing with it torrential rainfall within just a few days. The weeks before the hurricane hit, several inches of rainfall had already fallen in the area, making the ground saturated. The mixed effects of already-soaked ground, plus additional rainfall, led to landslides in the area. One landslide took out half a road. The damage was so extensive and severe the road was closed for 3.5 months!

The second to last stop we made with the students was to an old marble quarry. The quarry was in operation during the 1800’s into the early 1900’s. However, the mining came to a halt one day when a fire broke out in the barn where the dynamite was kept. This fire, and the subsequent explosions, rocked the town. From then on, the quarry was taken over by the state and made into a state park. And I’m really glad it was: the park is lovely, with a huge marble amphitheater and a river that runs through a carved canyon. The park claims to have the largest natural bridge in the U.S., perhaps the world. I’m not certain if this is true, but the park is lovely. Because the age of the marble is Ordovician (~450 million years old), and I studied this time period during my masters degree, I happily chatted to the students at this stop. I even went full nerd and brought brachiopod and trilobite fossils with me to show the students what types of organisms probably lived in this region hundreds of millions of years ago.

Me, center, joyously chatting to our class about the Ordovician and lovely shallow seas that existed here ~450 million years ago. We’re standing in the marble amphitheater that used to be a quarry.

Our last stop was to a local graveyard just down the road from the quarry. Here, the gravestones are all leaning in different directions. They weren’t originally like that, so what caused them to move? It turns out that the graveyard is built on a drumlin. A drumlin is a small hill that was created by the glaciers that covered Massachusetts 20,000 year ago. Because the drumlin is made of sediments that aren’t well consolidated (or packed down), the earth ‘creeps’, or moves. Another way to think of this is the ground is still settling, much like a new house will settle over time on its foundation. After this stop, we packed up the students and headed back to UMass.

Lara talking about creep and why the gravestones have moved over time. Some headstones here date back to the late 1800’s, and it is those that exhibit the most movement. We know the headstones have moved because they are no longer lined up with the newer ones nearby or are no longer straight.

Geology is a tricky subject to teach, as a lot of the concepts involve thinking in 3D and sometimes 4D. Learning to think like this takes great practice, patience, and repetition. Field trips such as these expose the students to new concepts and ideas, and we get to teach them these concepts while on the outcrop, looking at the rocks. For example, when talking about the rock formations being smashed together and all pushed towards the west, we can do this while standing in front of a rock with folds and breaks. Using a compass, we can show the students that the folds are pushed, or tilted, to the west from orogenies that I mentioned above. Our students also get more face time with each other, with the TAs, and with the professor. Field trips often create a more relaxed and casual atmosphere than the classroom, so these are great opportunities for students to chat with us (and vice versa) and ask questions they wouldn’t necessarily ask in the class. Having large all-day field trips such as these are also wonderful for students who already are or are thinking about becoming geology majors. These students get a bit more experience with the major and a taste of what’s to come during their degree.

One of the problems in geology is lack of accessibility for students who are hearing, visually, or physically impaired. Because our science takes us outdoors much of the time, this isn’t attractive for students who may be wheel-chair bound or have a disability of any sort. In addition, the geosciences are losing students who did not grow up loving the outdoors, and who may not be comfortable going on day-long field trips. One way to make the class more accessible is to have an alternative option for students who cannot or don’t feel comfortable going outdoors for long periods of time. In our class, we also give the students the option to do the field trip virtually. One of our professors at UMass built a program with images, text, and figures that lets students ‘visit’ local rocks and formations of interest to learn about the geology of the region.

But the all-day optional field trip isn’t just great for our students, it’s also great for the teaching assistants. Because we all took turns talking at different stops, we each got practice talking to a large group of students and explaining geologic concepts. Most of the time, graduate students talk with each other and use science jargon that is not appropriate for undergraduates or the public (they just don’t understand the words we use). Talking with students who have no prior experience with geology makes us think about how we can explain things more thoroughly and simply. Leading the trip together also gives us experience in leadership and teamwork: we all have to work together to make the trip fun, informative, and safe for everyone involved!