Education: Using myFOSSIL to Teach Students Databasing

by Gabriel-Philip Santos, Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology

Gabriel Santos
Gabriel Santos

It was really cool to learn about the myFOSSIL data base. At first it was confusing, but after I figured it out, I could do like eight specimens in an hour. The only complicated part was the picture-taking – it took forever for bigger files to send over email from my phone to the computer!” Izzy Gerard, student

How do you teach a high school student to enter specimens into a database? That was the question that came into my mind when I was asked to help teach students about curation at my museum.

Sorry. A little background first. My name is Gabriel-Philip Santos. I am a paleontologist and the collection manager for the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, the only nationally accredited natural history museum on a high school campus–The Webb Schools, an independent school in southern California. At the Alf Museum, we offer our students many classes to learn about the science of paleontology and an after-school program where students can learn about the “behind-the-scenes” part of museums. I wanted my students in the after-school program to learn how we keep track of 170,000+ fossils and associated data and why it’s important we do so (we are currently using Microsoft Access, but transitioning to Specify). This is what brought me to my question.

Now, it seems like my question has a simple answer, right? Get the students on the computer and show them step-by-step how to input specimen data into the database. That’s how I teach my museum volunteers. But the more I thought about it, the less I thought how simple it was really going to be. First of all, we only have one database workstation. When I’m teaching one volunteer, this is fine, but for a class of 10 students, that probably wasn’t going to work. Then there was specimen entry. Entering specimen data (specimen ID, locality information, preparation records, etc.) into our database is a very detail orientated process. There are so many data fields and thus many chances for important data to be lost during the process. I had hoped to give my students a hands-on experience in databasing, but if I had to monitor each student during a one-on-one teaching session, this idea was never going to work. What I needed was a simplified version of our database for students to practice on from multiple workstations that I could go back into and check their work. Unfortunately, I could not think of anything that fit that description. So, my question of how to teach students to database remained unanswered, and my idea of a hands-on learning experience shelved.

2016-10-13-16-39-11Flash-forward to a couple months later, I was on my way to an education workshop at the 2016 Geological Society of America annual meeting in Denver put on by the FOSSIL Project. It was here that my question was finally answered through the form of the myFOSSIL community online database! Throughout the workshop, we were taught the basics of how to use the database and become contributors to the growing online collection by inputting our own fossil data. As we were taught by the amazing folks behind the myFOSSIL project, I couldn’t help but imagine doing nearly the same thing with my students. The myFOSSIL online database had everything I could need to effectively teach my high school students the basics of databasing. The program interface was streamlined, with only the essential data fields. The data input was very easy to use. And best of all, everything was done online, so I could have my students working from classroom computers while I guided them along from mine. Once the workshop ended, I couldn’t help but be excited to return to my museum and get the students started on the myFOSSIL database.

So now the question on you probably have for me is, “How did you teach high school students to catalog specimens into a database?” Well, since this was going to be kind of an experiment, I decided to start by asking only five students to give databasing a go. Once I knew who was going to be part of my trial, I then selected a group of fossils from the Alf Museum collection that had reliable locality information, identifications, and age estimates. This way the students just had to focus on data entry in the beginning and not have to worry too much about verifying the data; that came later. I gathered everything together, I had the students all sign up for a myFOSSIL account and began the experiment.

2016-10-13-16-39-36So how did it all go? Well, not bad, actually. All of the students had a great time learning how to use the myFOSSIL database, and I like to think they got a basic idea of why databases are so important for museums. That’s not to say I didn’t have any bumps in the road. For one, I am definitely going to be creating a formalized document that lists the data entry procedure for students to reference. Having me guide them was a little difficult as I had to run between computer stations while still attending to the other students working on other curation projects. I also think I will do a whole class dedicated to specimen photography before having students learn to database. Some of the photographs that the students took and uploaded were admittedly not the best and a few needed some reshoots.

In the end, I am so happy and thankful that the wonderful scientists at the FOSSIL project took the time to create the online database and myFOSSIL community. Most educational resources available to “paleo-educators” (educators who teach paleontology, not people who teach the paleo-diet!) are designed to teach people about the broader scientific concepts like evolution and deep-time. Rarely are there resources for educating people on the more technical side of paleontology or even just museum science in general. As a collections manager, I think having people learn about why we preserve and catalog specimens is just as important as having them learn about the fossils themselves. Now with the myFOSSIL database, I have an amazing tool to ensure I can do just that and maybe inspire some future collection managers in the process.

To learn more:

Read about Gabriel’s work at the museum here.

Learn about his graduate research in this Cal State Fullerton publication.

The GSA short course that inspired this article is described here.

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