Education: Digital Fossils in the High School Classroom

by Andy Farke, Robert Gay and Taormina Lepore

It’s an oft-repeated opinion that digitization of fossils expands access beyond the museum cabinet and into the broader world. Although this is broadly true, a number of factors have, at least to date, hindered meaningful distribution and usage of these digital fossils in the classroom. A unique partnership between museums and three very different schools is helping to change that.

The three of us—Andy, Tara, and Rob—have a unique shared experience in both secondary school education as well as formal training paleontology and geology. Nothing is better than bringing our own experience in the field into the classroom! Although most schools do not have a formal paleontology class, the field is absolutely critical for understanding that cornerstone of the science curriculum: biology.

A student from The Webb Schools works on laser-scanning a fossil
A student from The Webb Schools works on laser-scanning a fossil

The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology (Andy’s home base) is the only nationally accredited natural history museum on a secondary school campus—The Webb Schools, an independent boarding school in southern California. Students are involved in all aspects of paleontology research, from fossil collection to peer reviewed publication in major journals. The Alf Museum houses over 150,000 fossil specimens, as well as a new research facility including equipment and software for laser scanning, photogrammetry, and 3D printing. The research space has opened opportunities for high school students to create 3D digital models of many specimens in the Alf Museum collection. Why not share them with students at other schools?

Our main focus to date has been on the fossil mammals of the White River Group (~33 million years old) collected on private land in western North America and permanently housed at the Alf Museum. Animals include close and distant relatives of today’s camels, cats, horses, and dogs; this is a great opportunity for students to compare ancient and modern life.

Tara works at Waltrip High School, a public Title 1 school in downtown Houston, Texas, where she teaches classes in Advanced Placement biology. Students in her class have the chance to use digital fossils to complete studies in comparative anatomy and basic biomechanics (the study of the physics of animal function). Access to these museum specimens, even from a distance, opens a multitude of project possibilities and sparks genuine scientific interest in the students, while building and strengthening much-needed research skills. Project topics have included comparative morphology of modern and extinct vertebrates, evolutionary adaptations in extinct organisms, and the ecological impacts of extinct species.

Rob is based at Mission Heights Preparatory High School (MHP), a public charter school in Casa Grande, Arizona. The area is primarily rural, with most students coming from families that have not had college experience. Because museum collections are difficult to access in this area, digital specimens are an essential part of the curriculum. Students are engaged in original research based on specimens in the collections at MHP, specimens on loan from the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Museum of Western Colorado, as well as working with digital specimens from the Alf Museum.

MHP’s research is focused on the transition of life on land from the Late Triassic Period into the Early Jurassic Period, specifically in western North America. This is the crucial time in Earth’s history when dinosaurs went from a minor component of terrestrial ecosystem to the dominant life forms on land.

Digital specimens make a lot of sense in the science classes at MHP. We are an hour away from the nearest paleontology museum (The Arizona Natural History Museum), three hours away from the Museum of Northern Arizona, where our specimens are permanently reposited, and six hours away from our field sites. In order to provide student-researchers (and high school students in general) the ability to look at and interact with other collections it is essential to have high quality digital specimens. The students learn to integrate with technology that will form an important part of their futures as well as understanding what role museums play in science. For studying individual variation or evolutionary trends the collections at MHP are too small. Digital specimens fill in gaps in our own collections and allow students novel ways to test their own hypotheses on how groups of organisms have changed over time.

Fossil skull of the Cat-like mammal Dinictis; Alf Museum
Fossil skull of the Cat-like mammal Dinictis; Alf Museum specimen
Digital scan of the skull of Dinictis; Alf Museum specimen
Digital scan of the skull of Dinictis; Alf Museum specimen

Student engagement is also boosted by digital specimens. Rob is often asked by his students when he is going to 3D print another specimen. At outreach events in the community the 3D printed miniature Tarbosaurus skull (a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex) is always a big hit. Physical reproductions of these digital objects draw secondary students in to the learning process. Not only can digital specimens help students in class but they can serve as a gateway to get those same students intellectually involved in the class in the first place. Making the learning applicable to the student is a key part of education, and what could be better for exciting a student that the crossroads of the distant past of fossils and the “high tech” future of 3D scanning and printing.

MHP students are also at work using photogrammetry to document every specimen in our collections. It is hoped that students will be able to produce publicly accessible 3D models of all of our specimens by the end of the decade. It is not enough for students to become familiar with what to do with a digital specimen they have received from elsewhere. To truly understand and evaluate a digital specimen, it is our belief at MHP that students should be able to create digital models as well. If a student is not cognizant of differences between photogrammetry, laser scanning, and CT scans, for example, how can they evaluate what data has been collected? The availability of data can impact the ability to test hypotheses. As with all things in science, knowing the method is just as important as reading the output data.

Students who participate in these activities with digital specimens learn broadly applicable technology skills, and also get a chance to develop their scientific research and writing skills. It’s an unusual opportunity to get hands-on access to “real” specimens, and as such can be a hook to interest students in science and the natural world. Finally, projects such as this let students interact with their peers and other researchers across the country. As more fossils become available digitally, we are hopeful that opportunities such as this will become more widely available!

For more information:

Check out Tara’s post at the Cracking the Collections blog

Scan files are downloadable at:

More on Andrew Farke’s thoughts about digital paleontology

Further reading:

Andy’s research on triceratops

Andy reports on oldest horned dinosaurs in North America

You can follow Andy Farke on Twitter @AndyFarke and on the Integrative Paleontologists on PLOS Blogs