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SEEING, EXPERIENCING, and ENCOUNTERING: An Anecdotal Account of the Role of Museums and Schools in Sparking Interest in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology

I have a strong love for zoos, dating to my toddler years when we would visit ours in Memphis, Tennessee.  Though the role of zoos has evolved from simply showing animals to research, education, and conservation, I always delighted in seeing organisms that I wouldn’t run into in the backyard, with the exception of the bovines, where my simplistic child’s mind was terrified that the bull would charge our red tote bag (apparently learned from cartoons).  I wanted to know what those animals felt like, and what the places where they normally lived were like.  How did those goats get up that rock?  Are snakes slimy?  How do both a hippopotamus and an alligator have nostrils and eyes that stick up out of the water?

My first memory involving a museum is from visiting my grandparents in Long Island. We would make the hour-long drive into New York City to visit the American Museum of Natural History.  It was the early half of the 1980s, and we would count the yellow taxis in an effort to pass the time in the car.  My favorite part of the museum was the giant mounted dinosaurs, of course.  Where did they go?  Why are there no giants alive on land now?
The fossilized remains of the author's fourth-grade invertebrate collection.  Accuracy of labels is highly questionable.

In the fourth grade, I was lucky enough that my class took a field trip to a limestone quarry where we collected fossil crinoid stem pieces, brachiopod shells, and other invertebrates (unfortunately, the age of this collection is lost to me, other than pre-Mesozoic).  We put them in a box, and labeled each one.  And I have this collection still.  I remember thinking that “these sort of look like things that are alive today!  But they’re rocks!”  At this point, I was hooked.
Anyone who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up would get the answer “vertebrate paleontologist.”  Even at the age of nine, I knew that animals with backbones were more interesting to me, but that fossils were my love.  Subsequently, I pursued all sorts of interests, but always circled back to paleontology.  I majored in Biology in college, but did research on invertebrate fossils and ultimately pursued a doctorate in vertebrate paleontology.  Someone once asked why I liked paleontology.  “It’s a big puzzle,” I said, “except the pieces explain the history of the earth when they are put together.”

Today’s kids are not all so lucky.  With the rise in admission prices to the best zoos and museums, many kids are unable to have those experiences.   Children who live in underserved areas have always been at a disadvantage (in fact, a 2010 report by the American Association of Museums found a huge difference in visitor-ship between Caucasian and non-white populations), and will likely continue to be without concerted efforts by science organizations and educational institutions.  Why does it matter?

None of the interest I held would have been sparked had I not been exposed to fossils, animals, and science at a young age.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that could take me to these places, where a college education was a given, and who encouraged me to do what I wanted, even if it wasn’t the most lucrative career choice possible.   None of that would have mattered, however, had I not SEEN exotic animals in person, had I not EXPERIENCED the thrill of finding fossils (even in a quarry), had I not ENCOUNTERED the exhibits in museums.
Carl Sagan famously stated, in an interview for Psychology Today that, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them.  A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact”.  A child is naturally curious about the world, but a person cannot find his or her passion without exposure to a variety of experiences.  You don’t know what you don’t know.

We have all heard about the sorry state of STEM education in the US, particularly in struggling communities.  Funding for the National Science Foundation is at an all-time low, and so many great STEM programs are seeded, but not allowed to fully blossom.  The current lack of understanding of the importance of basic science is of no help either.  There are a many gems out there – programs that bring paleontology and other biology to underserved communities (for example, Project Exploration, the University of California Museum of Paleontology internet museum and outreach programs, and the members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Education and Outreach Committee), but the vast majority of programs reach small groups of students in small geographic areas.  Convincing the government that every child should have the chance to SEE, EXPERIENCE, and ENCOUNTER animals and plants and nature is a tall order.  I visit my son’s class whenever I can to discuss fossils and the earth’s history.  I may only reach one child, but if we each did that, and continued to support outreach and education programs, we would collectively have a huge impact.  Thus, I encourage all of us who have the background, knowledge, and our wonder still intact, to expose as many children to the phenomena of the world as we can.  It may be through teaching, classroom visits, exhibit work, or merely nieces and nephews, but without experience, and exposure to animals other than squirrels and dogs, it will be difficult to grow the next generation of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists.  And without that next generation, we can be sure that wonder and enthusiasm for science will not remain intact.

American Association of Museums report:
Carl Sagan interview:

Posted: 6/28/2016 2:51:36 PM by allisonbeckadmin | with 0 comments
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