Past Time: Bring paleontology into your classroom!

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When was the last time you had a paleontologist visit your home or classroom? Past Time makes that happen. And trust us, guys: this group is amazing.

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What is Past Time, exactly?

At its core sit two super enthusiastic and really knowledgeable paleontology graduate students (author’s note: at the time of this blog post) who regularly conduct paleontology research and teach undergraduates about ancient life on Earth.

As educators ourselves, Jessi and I know what a whirlwind of an adventure the education world truly is. It can be challenging to bring all the resources we want and need to our students, so when there’s something we’re really passionate about, often we turn to outside resources to help get our students jazzed about what we’re teaching them.

The educators at Past Time really have  a flair for making big, complicated science topics accessible to students. They gladly brush aside up their busy schedule to pencil in several hours’ worth of educational one-on-one time with students across the country. Importantly, the Past Time science gurus really help students see what you can do with a career in science, and they help to deconstruct the idea that science is something out of their reach.

Why is professional interaction with students so important?

Too often students grow up with a love of science, a thrill of discovery–what child doesn’t enjoy learning something new?–but by the time students reach high school they may have been discouraged by a long series of standardized testing, low grades, or other factors into believing they will never be “good” at any type of science.

This is a reality that Jessi and I want to change, whether we interact with students who struggle with reading, writing, science, or any of a slew of other topics. We work with what we know: science and the humanities. But as educators, as human beings, we want to reach out to struggling students to help them achieve their goals and dreams. That’s part of what Outbound Edventurer, our newly-announced sister site, is meant to encapsulate.

As educators ourselves, Jessi and I have helped students engage with research projects that challenge students to tackle big topics, and to conduct their own independent studies, just like professionals do. Whether students go on to be research professionals or not, the experience is invaluable to students’ long-term critical thinking, writing, and information synthesis skills. Students don’t just passively take in information from an instructor; they learn how to use the information they’ve absorbed and to apply it to their own passions and interests.

Professional interaction with students allows young people to see that there is a wealth of knowledge they can tap into, and that careers they may never have dreamed of can still be within their grasp.

Past Time Banner

Long Distance, Face-to-Face Interaction

Past Time is one of several up-and-coming blogs that incorporate the use of face-to-face technology, such as Skype, Facetime or Google Hangouts, to interact with students from across the globe. So far, Past Time has had long distance exchanges with elementary, middle and high school classrooms.

What impresses me about the Past Time team is their ability to bring the topics they research, often in great detail, to a level where even the smallest student can understand and get excited about what the team is discussing. They do it with a real energy that shines through in their discussion with a class.

Without having to travel long distances, experts are placed at the center of attention in your home or classroom. Best of all, the team offers their instruction for free. 

How cool is that?

Past Time’s motto is “the past is key to the present”. I love that sentiment, as both a traveler and an educator. Traveling broadens our horizons and connects us to history, nature, and a more thorough understanding of our world on a global scale.

As a science educator, it’s so critical to help students make that same connection–we can’t have  a thorough understanding of biology without an understanding of the evolutionary past and molecular connections of modern organisms.

As someone with training in paleontology, I also appreciate the connection between the vastness of geologic time, and the incredible diversity of life on Earth today.

Adam Pritchard and Matt Borths are my contacts at Past Time, and Matt Borths gave the Skype interview to six hours’ worth of 9th and 12th grade biology students. As many K-12 public school educators can attest, it is often difficult to bring field trips and outreach material to students due to cost, timing and test prep frenzy.

During those six (yes, six!) hours, Matt materialized in my classroom through the miracle of technology–I had to turn the lens of my document camera upside-down and aim it at my classroom–and he fielded questions from each of my students. It was an incredible thing especially to see my 9th grade 14-year-olds so engaged with science.

“How do we know fossils really existed?” probed one young man. “What’s it like to be a paleontologist?” asked another student. We had pre-written a few questions of our own in each class section, but once Matt brought out the fossil specimens in the fossil collections at the Stonybrook Department of Anatomical Sciences, impromptu questions flew fast and furious.

“How do we know birds and dinosaurs are related?”

“Are dinosaurs still alive today?”

“Wow! What’s that you’ve got behind you?”

“What’s the first fossil you’ve found?”

“What are komodo dragons related to?”

It was, in short, completely awesome.

In addition to running lectures for classrooms or community groups, Past Time runs a regular podcast, episodes of which can be found on iTunes as well as on their website. My personal favorite so far is the one on fossil tracks, which I once studied as an undergraduate; the same episode covers fossil droppings, the topic of my graduate work, and a really cool study on burrowing dinosaurs. It’s 20 minutes of tunnels, trackways and turds. In short, go give it a listen! Yes, I am biased!

In the spirit of making long distance connections possible, breathing life into long-dead creatures, and igniting the spark of curiosity in young inquisitive minds, we are so glad to give Past Time this big shout out!

Do you have questions for us about our experience with Past Time?

Do you agree with the importance of bringing industry professionals into K-12 classrooms?

When was the last time you used the internet to make a long-distance, visual connection, when travel just wasn’t feasible?

Are you an educator interested in inquiring about Past Time or other virtual field trips and long-distance lectures? 

Let us know in the comments below!

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Night and Day in Ljubljana
  • Very cool! I’ll need to look into Past Time more since it seems like a really wonderful set up. Travel is great, but not everyone can do it so it’s nice that there’s an alternative. My 9-year-old really loves science, and I hope that she keeps that interest as she grows up. My teen used to be interested, but his high school Freshman Biology class is basically strangling whatever iota of interest he had left right out of him.

  • What a wonderful idea! I know some (not so young) kids who will love this, too!

  • “The team offers their instruction for free”? Really? In that case, I’m forwarding their info to my kids’ schools! I might also share it privately, since I know several kids who just love dinosaurs! Thanks for writing another interesting, definitely NOT run-of-the-mill post. I do hope I’ll get to meet you in person at WITS.

    • Hey Jolanta! Thank you for reading, I’m so psyched you’re getting Past Time in touch with your kids’ schools! I’d love to field any questions about paleontology, as well, since that was my training–let me know if we can help those kids you know who love dinosaurs!