Monday, July 02, 2007

Paleontology: The Gateway Science

As we all know, kids love dinosaurs. Whether it is their first exposure through animated films such as "The Land Before Time" or the much larger budget features such as "Jurassic Park", kids are engrossed with longnecks, raptors and their reptilian relatives. As young children, many of us walked in local creeks and streams and pulled out rocks with all types of strange fossils that may have taken us years to learn to pronounce. But the fact is, for many children, their first fascination with science...even if it's not called science at the time...comes in the form of a fossil.

My experience in working with students in this age range (6-10 years old) is that they are sponges when it comes to understanding how these fossils were left behind and how we, as scientists, know so much about these animals that may have been extinct for 65 million years or longer. What does a typical student response to the bird-dinosaur connection sound like? "Well, duh, everyone knows that!"

In order to completely understand (or teach) the earth and life sciences in the here and now, does it not help us to understand the foundations and history of the earth and the life upon it? We don't need to expose first and second grade students to a graduate level seminar on the Law of Superposition, but by encouraging these very same students to look at a road cut and examine how fossils change from bottom to top, we are exposing them to the basic fundamentals of ALL science--inquiry.

This is our in-road, as scientists and as educators, to bring students into the fold at an early age. By building on this fascination with dinosaurs at age 6 or 7 (instead of waiting for the dinosaur fever to die at age 11 or 12), we can engage youth with real, hands-on science that will provide an authentic application of the scientific method. With this foundation in place, the introduction of the physical sciences, biological sciences, and other earth sciences will be a much easier transition.

So, how does this tie-in to the Dinosaur Field School? Following this year's field season, we will begin preparations for a teachers-only seminar including field experiences in the Cincinnati area and in Montana for Summer 2008. Pending a little funding to help us get started, we should have more information in November or December. Check back often for updates!

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