Social Paleontology and FOSSIL’s Contribution to Research on Learning

by Kent Crippen (@kcrippen), Lisa Lundgren (@llundgren) & Richard Bex (@richard-bex)


The FOSSIL Project was funded as a design-based research project, which implied a dual focus in our overall approach. Our first purpose was to use an evidence-based design process to unify amateurs, professionals and natural history museums into a more cohesive national community of practice (CoP), composed of online and face-to-face spaces. Our second purpose, which we pursued in parallel and with equal value and rigor, was to use this process, which we termed social paleontology, as a vehicle for building our understanding of interest-based learning and collaborative scientific practice. Building a community has proven to be a deeply member-centered process that required a service mindset on behalf of the leadership team, a commitment to continuously seeking quality information and the use of iterative cycles of planning, and enacting and evaluating efforts in relation to long-term goals for the community. To this end, we have fostered events and built tools to support social paleontology while studying the naturalistic communication among community members. The results of our learning research can be described in relation to these two purposes.


The FOSSIL Project consists of multiple platforms with few community members participating in all (as of 7/9/19).

A 21st century CoP is built by participants joining from a variety of entry points and platforms (i.e. niches in a communication ecosystem), including the web, social media, and an e-newsletter as well as face-to-face events. Very few community members participate via multiple platforms. Different strategies attract and resonate with different demographics in ways that are related to the nature of each platform. Trying to drive traffic from one niche to another is largely ineffective. In terms of generating broad appealing general interest, webinars were also ineffective and costly to produce. We have learned that CoPs are best developed when adopting a diverse set of entry and participation platforms, each with a different segment of the community, but all of which have value for the network. To be successful, FOSSIL had to be a content provider that made the full range of scientific practice explicit and accessible through targeted events and strategies. In the beginning we planned for our website, listserv, and e-newsletter as key organizing elements. As we added social media the demand among community participants changed dramatically. The growth of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube eclipsed all of our originally envisioned means of communication. With the close of the project our community stands at more than 10,000 participants, the majority of whom interact via social media.



This sociogram shows the network of community members on Twitter who used specific hashtags to talk about paleontology. The structure indicates how information flowed: through members who self-identified as scientists, education and outreach, public, or  commercial.

Our research has shown that community members are diverse in terms of age, gender, geographic location and interest. However, beyond simple demographics, describing the diversity in more nuanced and potentially meaningful ways and using this to understand personal development has proven arduous. Simple dichotomous distinctions like amateur and professional are attractive descriptors, but have limited utility for building or researching a CoP. Descriptions of self-identity, such as Twitter biographies and myFOSSIL user profiles, have shown promise as a vehicle for understanding the motivations of people and recognizing their activities as forms of scientific practice. Using the Paleontological Identity Taxonomy, we have shown that community members encompass four categories (public, education and outreach, scientists, and commercial entities), which can be further subdivided into 26 distinct types. The public category is largely interested in collecting and identifying fossils, but this group also includes those who are engaged with such diverse activities as using paleontology as a vehicle for art. Given the opportunity, members of the public enthusiastically take part in what can be viewed as professional development activities, which then can serve as a vehicle for expanding and deepening connections among community members. Members who focus on education and outreach, like museums or science centers, serve the role of connecting other members. On Twitter, scientists, which ranged from archaeologists to ecologists and included paleontologists, were effective at disseminating and communicating science, but their influence was similar to members of the public. Commercial members were a relatively silent minority within the community and had little influence over paleontological practice, which was an interesting finding given the angst often expressed for the buying and selling of fossils.


Digital forms of scientific practice existed in many forms and were harnessed in productive ways, as we found from researching the myFOSSIL website. Within the website, different features, including forums, an activity feed (similar to a Facebook wall), and private messaging all encouraged different forms of paleontological practice. For example, within forums, members provided non-scientific, community-based support, told personal accounts of paleontology, and produced solutions to domain-specific problems. We also discovered that members who were classified within different categories used the website in distinct ways, with members of the public seeking to supply digital records of their real world paleontological experiences, scientists wanting to solve paleontological problems, and education and outreach entities disseminating outreach activities while requesting social- and research-specific support. These findings show the varied ways that members from across the continuum of expertise added to the science of paleontology. 


It has been a distinct honor and pleasure to serve this community through our participation as members and educational researchers. We offer our gratitude and sincere thanks for those that consented to participate in our research, who provided responses to our surveys and who provided opportunities for feedback. Full details on our research questions, methodologies, tools and findings can be found on the publication page on myFOSSIL. We will continue to be available for any additional comments, feedback and ideas for interesting future collaborations. 


Thank you myFOSSIL community!

Kent, Lisa and Richard


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *