Area students spend day as paleo-explorers at science workshop
February 13, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Like many of the other students participating in the annual Science Explorers workshop Friday, South Routt Elementary School student Lance Bryant was all about the dinosaurs.
"I'm into things with big teeth," he said. "I like learning what they eat, how they walk. But it's so confusing sometimes because no one saw them so we don't know what color they are or how much tissue they have."
But discovering the secrets of a world long gone through scientific exploration?
"That's the good part," he said.
Lance was one of about 80 students from across Northwest Colorado selected to attend the annual Science Explorers workshop, in which three groups of students rotated through paleontological activities in the George P. Sauer Human Services Building.
The program, based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, travels statewide, and the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services sponsors its annual trip to Steamboat Springs.
Students from Hayden, South Routt, Craig, Meeker, North Park and Lowell Whiteman Primary School attended the event.
"It gives a depth to what they're already offered in science curriculum," BOCES Executive Director Jane Toothaker said. "And it gives the teachers an opportunity to learn and take these things back to the classroom with them.
"The kids are just over-the-top about it."
Bringing ancient world to life
Although last year's theme of renewable energy focused on the future, this year's ancient ecosystem and fossil theme delved deep into the past.
But, as many of the students learned, ancient history is a great way to study the future.
Wyatt Gray, a Lowell Whiteman student, had just finished up an activity where he and his classmates studied the anatomy of a duck-billed dinosaur and then put together a life-sized skeleton of cast fossils.
The students also did a few experiments relating to paleo-climatology, in which they learned how the Earth's average temperatures were increasing between 65 and 50 million years go, something that could be occurring in the present day.
"It gives us a sense of our Earth's history, so we can learn that maybe this could happen to us," Wyatt said.
"And maybe some people are just curious," added his classmate Leah Rowse.
John Hankla, a CU-Boulder graduate with a master's in museum and field studies, designed the program's curriculum in conjunction with the Science Explorers program.
Hankla said that the appeal of the dinosaurs is widespread — even among adult paleo-nerds — but that the dinosaurs help drive home larger ideas about climate change, biology and local geology.
"Everyone loves dinosaurs," Wyatt acknowledged, as he showed off a fossil he had made from soap during one of the day's activities.
"It's something we can bring to life in our own imaginations."
Discoveries at fingertips
It's that imaginative curiously Hankla hoped to play to when he developed the interactive curriculum.
He knows that children don't want to just stand in a museum and gaze at fossil sculptures. They want to touch and feel and explore, the way a young Hankla did on his family's ranch in eastern Wyoming.
The family owned the fossil rights to the land, but while others were excavating a large dig, Hankla would wander off on his own and look for micro-fossils — teeth, scales and claws — in the anthills of Western Harvester ants.
"There's nothing like putting your hands on a real fossil and discovering it and learning what it is," Hankla said. "It's totally easy for me to see it through their eyes."
In his master's research, he focused on the tendency of the harvester ants to build their anthills with pebbles riddled with Cretaceous-period fossils they extracted from the ground around them.
So for one of the three stations at the Science Explorers workshop, he had bagged up a few anthills — minus the ants — for the young paleo-explorers to pick through the small pebbles and lay the first humans hands on those particular bambiraptor teeth and ancient fish scales. He plans to use those fossils in a permanent exhibit at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.
As he was helping the second group clean up, Hankla expressed his excitement about the fossils the students were finding.
"Really, you guys just did master's-level research," Hankla told them with an encouraging smile and a nod. "You guys became colleagues and scientists, and this stuff is going to live on in museums forever."
— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or e-mail ninglis@SteamboatToday.com
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