A good portion of the FOSSIL Project team are in the UF College of Education and I’ve been trying to learn all that I can about studying learning in digital spaces. A recent grad, Dr. Lisa Lundgren, worked to determine who were the members of the myFOSSIL online community. She developed a taxonomic system to describe who was interacting on myFOSSIL. I’ve been a participant within the community since 2014 when it began so I have been really interested in her work. One of the primary goals of the project is to connect professional and amateur paleontologists. I wrote about her defense on my personal blog, which you can find by clicking here.
So, now that Lisa has produced a framework (Paleontological Identity Taxonomy (PIT), read more here) to begin examining and analyzing the community the education team is really diving into it. I was asked to join one of the projects they are working on to analyze a year’s worth of Twitter data. The idea being to explore who major contributors are on Twitter in relation to FOSSIL. Are there certain people that may catalyze interactions? How do these people fit into the taxonomic framework that has been previously established?
This project is using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In my normal work, I primarily use quantitative work to assess various things in my chosen fossil group. Diving into the qualitative work was a bit challenging at first but really interesting once I fully understood what I was doing. We were working to classify users within the FOSSIL Project’s Twitter community. This involved going through each person’s Twitter biography to determine how they fit into the PIT. Such as, in their bio do they identify as a scientist? What type of scientist? Or are they a member of the public? If they are a member of the public do they have an interest in fossils? I haven’t had much exposure to how different scientists study learning or communication so I’m really excited to be part of this project. Lisa will be presenting results at the upcoming 10th International Conference on Social Media & Society Conference in Toronto this summer.
As Time Scavengers continues to grow as a community, we need to make sure we understand how to analyze all of the data we have been collecting and if there are best practices for different types of questions we are asking! I have made valuable connections within the education team that have already shown to be beneficial as Adriane and I are teaming up with Lisa on a manuscript right now!
The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is located in Knoxville, Tennessee on the University of Tennessee campus. The museum is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm on Sunday. The museum is free to the public with special paid events. There are a variety of education opportunities from pre-K to lifelong learners, click here to find out more. Inviting you into the museum facilities is large metal Edmontosaurus, a delightful hadrosaur (duck billed dinosaur) named Monty. The museum has regular ‘Family Fun Days’ and an annual ‘Can you dig it?’ event to celebrate geology and archaeology. Read about the most recent Can you dig it? event by clicking here and check out the McClung’s event page by clicking here.
The McClung Museum has several permanent exhibits and one rotating exhibit. Please look through their exhibit archive by clicking here to see the upcoming, special, permanent, and past exhibitions!
On the main level you can explore the Geology & Fossil History of Tennessee from 500 million years ago until the most recent Ice Age all while a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling above you. Around the corner you can explore Archaeology & the Native Peoples of Tennessee through a variety of artifacts and interactive displays based on more than 65 years of research done at UT. By entering through a pyramid doorway you are transported to Ancient Egypt: The Eternal Voice where you can explore the interested culture of the ancient people of the Nile valley. The last exhibit on the main level is the Decorative Experience that explores art as one of the unifying elements of human culture.
Heading to the lower level there are several more excellent exhibits. Tennessee Freshwater Mussels showcases the biology and diversity of these creatures and this provides and excellent look into the impressive malacology exhibits the McClung houses. This exhibit is almost hidden around a corner but is a must see! The Civil War in Knoxville: The Battle of Fort Sanders follows along a main hall way and details the aspects of the war that took place in Eastern Tennessee. Many of these sites are historical markers and are easily accessible around town. The last permanent exhibit is Human Origins: Searching for our Fossil Ancestors. This exhibit is compact and filled with valuable information and specimens. Difficult concepts are easily explained through engaging diagrams and exhibits.
What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.
As a scientist, what do you do?
I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.
What data do you use in your research?
Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.
It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.
Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits
Izabela Aleixo, Darren Norris, Lia Hemeric, Antenor Barbosa, Eduardo Prata, Flávia Costa, & Lourens Poorter
The Problem: Climate scientists are constantly learning and sharing new details about climate change and its possible effects in the future. However, many of the impacts of climate change have already surfaced and revealed the fragility of our ecosystems. Recently, scientists have observed increasing tree mortality in tropical forests, which are some of the most biodiverse and ecologically important places in the world. Could tree mortality be another consequence of climate change–one that’s happening right now? This study by Aleixo and others (2019) explores this possible connection between modern climate change and downfall of tropical forests.
What data were used? This study uses monthly climate and tree mortality records along with about 50 years of observational data in the Amazon rainforest. Climate data include precipitation, temperature, and humidity. Tree mortality data is categorized by specific traits such as wood density (soft or hard), successional position (when a species colonizes a new area), and leaf phenology (deciduous or evergreen).
Methods: Aleixo and others (2019) tracked global climate and tree mortality in an area of the Amazon rainforest monthly for one year. They looked for increased tree mortality that aligned with variations in the climate data. They also examined tree mortality of different species traits during significant climate events in the past 50 years. These events include climate anomalies like El Niño or La Niña (click here to learn more about these).
Results: This study found that Amazon tree mortality is driven by climate, but the relationship is complex. For example, droughts can lead to immediate or slow tree death, depending on the mechanisms at play. Additionally, if a tree has harder wood, it is less likely to die during a drought. Aleixo and others (2019) also found that weather events like low rainfall or high temperatures can either immediately enhance tree mortality or cause increased mortality up to two years later. Similar outcomes are associated with years where El Niño or La Niña are particularly extreme. Various species traits may protect trees from dying under certain weather or climate events, but no single Amazon species is completely safe from the effects of climate change.
Why is this study important? As our climate continues to change and weather events become more extreme, the future of our forests remains uncertain. Even the most biodiverse and ecologically robust regions in the world are susceptible to the effects of climate change. This study provides a modern framework for us to understand those effects. From this, scientists can refine dynamic global vegetation models that predict how forests will respond to climate variability in the future.
Citation: Aleixo, I., D. Norris, L. Hemerik, A. Barbosa, E. Prata, F. Costa, and L. Poorter (2019), Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits, Nature Climate Change, 9(5), 384-388, doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0458-0.
I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.
Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.
Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.
Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.
Tools that I use for productivity and management:
Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
Every Spring, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has a one day event for undergraduate students to present their research, called the UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. This year was the conference’s 25th anniversary. During this event, over 1,000 undergraduate students from the commonwealth’s 28 public colleges and universities come to UMass to present the research they have been conducting, in the form of posters, e-posters, and talks. The conference is open to the public, and is totally free. In addition, the conference is open to students in any and all disciplines, such as Anthropology, History, Nursing, Sociology, Kinesiology, Social Work, and Political Science, just to name a few. The conference is set up so that there are eight sessions, each 45 minutes long, where students present their posters or e-posters (entire 45 minutes) or give talks in sessions (each talk is 15 minutes long, so three per session).
This year, the undergraduate student I have been working with, Solveig, presented her research on the northwest Pacific Ocean. In addition, there was one other student, Kurt, who also presented his research on reconstructing temperatures from sediments in the high northern latitudes. Both of our UMass students did great, and were continuously talking with professors, the public, and other students about the research they have been working hard on this past year.
While our UMass students were presenting, I walked around to chat with students about their research. In short, I was totally blown away by all the cool research being done at campuses across Massachusetts! The first student I talked to was from the nursing school here at UMass. She compiled data that has already been published to quantify how nurses and doctors introduced themselves to their patients. Interestingly, her findings suggested that not every nurse or doctor likes to introduce themselves by their first and last names, as they felt this might give away too much information, and might lead their patients to distrusting them more.
The second student I talked to developed a survey to assess how much trust the public has in their family, community, local government, and national government and agencies with respect to climate resiliency. She surveyed adults in western Massachusetts from a more liberal demographic and found some interesting results. Firstly, she found that people are willing to trust their family, friends, neighbors, and local governments more than national government agencies. This result is a bit off-putting because money for remediation after natural disasters comes mainly from national agencies, not local communities. Secondly, the results from the survey indicate that when it comes to investing in climate resiliency, people would rather put funding towards cleaner energy sources. This is interesting because making a switch to clean energy is something that should be done to curb climate change rather than a resiliency effort.
The third student I talked to had built a model for where clean energy plants should be built in Mexico. This student was in the Department of Engineering, and his data and models could be given to policy makers to help them determine where to build such plants. From this student, I also learned that Mexico has very ambitious national sustainability goals. They plan to generate 35% of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2024, and 50% by 2050! The last students I chatted with were working with moths to determine how their bodies change during metamorphosis. The students put moth larvae (pupa) into a machine that determines the lean mass and total body fat of small animals in a non-invasive way. I had never heard of such a technique, but here at UMass, there is a lab that uses this technology to scan birds to determine how much body fat they lose during migration. These students were the first to ever use the technology on moths! The students first began the study by keeping the pupa in the machine for a few days. They then injected the pupa with hormones to make the animal’s body think it is a certain time a year, and will thus begin the process of metamorphosis. The machine measures the amount of body fat throughout this process until the pupa hatches into an adult moth. They found that the process of metamorphosis takes a lot of energy, and thus uses up a lot of fat. The undergraduate students are writing up the results of their findings for a journal, which will eventually be published!
All in all, this was a wonderful experience for the undergraduate students that attended and presented. They received crucial feedback on their projects, and were asked questions by professors outside of their respective departments. Because members of the public were also there, the students had to think about how to talk about their research to non-scientists. I would love to see such a conference at other large state universities, as this was a wonderful event for everyone who attended!
As an avid outdoorsman, getting my degree in geology was the best decision I have ever made. Because of this degree, I currently work as a geology field technician with the US Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. My job focuses on the conservation of karst, a landscape characterized by soluble (easily dissolved) bedrock that often contains caves, sinkholes, springs, and complex subsurface hydrologic networks. Karst ecosystems are exceptionally productive for wildlife, but also sensitive to runoff caused by logging, road building, waste management, and farming. My position in Alaska mostly focuses on potential logging units, since that is the main economic driver and logging near karst features often produces sediment runoff that can inundate karst systems and cause adverse hydrologic, biologic, and ecologic effects on the forest ecosystem.
I first came to southeast Alaska the summer after my senior year of undergrad, having been offered an exciting GeoCorps internship as a cave guide through a partnership with Geological Society of America (GSA) and the US Forest Service. This position, located on Prince of Wales Island, greatly helped me solidify and communicate my passion for geology, particularly the intricate workings of karst geology. I always highly recommend GeoCorps internships to budding geologists and environmental scientists because they expose those with little-to-no experience to potential environmental work in the public sector. It was my GeoCorps position that allowed me to meet Dr. Jim Baichtal, the Forest Geologist for the Tongass National Forest. Jim values my good attitude and enthusiasm for geology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping, and brought me back to Alaska as a field technician in the beginning of 2017 when I finished my undergraduate degree.
I have remained in this occupation since, and am gearing up to begin my third field season as a Karst Technician in Alaska. While this position is not research-based, I have had extensive opportunity to study the quaternary history of southeast Alaska, focusing on regional to local-scale glacial geomorphology to decipher ice flow patterns during the late Wisconsin Glaciation, which I presented a poster on at the annual GSA conference in 2017. I also know that my job as a tech has greatly sharpened my understanding of geomorphic processes and how they tie into the greater ecology, especially concerning karst landscapes. Much of my position also involves extensive aerial photography interpretation of vegetation and geomorphology prior to entering the area of reconnaissance to determine the “hot spots” for karst features. Aerial photo interpretation has become somewhat less necessary since the recent acquisition of half-meter resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, considering that most caves, sinkholes, and springs are readily apparent upon inspection of the bare earth digital elevation model (DEM). The LiDAR makes my work easier and less likely for me to miss features, but hardly puts me out of a job, seeing as most of these features still need to be field verified and observed by a specialist to determine their significance and role in the landscape before the area undergoes any land management activities.
As a field tech, I use GIS every day, mostly centered on geologic and karst vulnerability mapping. We use a High-Medium-Low system to describe the vulnerability of the karst terrain; with High being the areas immediately adjacent to, in the direct watershed, or overtop karst features and cave systems, Medium being the expanse in between high vulnerability areas, or “karsty” areas with a low hydrologic head, and Low being karst areas without features directly leading to the subsurface, these are often covered by thick glacial till (sediments left behind by glaciers) or underlain by less soluble bedrock. No logging activity can occur over areas of high vulnerability karst. My field partner and I will enter units with GPS devices to determine this classification and I use our location data and DEM interpretation to update the “karst layer” that is used by land management specialists in the region. The Tongass karst program serves as a management model for many of the National Forests in the country, so playing a key role in the program has been a great honor and learning experience for me.
Working in such an amazing place has definitely had an impact on me. My confidence as a geologist has grown, my navigation skills and competence in hiking rough terrain have developed, I am more comfortable handling responsibility, and my passion for geology and ecology develops every day that I spend contemplating geomorphic processes and geologic history. I believe that I have been especially fortunate to have these experiences, but I would not have gotten to where I am if I hadn’t taken initiative and fully thrown myself into the internships that were available. I now conduct the hiring and interviews for the same GeoCorps position that first brought me here. During college, I was unsure which branch of geology was right for me. It took getting out into the field and immersing myself into a unique environment before I realized exactly where my passions lie, and how I could fit them into the working world. I now plan on attending graduate school this fall for karst hydrogeology, a subject that I would not necessarily have seen myself pursuing 5 years ago. My advice to young geoscientists is to seize opportunity when it presents itself, and dig for opportunity when it doesn’t. Get out of your comfort zone and keep an open mind about how geology plays a role in the world. And finally, when you are applying to jobs or internships, make sure that you give each application your complete effort and attention, even if it might not exactly align with your interests at the time.
When the students were on spring break a few weeks ago, I decided to take a few days off to go fossil collecting. The first site I went to was the spillway for the reservoir in Caesar Creek State Park. This is a special place for me: it’s the first site we went to collect fossils from during my paleontology course when I was a junior in college. I’ve been going back to this site for about 14 years, but I hadn’t been since 2013, when Jen, Adriane, our friend Wes, and I all went on a long weekend. During this time, Adriane and Jen were helping Alycia Stigall build the Ordovician Atlas. If you are interested in learning more about the organisms found, rock outcrops, and more head to that website!
This site is exposed Ordovician limestone and shales (click here to learn more about types of rocks), representing warm, shallow marine environments. Three rock formations are exposed: Waynesville, Liberty, and Whitewater. If you are interested in learning more about rock formations, click this link which will go into detail on formations! Because collecting is restricted to the base of the spillway, all of the rocks are mixed together and it is difficult to tell which formation the specimens come from. When collecting from Caesar Creek, one must obtain a pass from the Visitor’s Center—run by the Army Corps of Engineers—and agree to follow their rules. Probably the most frustrating rule is that one can’t use tools to extract specimens, not even another rock! But, regardless of these rules, this location is safe for individuals and families to come collect.
I was excited to see what would be exposed in the spillway. This was the first warm weekend of the year, and it had rained the day before. I figured fossils would have washed out from the wall and would not be picked over yet. Usually after a good rain you get lots of new fossils coming out of the rock due to the increased erosion of the outcrop. So it may be wet and gloomy but good for fossil collecting! It sure paid off because today was one of the best fossil collecting I’ve ever had at Caesar Creek!
This was the best haul I’ve had from Caesar Creek in a long time. I was not able to collect many of the really cool specimens I found. They were either way too big and/or stuck in a rock and I couldn’t use tools to remove them. I’m glad I got to see so many amazing specimens and take some home!
I’ve done a lot of stuff during my time here at UMass Amherst, probably too much stuff (including building this website with Jen and collaborators, which is definitely something I have no regrets about!). Because of the amount of teaching, outreach, and large research projects I’ve done and continue to do, my PhD, which is funded by my department for 4 years, will take an extra year. However, my funding runs out at the beginning of May 2019.
It’s not uncommon for a PhD degree to run over the 4 year mark; in fact, it’s really quite common. But how to sustain oneself for this extra time is the tricky part. There is money available to graduate students to support us in our final year(s) of our degree through fellowships and grants. These are often very competitive and hard to win, but totally worth applying for. So I decided to apply for a fellowship to fund the remainder of my time here at UMass.
The fellowship that I applied for is through the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research, an organization specifically for scientists who work with fossil plankton. The organization has been around for quite a while, and its members include professors, researchers, and students from all over the world. The Foundation is great because they have several grants and awards for students, to fund their research and travel to local, regional, and international meetings.
The Johanna M. Resig Foraminiferal Research Fellowship is named after its namesake, who was a life-long foraminiferal researcher and editor of one of the most prominent journals for foraminiferal research, the aptly-named Journal of Foraminiferal Research. Johanna was born in Los Angeles, California on May 27, 1932. She found her love for geology at the University of Southern California, where she received her Bachelor of Science in 1954 and her Master of Science in 1956. After graduation, Johanna went to work for the Allen Hancock Foundation. There, she studied foraminifera that live off the southern coast of California. In 1962, Johanna was awarded a Fullbright grant, a very prestigious award that gives money to scholars to study abroad for a few years. With this grant, Johanna continued her research at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany. While in Germany, she earned her PhD in natural science in 1965. Once she had her doctorate, Dr. Resig began a professorship at the University of Hawai’i as a micropaleontologist in the Institute of Geophysics. She was the first woman recruited in the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics, and remained the only one for several years. She was a professor at the university for over 40 years, where she published over 50 articles and book chapters on foraminifera. Dr. Resig published mainly on benthic foraminifera (those that live on the seafloor) as well as planktic foraminifera (those that float in the upper water column). She worked with sediments from all over the world, and also used the shells of foraminifera to construct geochemical records of our oceans. During her career, Dr. Resig described and named five new species of foraminifera and even a new Order! Dr. Resig was not only known for her research, but she was also a dedicated mentor and teacher at the University of Hawai’i. While there, she taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in her courses, and mentored about a dozen graduate students. When Dr. Resig passed away on September 19, 2007, her family gave funds to the Cushman Foundation in her name, and thus the Johanna M. Resig Foraminiferal Research Fellowship was established.
Interestingly, my PhD advisor, Mark, worked with Dr. Resig during her career. They sailed together on a large drillship called the Glomar Challenger, which took sediment cores of the seafloor for scientists to study. During an expedition together to the western equatorial Pacific (called ‘Leg 130’), they were both micropaleontologists (scientists who use tiny fossils to interpret the age of the sediments and reconstruct the ancient ocean environments). Mark is a huge fan of country music, and he recalled that he loved to play country music on the ship while the scientists were working. One song he was particularly fond of, ‘All My Exes Live in Texas’ by George Strait, was deemed entirely comical by Johanna! Mark describes Johanna as a dedicated scientists, a wonderful micropaleontologist, and someone that was a joy to be around.
The fellowship named after Dr. Resig will support the remainder of my time as a PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The money will be used as stipend (which is a fancy academic word for income), but it can also be used for analyses and lab expenses and travel to conferences. One way in which I’ll use the money is to pay an undergraduate student to process sediment samples that I will use in my next research project. This way, I’ll get a jump-start on my next project, and a student will be earning money doing science. They will also learn more about the samples that are collected as part of scientific ocean drilling. It’s totally a win-win situation, and I feel that by using part of the fellowship to mentor and help the next generation of students, I am honoring Dr. Resig’s memory and her commitment to mentoring and advising.
Recently, I participated in the first-ever Amherst Elementary Science Night. This event, held at one of the local middle schools in Amherst, Massachusetts, was designed to introduce elementary-aged children to the different areas of science. Several professors, graduate, and undergraduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst attended to help out with fun activities for the kids! Several professors and students from our department also attended to teach the kids about aspects of geology. Of course, I was there to tell anyone who would listen about the wonderful world of paleontology and showcase different fossils.
The event was held in the cafeteria space of the middle school, which was divided into two areas. The first area included tables with activities and fun science stuff for the younger kids. The second area was for older kids, with more advanced science activities. Altogether, there were eight of us from the geology department who attended, with three of us (me, Solveig, and our advisor, Mark) who were in the younger section with a table full of fossils!
At our fossil table, we brought specimens from the three major time periods: the Paleozoic to show people what early life looked like, the Mesozoic (or time when the dinosaurs were alive), and the Cenozoic (the time after the dinosaurs went extinct to today). Some of the awesome fossils we brought along were stromatolites (fossil cyanobacteria), brachiopods, a piece of a Triceratops dinosaur bone, a ~350 million year old coral fossil, coprolite (fossil poop), a mammoth tooth, whale ear bone, a piece of whale baleen, and a modern coral (to compare to the fossil coral). Of course all the kids wanted to touch the dinosaur bone, and the mammoth tooth is always a big hit! But my favorite part of the night was asking kids what they thought the coprolite was. Most didn’t know, whereas other kids would throw out a guess. When I told them it was fossil poop, almost all immediately started giggling, and some even made some really funny faces! It was great fun!
In the second room, two of our UMass Geoscience professors (Bill and Julie) and three other graduate students (Helen, Hanna, and Justin) ran two other tables. Julie and Helen did an activity in which they taught kids about sediment lake cores, and the different types of sediment layers in cores that can be used to interpret Earth’s ancient climates. To do this, they rolled different-colored Play-Doh into thin layers and stacked them into bowls. The different colors represented different sediment layers on the seafloor or lake bed. The kids then took their own ‘cores’ from the Play-Doh using segments of clear plastic straws! Helen and Julie also had images of real sediment cores laid out on the tables so the kids could see what these look like.
Next to Julie and Helen’s table was Bill, Hanna, and Justin. They brought along our sandbox, which we use in our classes to illustrate how faults are made. The sandbox is a bit more complex than it sounds: the box is wooden, with clear plastic sides. One side of the box has a hand crank, which will push the side of the box towards the other, thus pushing the sand in front of it. The sandbox is meant to demonstrate plate tectonics, specifically what happens when one tectonic plate moves towards another. The sand represents the upper layer of our Earth’s crust. To begin, we fill the sandbox with a neutral-colored sand, then add a thin layer of blue sand, another thin layer of neutral sand, and a second layer of blue sand. Then, when we crank the handle and the sand is pushed, it creates tiny ‘faults’ that can be seen in the sand layers. This is always a fun activity for the kids (and our students!), and is a great way to communicate how an otherwise complicated geologic phenomenon occurs.
The event only lasted about two hours, but we all interacted with several kids, their siblings, and parents! Doing outreach activities like this is always fun, and reminds me of when I was younger and excited about the natural sciences. For us scientists who do a lot of serious work, events like these are important reminders of why we love doing what we do, and share that passion with others around us.