"Paleontologists from UC Berkeley and the University of
Alaska Museum have been excavating sites along the Colville
River bank in northwest Alaska for more than a decade now, because
the region contains thousands of dinosaur fossils from the early
Cretaceous period," says Judy Scotchmoor, director of the
paleontology museum's education and public programs and a leader
of a special outreach program for teachers like Alpert.
Last year, Scotchmoor says, the museum received funding from
the National Science Foundation to introduce a program of educational
field work on Alaska's North Slope to K-12 Earth science teachers
from a single school district.
The program is designed to provide a rich and intensive professional
development opportunity to these science teachers by involving
them in the process of science through field exploration and
research. In addition, the "Geosciences in Alaska"
will connect the teachers to other science teachers in their
district, as well as to the scientific community.
Destination: Ocean Point
The Bay Area teachers met in Anchorage on July 8 to begin their
instruction on the geology of Alaska. The next three days were
spent driving to Fairbanks and stopping at geologic and paleontologic
study sites along the way to learn about Alaskan geology, glacial
dynamics, tectonics and geomorphology. Field stops were scheduled
for Matanuska Glacier, the north and south perimeters of Denali
National Park and the coal mining area of Healy.
Their final destination is a remote place called Ocean Point,
tucked along a 75-mile-long stretch of dinosaur bone beds near
where the Colville River empties into the Arctic Ocean. The
region was once home to flocks of 10-foot-tall, three-ton hadrosaurs,
three-toed therapods, flesh-eating albertosaurs and horned ankylosaurs.
In 1998, some spectacular finds in that area turned Alaska's
North Slope into the premier high-latitude dinosaur graveyard,
proving that at least seven families of carnivorous and plant-eating
dinosaurs had migrated from Asia to North America much earlier
in the Cretaceous than any experts had suspected.
Touching something that old
"It's amazing that there are polar dinosaurs that roamed
Alaska when it was a much more temperate zone," says Alpert,
who has stocked up on mosquito repellant and a mosquito-proof
vest for the 13-day excavation at Colville River. "It's
a bridge to the past and I can't wait to touch something that
was alive millions of years ago."
"I've never done anything really hands-on like this,"
adds Phelana Pang, an El Cerrito High School science teacher
also preparing for the trip. "I hope to be able to bring
back some fossils and design some activities for the classroom
that mock what we did in the field."
Staff and paleontology crews will teach the group geologic
field skills and basic vertebrate paleontologic field techniques,
says Scotchmoor. At the end of the excavation, the newly trained
teachers will unpack their fossils at the University of Alaska
Museum and learn about curation as they identify and classify
what theyve collected. Some fossil fragments will be loaned
to the teachers to take back to the classroom, adds Alpert,
who is reserving a little room in her backpack just for that
"This ongoing work along the Colville River is an excellent
opportunity for Earth science teachers to learn some hands-on
skills and understand more of how science really works,"
says Scotchmoor, who is making her third trek to the site this
Philip Wharton, an eighth grade science teacher at Portola
Middle School who will be teaching high school biology at Richmond
High School this fall, agrees.
"During the field experience, we will actually be doing
science," he says with excitement.
Roots of Arctic dinosaur research program
Although this is the first time a group of school teachers has
gone off to help excavate the Colville River dinosaur fossil
beds, Berkeleys Museum of Paleontology has been involved
in a collaborative dinosaur research and curational program
with the University of Alaska Museum since 1985. That was the
year campus paleontologists were first asked to examine the
fossil fragments of some giant hadrosaurs unearthed by the late
Shell Oil geologist Robert Liscomb.
In 1961, Liscomb had discovered dinosaur fossils that were
75 million to 80 million years old while surveying the Colville
River tundra for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves. The finds
were spectacular they showed that dinosaurs had inhabited
Alaska's North Slope 25 million years earlier than was previously
thought and, not surprisingly, they were met with widespread
disbelief in the scientific community. Unfortunately, after
his untimely death in a rockslide the following year, Liscombs
survey records and notes were buried in Shell Oil Companys
archives and forgotten, until an unsuspecting archivist ran
across them again in 1985.
Word traveled fast, and by the late 1980s, paleontology crews
led by the University of Alaska Museum's curator Roland Gangloff
were reexamininng Liscombs survey sites along the Colville
River. They discovered dinosaur trackways of their own, and
the footprints of ancient three- and- four-toed dinosaurs, which
had razor-sharp duckbills and lethal, sickle-shaped claws.
The dinosaur tracks proved to be authentic, and so significant
that Berkeley paleontologists returned to their home institution
and initiated a collaborative program of ongoing excavation
work. That laid the foundation in the 1990s for a long-term,
field-based research program in Arctic dinosaurs and associated
vertebrates between the two institutions.
Putting field lessons to work
After the teachers have returned from this years field
trip, they will begin the second phase of the educational outreach
program. Scotchmoor, who was a K-12 science teacher for 25 years
before joining the Museum of Paleontology, will begin a curriculum
development program, along with her education staff, to help
the teachers rewrite their districts Earth science curriculum.
Like Pang, the teachers will draw on their newly acquired field
skills to help them dream up imaginative hands-on lessons for
students at all grade levels.
Another unique dimension of the partnership will be mentoring.
Each of the field trip participants will serve as a mentor for
four other teachers at their respective schools. The goal will
be to help the instructors introduce a new Earth science curriculum
in their classrooms.