The dig on paleontology digs in the United States: Sternberg Museum of Natural History

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Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History was once underwater.

A long time ago. About 100 million years ago.

Within a span of time when much of North America was split in half by an enormous, shallow inland sea.

Image via Wikimedia Creative Commons, (c) U.S. Geological Survey
Image via Wikimedia Creative Commons, (c) U.S. Geological Survey

It was the mid-to-late Cretaceous Period, when the Rocky Mountains were still forming, and parts of the Great Plains were beach-side property–or, like Kansas, under 600 feet of saltwater.

Now, the Great Plains of Kansas are far from the open ocean. But the rocks that remain tell a story of an underwater world, teeming with prehistoric life in a time when dinosaurs were the dominant land animals.

This week’s paleontology post features the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University, in Hays, Kansas, where my friend and colleague Dr. Laura Wilson is Curator of Paleontology. The Sternberg serves as a repository for the fossils of the ancient oceans of western Kansas, and is a major center for paleontology research and educational outreach.

It’s also a fantastic place to take your children or students on a paleontology dig, which we here at Outbound Adventurer consider to be an experiential adventure of a lifetime. As educators and museum professionals, fossil education and outdoor learning are among our greatest passions. One half of our team, yours truly, is also trained in museum paleontology. How many students find their niche, their spark of interest in science, their drive to learn more about the natural world by devouring information about fossil organisms? I was one of those young students, and my first field experience in high school packed a powerful impact.

It is our hope that this article, part of our series on ethical paleontology digs in the United States, will help learners of all ages partake in field work and outdoor learning, especially within paleontology. If you live in Kansas or are planning to visit Fort Hays, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is not to be missed.

I spoke recently with David Levering, Director of Education at the Sternberg, to learn more about the summer camps and field programs they offer to students from Kindergarten to 12th grade.

The fossil camps fall into three main categories: Kindergarten through 5th grade (K-5) Camps, 6th through 8th grade (Middle School) Camps, and 9th through 12th grade (Sternberg Paleontology Camp).

At the elementary (K-5) level, the youngest burgeoning paleontologists can spend a day at the museum, make and paint a fossil shark tooth cast, and dig in the soil at the Sternberg’s nature trails. This fun-filled day is great for little ones with an enthusiasm for fossil animals. Students get a chance to connect the ancient ecosystems of Kansas with those that exist in the Great Plains today.

Elementary students at the Sternberg's Paleontology Day Camp. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
Elementary students at the Sternberg’s Paleontology Day Camp. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

Paleontological field programs begin at the middle school (6th-8th grade) level, where groups of no more than ten students get the chance to use professional field equipment to explore the rocks and fossils of the dinosaurian Cretaceous-aged Western Interior Seaway, and the mammalian Miocene-aged fossils at a site called Minium Quarry. This two-day program teaches middle schoolers the basics of sedimentary geology–how to “read” and interpret the rocks that hold fossils–and gives the campers a chance to learn how a paleontology dig is conducted, from fossil prospecting to mapping and careful excavation. Critical thinking exercises and regular group discussions help middle school students really “dig” into the topics of evolution and ancient ecosystems. Among the fossils students may uncover are ammonites, extinct squid-like animals whose spiral shells are common in the chalky Cretaceous rock formations.

An ammonite fossil, one of the extinct marine organisms of western Kansas. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
An ammonite fossil, one of the extinct marine organisms of western Kansas. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

The high school (9th-12th grade) paleontological field camp, under the Sternberg Paleontology Camp  (SPC) title, allows students to build a repertoire of skills for field paleontology as well as concept-based paleontology—including scientific writing and constructing morphological phylogenetic trees–the family trees of different fossil animals based on their skeletal characteristics. High school students in the SPC groups are given a thorough background in the use of standard geological field equipment, field mapping, field notes, and the careful collection of fossils with all of the relevant surrounding paleo-environmental information. Students spend one week of the program in the field, with plenty of opportunities for student-led and instructor-coordinated scientific discussions.

The second week of the high school SPC program brings students back to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and the Fort Hays State University campus. Paleontology lab skills, practical use of statistical analysis in science, and critical study of scientific literature are a part of the myriad subjects students will learn on campus at the museum. What’s especially great is that students will build an expansive network of peers who can collaborate and share enthusiasm for science. In the age of social networking, face-to-face time is a great way for students to make lasting colleagues and friends from around Kansas and from across the country.

An oreodont, also known as a merycoidodontid -- a fanged deer cousin from the Miocene epoch, after the extinction of much of the dinosaurs. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
An oreodont, also known as a merycoidodontid — a dog-sized, fanged, herbivorous camel cousin from the Miocene epoch, after the extinction of most of the dinosaurs. Image (c) Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

A key theme that David Levering wants participants to take away from these field and day camps is not simply knowing things about science, but being able to think about information in a scientific manner.

“We’re not going to open up a fire hose of information and seeing what sticks,” says Levering. The depth of scientific knowledge is parceled out gradually, with summer readings for SPC crew members prior to their arrival, and regular instructor guidance during the program to help students learn to tie seemingly disparate concepts and pieces of information together.

Check out the following information on student camps at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, including scholarships for Kansas students. And if you stop by the museum, tell David and Laura that the Outbound Adventurer team says hello!

Ages: K-12th grade students

Prices as of May, 2016:
K-5 Camps – $60 for Museum members; $70 for non-members
Middle School Camps (6th-8th Grade) – $600 for Museum members; $650 for non-members

High School Biology and Research Methods Camps (9th-12th Grade) – $600 for Museum members; $650 for non-members
High School Sternberg Paleontology Camps (9th-12th Grade) – $1,240 for Museum members; $1,380 for non-members

More Information:

Summer Paleontology Camps and Scholarships

Fort Hays State University
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
3000 Sternberg Drive
Hays, KS 67601
(877)332-1165

An Indoor Adventure: Rock Climbing
Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Journey