The Road to Hell Creek

–Christopher Dancy, 6th Grade Science Teacher
Boston, Massachusetts

 

My first blog post has been written and rewritten between the moments of my own children’s needs, teaching responsibilities, and during professional development workshops that are associated with the beginning of the school year.  I’ve never had difficulty writing, but during this particular task I’ve sat at my computer to write, only to delete and write again.  Somewhere deep down I know that my writer’s block has arisen because of my desire to give back to those who have given so much to me. Ultimately, I’ve chosen to share a story, the story which I thinks frames a larger conversation about my experiences at the Dig and the quality of the Dig Field School team.  It’s also the story that I tell people when they ask me to sum up my experiences in Northern Montana this summer.

Due to the cost of flying from Boston into Billings, I opted for a flight a day earlier.  The flight the day earlier with the added cost of the car rental was still cheaper than landing on the expected day of arrival to take the shuttle to the camp.  I never considered where I would stay that evening, but figured it would just work out. I took my time getting to Jordan, visiting National Park sites, and small towns before heading north.  Within a few hours of driving, the cities and the towns were behind me, radio stations faded, and other travelers on the roads became fewer until it was just me. Eventually, as cell service and Waze failed, I became aware of just how remote I had become.

As I was a day early, I showed up to the Dig Field School site at Hell Creek around dusk without any expectation of anyone else being there . To be honest, I was actually very confused when I arrived at the encampment.  There were people everywhere around two large safari tents surrounded by a tent city of individual tents which were  flanked by pickup trucks. I would learn later that the thirty or so people there were actually scientists, post grad and undergrad students.  I was welcomed in and invited to join everyone for dinner.

After dinner, a conversation by the fire developed around me- I was literally in the middle. The conversation was really between two people, Mark and Dave. I politely nodded when I received a look and asked a basic question or two as the conversation went on, but really I just listened. Mainly they spoke about triceratops and the thick dome of a Pachycephalosaurus.They left the next day as teachers started arriving. I didn’t really think about who these people were until I arrived back home to Boston.

This leads me into why this is the story that I tell everyone. My five year old daughter loves dinosaurs, and especially since I returned from my experience, fossils.I tried to find a documentary about fossil excavation while my other two kids were napping and I was cooking dinner. I ended up with Dino Hunt on Netflix- season 1, episode 1.

There on the tv was Dave. Or, as he was introduced, Dr. David Evans the youngest curator that the Royal Ontario Museum has ever had.  The 45 minute episode featured him- speaking and leading the cameras and his team through his own fossil excavation in Alberta. I looked up “Mark” too- Mark Goodwin is assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley. He has a book coming out about triceratops.

I turned to my daughter and said, “Jo, I had dinner with that guy last week.” For my five year old daughter, this experience with Netflix cemented my role as a hero.  She tells everyone, “My dad dug for dinosaurs this summer.  He knows the Dinosaur Hunter”.  I sat with her through the whole episode and we ended up ordering out for pizza that night.

However, this story still only represents my first 8 hours at the Dig Field School.  I could also write about excavating a prehistoric turtle shell and jacketing it in plaster with two other teachers, crawling on the hot desert floor looking for microfossils, or swinging a pickaxe as I searched for the productive horizon.  Each of these stories is amazing and is relevant, but a blog post should only be so long.

All in all, I’d say that I have about 25 years experience teaching science. I am a veteran middle-school science teacher in a small suburban district outside of Boston.  Prior to my employment in the public schools, I worked in several different educational roles in the Boston Museum of Science and a small local science center. However, prior to the adoption of NGSS, zero years of that time were spent teaching about dinosaurs, fossils, or geologic events during Earth’s history.  During this time, I have never been drawn to fossils or dinosaurs. During this time, I have never taken a class about geologic time, fossils or dinosaurs. The expectation to teach these subjects during the previous academic year was overwhelming so I looked outward for professional development.

As I’m sure that most of you can empathize, I’ve been conditioned over the years to greet Professional Development with evermore eye rolls and sighs.  Professional Development has increasingly become a top-down prescription for topics that a district/school administrator views as is important for those employed within the district. Professional development within the public schools feeds the needs of the district, but rarely the professional.

This program offered by Dig Field School is the exception to everything that I’ve come to know about Professional Development.  It was exactly what I was seeking. It quenched my curiosity. It fostered more curiosity. I learned through lecture. I learned through collaboration with other teachers.  I collected micro-fossils. I collected macro-fossils. I licked the radius of a Triceratops. I participated in data collection from a live paleontology site. I prospected. I excavated.  I identified. I laughed. I sweat. I worked hard. I loved everything. I found a passion for that one subject for which I had none. I found interests in new, related subjects.

While I could fill pages and pages with that which stood out for me, there are a few highlights which I really appreciated and continue to think about:

  • Each scientist’s  expertise and area of speciality is slightly different.  Every scientist is the leader in their field.

 

  • There is a great diversity amongst the team of scientists, not only in their field of knowledge.  Female and male scientists are equally represented. There is a racial diversity amongst the scientists on this team. There is a diversity of ages amongst the team members.  As a minority, this was one of my most important takeaways from this experience.

 

  • Each scientist is also a patient teacher.  In my experience, there are scientists and there are teachers.  Each of these two roles require a unique skill set that is specific, refined, and usually narrow.  I think that it’s rare to find an individual who is a scientist but also demonstrates the patience, ability to simplify difficult content (without making it incorrect), and transfer their passion to members outside of that specific field as a teacher does.  Each of these amazing scientists were able to do that. They were amazing teachers.

I think often about this past summer, and the fact that we were surrounded by current and future world renowned experts in myriad paleo fields that would just chill with teachers and share some beers and conversation after dinner.  Dr. Greg Wilson and his team have a great thing going, and I hope that they know how the caliber of this course and quality of this team are the rarest of finds amongst professional opportunities. I can’t say enough about the DIG field school. Simply put, It was one of the best educational experiences that I’ve ever had to date. It was hands down the best professional experience that I’ve ever had.

This team helped me discover my interest in a field that I had avoided for years, helped maintain my hero status to a five year old and a three year old, and were just generally awesome.  This program is the real deal.  It is a program taught by professionals for professionals. I would urge anyone and everyone to take it.

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