Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners
Throughout the U.S., more than 60 fossil clubs and societies hold meetings, host speakers, organize festivals, and run field trips; conduct outreach; work with scientists; build their own collections; and contribute to the study of paleontology. However, in contrast to other science hobbyist groups (e.g., birdwatchers), fossil clubs are not closely networked nationally. Moreover, some fossil clubs have only limited access to the resources of professional paleontologists and natural history museums. Together, these realities limit their opportunities for informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning in the field of paleontology.
Based at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and with funding from the National Science Foundation, FOSSIL is cultivating a networked community (known as a community of practice) in which amateur and professional paleontologists collaborate in learning, the practice of science, and outreach. This national community is determining the scope of FOSSIL activities, tools, and resources, and collaborating in their development and implementation. Mediated by the myFOSSIL Web space (www.myfossil.org), FOSSIL includes opportunities to: (1) communicate electronically and socially; (2) engage in training and development; (3) attend meetings and workshops (in person or virtually); (4) conduct outreach to underserved audiences; (5) contribute to and have access to the growing digitized collections in U.S. natural history museums; and (6) create and share personal digitized fossil collections. The inaugural FOSSIL project meeting took place in conjunction with the 10th North American Paleontological Convention in Gainesville, FL in February, 2014.
FOSSIL includes research to better understand how this approach supports the development of a community of practice and impacts participation in science. In addition, FOSSIL will build upon ongoing national “big data” initiatives that over the next decade will make millions of digitized fossil specimens available to diverse stakeholders, including fossil clubs and amateur paleontologists. The knowledge gained from FOSSIL will enlighten informal and formal STEM educators about how to effectively engage the public with scientific data.