By Maggie Paxson
As a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida, fossils were my weekends, after school activities, and special treats when I accomplished something in school. I spent a lot of time in the Gainesville creek system, exploring primarily Beville Heights and Rattlesnake creeks looking for shark teeth, dugong bones, and the occasional rare carnivoran bone fragment. From my ever passionate about science English professor father, I learned to identify all of the local ray plates and crocodile teeth, and spent countless hours searching for fossils anywhere I could get into without getting in trouble. This early fascination with ancient dead things sparked a life-long interest in biology, and helped guide me to a career I love.
As a high school science teacher, I have spent the past six years attempting to pass on this passion to the next generation. A few years ago, I heard about a research experience for teachers run by the Florida Museum of Natural History that brought middle and high school science educators to Panama to look for fossils in and around the Panama Canal during the recent canal expansion. Through meeting Dr. Bruce McFadden, I was once again inspired to use paleontology in my classes and try to pass along a love of all things dead, mineralized, and mysterious. Two years after traveling to Panama, I find myself with a renewed love of paleontology, multiple lessons that incorporate fossils (both real and 3D printed), and a cohort of fellow educators who share my interest and are eager to collaborate.
It was from one of these teacher research experiences that the Gainesville Youth Fossil Club was born. After a week in the high desert of New Mexico, Leigh Larsen of Buchholz High School and I found ourselves reminiscing on our various field experiences and contemplating how incredibly valuable these opportunities would be for our students. In a field that’s bogged down with state mandated testing, challenging graduation requirements, and a lack of student engagement, a youth fossil club seemed like a perfect way to introduce students to a charismatic field that could inspire a further love of science and other STEM fields.
The goal of the Gainesville Youth Fossil Club is twofold: One, we seek to engage students in a way that is accessible to diverse learning styles. Research consistently shows that when given the opportunity to do science as it done by professionals, students are able to better grasp science content, are more likely to retain information, and become more naturally curious about the subject they are studying. We wanted to give students a chance to engage with science content in a unique way; already my after school fossil club has turned into a bi-monthly class on evolution, competition, ecology, and comparative anatomy. By doing simple activities like searching through creek media for micro fossils and shark teeth, students are able to collect artifacts of the ancient past and further their understanding of paleoecology and evolutionary change over time all while kinesthetically interacting with real science tools.
Second, we wanted to showcase STEM careers and fields in a way that made students feel like they could achieve eventual degrees and jobs in the field. Too often, scientists are portrayed as old, white, men, and many of our students view careers in science and engineering as “not for them.” By introducing our students to diverse role models and demonstrating that paleontology (and for that matter all science) can be done by anyone, we hope to encourage a group of kids who otherwise might not pursue science related fields.
Though the Gainesville Youth Fossil Club is still in its infancy, our aspirations for the group are large. Already we have founded sister chapters at Gainesville High School, where I teach, and at Buchholz High School, also in Gainesville. We have been in contact with several other area teachers who are considering starting up their own chapters at their respective institutions.
Gainesville has such rich paleontological resources and a community of scientists, educators, and amateur fossil collectors who are all enthusiastic about sharing the love of extinct organisms with kids. We are currently working on setting up our first collecting trip to the same creek I frequented as a kid, and are so incredibly excited to pass the love of fossils on to the next generation! As our club grows, we hope to see more area schools involved in the project, including younger students and middle school kids who research shows are at a key age for remaining engaged in science curricula. This year, we plan to teach our students the basics of fossil collection and preparation, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History, and link our local findings with geologic time and a deeper understanding of how organisms evolve and change.
Our club might yet be small, but already other teachers have shared anecdotes of students proudly sharing their finds during a drama rehearsal or in math class, and a parent at our recent back to school night happily relayed the enthusiasm with which her ninth grade son recited Megalodon facts at the dinner table one night after fossil club. Through paleontology, we hope to engage a group of students who otherwise might not remain interested in science, and cannot wait to see where this youth fossil club takes us next!
For more information on the Gainesville Youth Fossil Club, follow us on Twitter @GNVYouthFossils or on Facebook @GNVYouthFossilClub, or contact Maggie Paxson at [email protected]