Monday, 26 July 2010

The Future of Palaeontology - Kids of Course

Kids are the future, a phrase that none would disagree with I reckon, they are also at a great age to get interested in fossil hunting and palaeontology. Kids are one of the key target audiences for a museum, so it is not surprising that Doncaster Museum runs events for them to get involved with. On Saturday the theme was fossils and I was on hand to help fill their heads with wondrous information.

The day went very well, with lots of families turning up and taking part. They got to look around the displays, do activities, draw pictures, handle fossils and have fossils identified for them. When I turned up I was asked to man the tray of sand which had fossils hidden within, which the children had to find by brushing the sand away. I was put on the spot a bit, something which can be a very useful experience. I saw the fossils I had to talk about for the first time at the same time the first kid saw them, so I had to work out what they were and talk about them at the same time. The first couple of kids just wanted to find the fossils, not fussed about learning, but it picked up after that and I found that the children were listening to my supposed expertise. I tried to make my responses interesting for their parents too, as they proved to be very interested, offering up some very good questions, but also because they are a teacher of the child. The parent can go away and remind the child of things they forgot, but also whilst there they will be more aware of how the child learns, which the random palaeontologist they just met would not know.

Thankfully I knew vaguely what all the fossils were. Some were obvious, but some were tricky as well, which made things interesting when talking to the kids about them. Almost all of them recognised the ammonite fossil straight away, so I talked about what they looked like and how they grew (the chambers were visible on one side). Quite a few were able to recognise Gryphaea arcuata and of course it was quite easy to get a response when it was mentioned that they are also called "Devil's toenails".

There were a few plant fossils as well. Neuropteris actually had a label, but I knew nothing about it except that it was possibly a fern. The one on the left is not the museum specimen.

There was another fern which may have been either Pecopteris (left) or Dactylotheca  or something else. I honestly don't know with ferns.

The third plant fossil was the trickiest in my opinion. When I asked what they thought it was many thought it was a bit of horn. The fossil was actually a stem called Calamites, a type of horsetail. When I first looked at it I went as far as calling it a plant until I spotted some more Calamites on display.

There was also a belemnite, which was quite a tricky one for the kids, so it amazed them to hear that it was like a squid. The trickiest for me to explain was possibly the trilobite pygidium, which by the end I think I was describing as "the back end of a woodlouse-like creature found in the sea before dinosaurs". Ah well, I love trilobites, but they are quite awkward to explain.

The most difficult fossil was only identified by one kid who seemed to really know his fossils. It was a chunk of crinoidal limestone made up completely of the stems of crinoids. I found it amusing to keep people guessing (I liked the comparison to macaroni) only to see them looking just as perplexed when I announced that it was a crinoid. I then found myself explaining what a crinoid was, along with a few facts about them, which usually involved me waving my arms above my head as though I was a crinoid myself.

Whilst manning my post I was sat next to Pete who was doing the fossil handling, so when things were slow for me I would occasionally interject with titbits of information. I also had a couple of people show me fossils to be identified, one of which really surprised me. I was expecting an ammonite when the girl passed me a little nodule, only to find a rather nice trilobite. I told them that I reckoned it was about 400 million years old, before Dean identified it as a Diacalymene from Morocco.  

The day went very well, so hopefully everyone learnt something, or even a lot of things, I know I did. I only had one little, almost microscopic, blip. We were chatting away, answering the questions of one lady who was there with her granddaughter, when she said, "Isn't it strange that Christians still don't believe any of this?". I was a bit taken aback, especially considering the first geologists were actually creationists who began to realise just how old the Earth was. I did try to point out that the curious phenomenon of denying science is a relatively modern occurrence based mostly in America but I don't know if it sunk in, she was bombarded with all sorts of information about fossils at the time.

Ah well, it was a great experience which I will hopefully repeat again and see just how much I can manage when put on the spot with fossils again. I do hope that we may have planted seeds of wonder and awe in their minds, potentially influencing a future palaeontologist. Who knows?

None of the photos here are of the museum specimens, I took no photographs. 

No comments: