Summer Scientific Field Experiences at Fort Hays State University
Hi there, intrepid adventurers! Tara here, for a dose of paleontology education from the middle of the prairie. This week I had the chance to hear from David Levering, the education director at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas. He and the team of paleontologists and educators at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) are doing some really wonderful things bringing middle and high school students out to do work in field paleontology. You might remember our post a while back about their great summer paleontology programs, and we decided to check in with how things are going.
If you’re a student, a parent, or an educator looking for ways to incorporate summer scientific field experiences into your educational life, you should seriously consider the summer programs at FHSU’s Sternberg Museum. Check out our interview below!
1. Hi, David. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work at Fort Hays State University. What brought you into the realm of science education?
David: Hello, Tara. I work for Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History as the Director of Education. I manage the after school programs, school group tours, educational travel programs, and the summer science camps. I also work with other Museum and University staff on collaborative projects ranging from community education events to undergraduate research opportunities.
On Education and Field Work:
My formal background is in the Earth and life sciences. I have a bachelors in Geoscience from University of Oregon, and a Masters in Zoology from Oklahoma State. In each case, I focused on vertebrate paleontology and paleoecology; my scientific work is split between ecology and mechanics of limb movement in mid-sized to large land mammals, and using statistical tools to answer questions about mass extinctions. I worked on these topics at Oregon and Oklahoma State, respectively. My field work experience comes from my education at Oregon, a few summers working for the National Park Service, and attending outdoor science camps when I was in high school. Not so much field work in grad school, but I did get much better at writing and math, which has proven invaluable since then.
[Author’s Note: If only I could get the hang of that ‘math’ thing!]
On Summer Scientific Field Experiences:
In 2006 I ran a two-week high school field paleontology program for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, out in eastern Oregon. Eastern Oregon has an incredible abundance and diversity of fossil plants, animals, and soils ranging from 45 – 5 million years ago. It’s a phenomenal place to introduce students to paleoecology, which is exactly what I got to do. It was a phenomenal experience that formed the nucleus of my interest in science education, mostly of the informal, outdoor variety. It also lead to some of my first experiences acting as a mentor for young students, which is something I’ve continued to pursue with more deliberate focus.
[Author’s Note: This is awesome, and it sure speaks to the importance of bringing students outdoors to do real field work.]
2. Tell our readers about your plans for summer camps in the field sciences. Where has FHSU taken students in the past, and how do you envision this program evolving?
David: This summer we will be doing all of our field paleontology – both middle and high school programs – in western Kansas. We will be visiting Cretaceous marine fossil sites, as well as a Miocene mammal site and some fossil leaf sites.
[Author’s Note: If you’d like a refresher on the Geologic Time Scale, here it is.]
On Educational Technique – What Are Kids Learning?:
We really like to give the students a broad look at fossil resources, and we are lucky to have such a wonderful diversity here in Kansas. We focus on skill building and developing student’s ability to ask questions in all of the middle and high school programs. Skills we focus on include prospecting for and excavating fossils, as well as best practices for all field work like note-taking and self-care: drink water, dress appropriately, use sunscreen, lift with your legs not your back, recognizing signs and symptoms of common outdoor issues like dehydration or over heating. Things like that. There is a lot of potential for self-empowerment for students in these programs. They are physically and mentally demanding, but they are also given ample support and guidance along the way to keep them upright and positive. We’ve seen some pretty remarkable changes in student demeanor over the course of single programs, especially in areas like confidence, communication, and being physically proactive.
Biology Field Camps, Too!:
We include these best practices components in the field biology camps as well. Last year we took the students to south west New Mexico to work with some bat researchers, which turned out to be an amazing trip. We are returning there this summer with our high school biology camp. The middle school biology program will be journeying to Arches National Park for a less formal adventure in the desert. On both trips we will be crossing some gorgeous parts of the country and making stops at some spectacular ecosystems where we can really showcase important evolutionary and ecological concepts to students. These kinds of trips can be incredibly influential and impactful for young students already interested in the natural sciences, and we definitely saw that in action last summer.
Growing the Programs:
Ideally, the programs will grow in popularity enough for us to offer a greater variety of program options each summer, as well as scheduling the same programs more than once a summer. For example, I’d love to be able to fill up two middle school biology camps, with one going to Arches National Park in June and the other going to Montana or Louisiana to explore some other ecosystems. I’d also like to offer more programs for high school students where they work directly with active researchers at a field site. This would include possibly collaborating with researchers working overseas as well as here in the US. Overseas travel programs for high school students are definitely high on the list of things I’d like to offer in the future. At a certain point – likely in the not too distant future – this will mean bringing on dedicated summer instructional staff beyond myself. (We are actually doing that this summer with the introduction of the Paleobiology Research Methods Camp, which will be co-instructed by a friend of mine who is working on her doctorate at Harvard.)
[Author’s Note: As soon as we hear more about this camp, we’ll let you know, dear readers.]
3. How can interested students and parents sign up for these summer scientific field experiences? Is there a deadline?
4. How have you gotten the word out to your audiences? Is it largely word-of-mouth, or is there significant interaction with local schools?
David: The past two years, we’ve done a lot of social media and reaching out to Kansas schools. This past summer, we had a lot of students who came to us from out of state, who learned about the camps thanks to the intrepid use of Google by their parents. (We had a lot of kids from the Great Lakes region, interestingly.) This year we are working much more closely with the Fort Hays State University Marketing Department to promote and advertise the camps both in state and out of state. The camps went very, very well last summer, and the University has really bought in to supporting them and getting word out about these exceptional programs we are offering to students.
[Author’s Note: This is so cool. I know I would have loved these sorts of camps as a middle or high school student!]
5. Do student participants maintain contact with FHSU after they complete a program? How about ongoing communication like student blogs, or students making capstone high school projects out of the experiences?
David: While we do not do any capstone projects, I do try to maintain contact with the high school students after they complete a camp program. I mainly do this through social media tools, posting articles I think will be interesting or helpful. I’ve also organized a few online discussion meetings to talk about science articles I’ve sent them. We had one in December about a Permian amphibian fossil site in Brazil that went really well, with six students attending. I also post back to some of them on Twitter and Facebook, and try to give them encouraging nudges from time to time. For some students, they may not have anyone in their community to give them the kind of help or resources they are looking for. Or, they just may not know what to do to effectively pursue the things they are interested in. I try to fill in those gaps when possible. For some students (like myself back in the day) it can make a huge difference knowing you have someone in your corner who can point you in a direction from time to time.
Thanks so much to David and the team at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History for operating these excellent programs, and thanks David for taking the time to chat with us here at Outbound Adventurer! We’re super excited to see where the outreach and education evolves at the Museum and the University.