Digging for Alaskan dinosaurs
Berkeley-led teachers chip away in North Slope fossil beds

By Diane Ainsworth. Public Affairs

10 July 2002 | Janet Alpert, a first grade teacher at King Elementary School in Richmond, has a very old bone to pick.

It may be a splinter of pelvis from a 70-million-year-old duck-billed ha-drosaur or a fragment of bony sternum from a 90-million-year-old horned ankylosaur. When she finds it later this month though, in a handful of silt along Alaska’s icy Colville River, staff from the Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and the University of Alaska Fairbanks will be there to help her identify it.

The opportunity is part of a new program of educational field work on the North Slope of Alaska for kindergarten through twelvth grade earth science teachers from one school district. Berkeley’s paleontology museum received funding for the idea last year from the National Science Foundation.

The program is designed to provide a rich, intensive professional development opportunity to science teachers by involving them in the process of science through field exploration and research. In addition, “Geosciences in Alaska,” as it is called, connects teachers to other science teachers in the district, as well as to the scientific community.

“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, one of the Alaska field trip leaders and director of the paleontology museum’s education and public programs.

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 planned geologic and paleontologic study sites along the way to learn about Alaskan geology, glacial dynamics, tectonics and geomorphology. Field stops included Matanuska Glacier, the north and south perimeters of Denali National Park and the coal mining area of Healy. A web site at is posting updates on their adventure.

Their final destination is a remote place called Ocean Point, tucked along a 75-mile-long stretch of dinosaur bone beds that is near the mouth of the Arctic Ocean. The region was once home to flocks of ten-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 of the world, proving that at least seven families of carnivorous and plant-eating dinosaurs had migrated from Asia to North America much earlier in the Cretaceous period than 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 Alperts, 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, who also took 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 they’ve collected. Some fossil fragments will be lent to the teachers to take back to the classroom, adds Alpert, who is reserving a little room in her backpack just for that reason.

“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 was making her third trek to the site this summer.

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.

Scotchmoor, who taught K-12 science for 25 years, will enlist her education staff to work with the teachers throughout the following year as they develop a new earth sciences curriculum for the West Contra Costa County School District. Their field skills will help them dream up imaginative hands-on lessons for students in all grades.

Another unique dimension of the partnership is mentoring, Scotchmoor adds. Each of the field trip participants will mentor four other teachers at their schools and help them implement the new curriculum.


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