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.

Departmental museum liaison

Jen here –

For the past two years I have been the department coordinator or liaison to our local natural history museum. The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a variety of exhibits from Human Origins to Ancient Egypt. One of the exhibits on their main floor includes a geology gallery that explores the rocks, fossils, and environments of Tennessee through time.

The coordinator position is voluntary and aims to get undergraduate and graduate students involved in running tours in the geology exhibit. Local private, public, and homeschool groups can sign up to be given tours of specific galleries in the museum. The curator of education will email me when groups sign up and I request volunteers through the department. Our department has a core group of volunteers that are very dedicated to helping out at the museum.

The exhibit tours are relatively simple and we have tailored lessons to go with various age groups. For example, I led a tour last week of 4th graders from a private school. The tour begins by discussing plate tectonics and what the different plate movements are and what natural disasters can occur at these boundaries. We watch an animation on the movements over the last 750 million years and focus on the changes that occur to Tennessee. We talk about how fossils can help us better understand locations of specific plates in the past.

Jen leading a tour with local Knoxville 4th graders.
Then we get to talk about different types of fossils and fossil formation. I pass around a few samples, usually a mold of very old snails, petrified wood, and several examples of teeth. We talk about shape, how the fossils formed, and what information we can get from the fossils. Then we move through the gallery and explore how Tennessee has changed through time. For much of the Ice Age with lots of large hairy animals.

Many schools are unable to go on many field trips and in some cases this is the classes first trip outside of the classroom. Each tour is very different but helps us tailor our science communication skills to a variety of age ranges. It is difficult to pass up opportunities to explore deep time with young students that get very excited to talk about the past and ancient life.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Sarah here –

Scientists are increasingly concerned with climate change. You might feel helpless, as you watch the news-you see images of awful pollution, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers and to me, it can be overwhelming! We all know how to cut carbon emissions- drive our car less (or buy a hybrid car!), support renewable energy, and get solar panels for our houses! However…if you’re like me and you live in an area where you can’t really get by without a car and you may not have the means to do much about getting a hybrid or solar panels, this advice may not be so helpful. So today’s post is dedicated to SUPER EASY WAYS to reduce your carbon footprint. Spoiler alert: many of these will also save you money! Double win!

1. Stop buying paper napkins! Paper alone makes up approximately 16% of US landfills. You can cut down on the number of napkins that you contribute to a landfill by purchasing a one-time set of cloth napkins. I made the switch a year ago! I spent about $30-50 a year in paper towels and napkins for 2 people. I purchased a $13 set of napkins 2 years ago, and haven’t bought another napkin since. I toss them in the wash with my regular laundry and I love them! They also make my not- so-fancy meals of cereal and toast feel even fancier! Try this set by clicking here.

Sarah gave Jen are reusable Pokemon snack bag not long ago that Jen uses regularly to bring snacks to work!

2. Stop buying dishwashing sponges! Sponges are seriously one of the most germy things in our house-many studies have shown that the average sponge holds more bacteria than your bathroom- and, as an added detriment, you have to throw them out pretty frequently. I just discovered an awesome alternative: silicone sponges that are antimicrobial AND dishwasher safe! I wash all of my hand washable dishes with them, clean my sinks and counters, and pop them in the dishwasher-no waste and I feel so much better that they’re not harboring bacteria. Try this set by clicking here.

3. Invest in silicon freezer bags! So, one of the hardest things for me is to reduce my need on plastic-I’ll admit it! One of the best things I’ve discovered on my journey to make small efforts that add up to a lot are silicon freezer bags. They have completely replaced single use freezer bags for me! I buy my food in bulk and freeze them in separate bags-these silicon bags are airtight and keep my food frozen nicely. When it’s time to thaw them out, I just take the bag and wash it in hot water or the dishwasher (yes, this even works with meat like chicken!). The bags were a little pricy-about $20- but I haven’t bought freezer bags in just under 2 years. Consider the savings-each set of freezer bags is about $3-5, depending on where you get it. If you bought a set of freezer bags even once every two months, you’re still looking at a LOT of money saved! Better yet, I use these bags to pack sandwiches, hold jewelry when I’m traveling, and store leftovers from dinner. Try these – click here.

4. Cut down on meat just a little bit-especially beef! Cows actually burp a little bit of methane when they eat-which is all of the time! Our reliance on beef is a major cause for carbon emissions across the globe. Consider eating more turkey and chicken, or, better yet- just cut down on meat once or twice a week! There are so many excellent dinner choices that are vegetarian (and those meat substitutes you can get in the freezer aisle are actually pretty darn delicious now!) Added bonus- it can cut down on your grocery bill, even by removing meat from your diet a few times a week!

Sarah’s silicon freezer bags!

5. Reduce your takeout packaging. Takeout food waste can exceed the amount of carbon emissions that cars produce each year! Next time you’re at a restaurant, request that they don’t give you a straw (think about using reusable ones, like these), don’t take more than a few paper napkins, ask that they don’t give you more condiments than you need, refuse the plastic bag they put the food in, and try not to do the carry out option as much and eat there, to cut down on the packaging that has to be used! Any reduction in waste will help.

6. Don’t use plastic grocery bags! Bring your own OR, if you don’t buy that much, refuse a bag altogether. Many stores (like Target) will give you a small discount for bringing your own reusable bags! You can even replace the plastic produce bags at the store with these – click here.

Remember, being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be incredibly stressful. These small changes in my life have really cut down on my waste consumption. Please, do your best to reduce your carbon footprint-and enjoy all the money you’ll save with some of these tips! None of these tips were sponsored- I use all of these in my own life and love them! Statistics and general facts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Curating a New Fossil Collection

Yep, we’re really into puns.
Fossil turtle shells from the Oligocene (~32-34 million years), along with a turtle coprolite (fossil poop) from the Eocene (~47 million years).

Adriane here-

Last year, the Department of Geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst received a very generous donation of fossils. Being a fossil freak myself, I was over the moon excited to set up the new collection and help make the display for these precious fossils. Our department already has an impressive collection of minerals (the Rausch Mineral Gallery, which is open to the public weekdays from 9 am – 5 pm), so a fossil gallery was the perfect compliment to this. The department decided to call the collection the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection, after the generous donor.

Teeth of Hyracodon, a pony-like organism that lived during the Oligocene.

Setting up the fossil displays was quite a task, but one of the most fun tasks I have participated in during my time at UMass as a graduate student! Unwrapping boxes upon boxes of vertebrate and invertebrate specimens was better than Christmas morning as a kid! There are several amazing fossil specimens, but one of my favorite is a Triceratops horn fragment. Other impressive specimens are the two nests of dinosaur eggs and two individual eggs.

An Edmontosaurus metatarpal (toe bone).

In addition to the fossils donated to us, the Geoscience department also has an impressive collection of Paleozoic invertebrate fossils that were collected by a previous professor (who has long since retired). The last cabinet in our fossil display was reserved especially for these fossils. My previous research experience was with Paleozoic invertebrates, so I (quite happily) undertook the task of selecting, identifying, and setting up these fossils.

A piece of a Triceratops horn.

My advisor Mark, my lab partner Serena, and I were tasked with organizing the display in cabinets next to our mineral gallery. We decided to order the specimens according to geologic time, with the youngest fossils on the right side of the room and the oldest on the left. In addition, we also tried to separate the fossils within each cabinet by terrestrial and marine organisms. This way, visitors can see how life on Earth has changed and evolved through time on land and in the oceans.

A Eubrontes trace fossil. Eubrontes is the name given to the dinosaur track. This one in particular came from western Massachusetts, and is about 200 million years old!

Rock, mineral, and fossil collections within universities and colleges are very important resources, as they allow the students in those institutions access to the collections through research, curating, and learning activities. Professors can also incorporate the collections into their teaching curriculum if they wish to. This semester, the Historical Geology students at UMass will each be assigned a fossil from the collection. As a class project, each student will write a one-page description of their fossil, and will include facts about the organism. These pages will then be print and bound in a book kept by the fossil collection so visitors can learn more about the extinct organisms. In this way, the students are learning about geologic time, evolution, and paleontology, and also science communication!

An Oviraptor egg, with a plastic model behind it to illustrate how the young dino would have grown inside the shell.

The collections are great tools for education outreach and science communication. For example, I have used the Rausch Mineral Gallery housed at UMass to teach local Boy Scouts about natural resources and important minerals we use in our everyday lives. Late last year, the first group to see the fossils was a science club from one of our local high schools. The kids were amazed at the fossils! When I told them our oldest fossils were ~550 million years old, they were seriously impressed. In the world of paleontology, dinosaurs are often king, so it’s always a sweet victory when I can get people to marvel at our Earth’s earliest multi-cellular invertebrate creatures.




Keichousaurus hui, a marine reptile that live about 240 million years ago.
Two eurypterids, Eurypterus lacustris. Eurypterids are commonly called ‘sea scorpions, and are the state fossil of New York. These two are from the Silurian Period and lived ~430-418 million years ago.
An unidentified leaf fossil with excellent preservation. Notice how the leaves and stem are clearly visible.
Two Devonian (~385 million years) brachiopods. They may not look like much, but these specimens are extra special because their lophophores, which were internal feeding structures, are preserved!
A Plesiosaur vertebrae (back) and humerus (front). Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles that preyed on other marine organisms. This specimen was found in southern Colorado and is Late Cretaceous (100-66 million years) in age.
A piece of a Hadrosaur jawbone. Hadrosaurs were duck-billed dinosaurs. This specimen came from the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation and is 70-66 million years old.
Fern fossils from the famous Mazon Creek locality in northern Illinois. The fossil are preserved in concretions, and when split, there are two halves of the fossil.
A Eucalyptocrinus specimen. This species belongs to the Class Crinoidea, which includes modern animals such as modern ‘feather stars’.
The final product! The Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection is housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,  Department of Geosciences, and is open to the public during weekdays from 9 am-5 pm.

Women in STEAM Panel Discussion

Jen & Maggie here –

There was a statewide STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) festival that occurred at the end of October. Last spring, Maggie and I started to plan how we could contribute to this festival. We wanted to host something targeting young students and get them excited about continuing their education in the STEAM fields. We teamed up with the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture to host a “Women in STEAM Panel Discussion“.

We spent a considerable amount of time searching for panelists but eventually ended up with a planetary geoscientist, paleobiologist, robotics engineer, industrial engineer, and biochemist! The career stage of these women all varied, an aspect I found to be key on this panel. I was the paleobiologist on the panel and Maggie was our fearless moderator. Prior to the panel we created trading cards for each of the panelists with an image, their name, and title on the front and the back had a short biography and what facets of STEAM their work represents.

Example of the trading cards created for the STEAM panel discssuion.

We wanted to showcase the diversity of projects and fields that really tie into STEAM. As a paleobiologist, I spend much of my time looking at rocks and fossils but I also spend an immense amount of time creating complex 3-dimensional models to get more information on extinct animals. Without some artistic creativity and innovation, these models would be difficult to assemble.

The panel discussion began with a 3-5 minute brief history introduction about how we got to where we are today. A main goal of this panel was to showcase how different everyone’s journeys are, there is not one specific way to achieve your goals but usually it’s messy and a bit challenging. After the introductions, Maggie led us through some questions that we had already came up with to help move the panel along. We covered questions such as “do you still learn new things?” to “what can current STEAM students do if they feel they are not succeeding?”

We opened the floor up for questions as well and had a very productive discussion. Topics from the audience ranged from challenges faced as a women in our career positions to consciousness in robots. Events like this are not only beneficial to the audience but also to the panelists! Maggie and I both had a wonderful time and learned a lot about some very successful women and left feeling very empowered.

Click here for an article about the event from the Daily Beacon.

Tennessee’s Governor’s School

Jen here –

Colin simulating how early amphibians would do push ups.

This past summer I participated in Tennessee’s Governor’s Schools for the Sciences and Engineering program. Governor’s School is an intense month of coursework for high school students. For the month, the students live on campus in one of the dorms, take a few classes, and get to experience how college would be! I participate in many different outreach activities but the high school age range is one that I have not worked with very often. Most of the students I have worked with are 3rd-5th grade levels.

Sarah, one of our collaborators, and I were the teaching assistants for the course on “Vertebrate Evolution”. We helped the students with activities related to the lectures and pulled specimens out of our fossil collection for the students to examine.The course was structured as a walk through the evolution of vertebrates through time with emphasis on what specific features join groups of animals. It was a lot of fun to learn about vertebrate evolution, as I work on invertebrates. It was also a great experience getting to work with high school students. We took them on several class trips: tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Ripley’s Aquarium, and Zoo Knoxville.

Part of the Governor’s School gang at the zoo!

Class met for 3 hours every afternoon for a month, it was a lot! By the end of the month both the students and instructors were all very exhausted. The students had a final project that they presented as posters on the last day of class. It was so fun to hear about all of the great animal groups they researched. One of the most rewarding things about experiences like this is learning from your students. I have so much respect for K-12 teachers.

I simply do not have the mental or physical capacity to work with young students for an entire day. Thank a teacher for their dedication to educating our youth – it is a terribly difficult job that so many wonderful people excel at.