2019 DIG Field School Summary

The DIG Summer Program takes K-12 teachers into the field in Hell Creek, MT for a week of hands-on learning about what it means to be a paleontologist. After the culmination of the program, participants bring the newly acquired skills scientific experiences aback to their own classrooms. They can also stay connected to the program throughout the year by requesting Burke boxes containing sediment that they can sort for fossils with their students!

This year was the 10th anniversary of the DIG Field School! We welcomed 27 teachers into the field from 16 different states and Canada. The first day of the program was mainly aimed to familiarize participants with the equipment and basic skills, such as GPS use, and concluded with an instructor led overview of the research projects for the week.

The second and third day of the program consisted of micro-vertebrate collection and macro vertebrate excavation. Lessons for the days included an introduction to the geological timescale and rock formations of the site, a mapping and sediment collection activity, a fossil ID workshop, and a hands-on lesson about macro fossil evacuations using a recently discovered Triceratops! Back at the camp in the evening, participants learned how to screenwash the sediment they had collected. Later in the night they bonded with one another through group activities.

The fourth day began with a reflection of the previous days and participants were divided into groups to work on their own research projects based upon the different localities in Hell Creek. They were expected to plan, lead, and report on their findings in the evening, finishing the day with a public presentation led by Dr. Dave Grossnickle. On the final day of the program after a week of hard but rewarding work, the groups dived into more fossil sorting activities, paleo-themed board games, and paleontology literature. Later that afternoon, participants were invited to a local museum in town and on an Ammonite-Cruise before graduating the program with a small ceremony in the evening.

Here’s what one teacher had to say about their experience:

“The DIG Field School was one of the top professional development activities in which I have ever participated. From arrival at camp to departure, DIG educators were immersed in a pedagogy and content-rich environment that was highly engaging. Every detail of the camp was well thought out, and the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts, DCI’s and Science and Engineering Practices were integrated in a seamless way into every activity we participated. Course material and NGSS connections were presented in a way that was applicable and meaningful to educators across all grades. We not only had the benefit of learning from the highly knowledgeable instructors themselves but also from other passionate educators. This was the experience of a lifetime and re-energized me as a science educator.”

Overall, it was a great way to recognize 10 years of the DIG Field School!

2019 DIG Dates and Application

Apply to the 2019 DIG

We’re excited to announce the 2019 DIG Field School dates! This year’s DIG will take place July 28–August 1 at the Hell Creek State Park near Jordan, Montana.

Interested teachers can fill out an application on our website. The application will remain open until April 12 at 11:59 pm PST.

Please share this post with anyone who may be interested in the program, and be sure to check out our blog, Facebook, and Twitter for additional updates!

DIG Founder and Director Honored by Alf Museum

DIG founder and director Dr. Greg Wilson recently received the presitigous Alf Award for Excellence in Paleontological Research and Education by the Raymond M. Alf Museum. The Alf Museum, located in Claremont, California, gives out this award annually to leading paleontologists demonstrating excellence in research, education, and outreach.

You can read the full press release on Greg’s award here, and can read more about the Alf Museum here. Huge congratulations to Greg!


Other news and events

Interested in some of the recent research in the world of paleontology? Or looking for science activities for your students? Keep on reading!

  1. NPR Student Podcast Challenge
    Looking for a cool project for your classroom? NPR is launching the opportunity for teachers and students grades five through 12 to create their own podcast based on a subject or topic of their choice. The submission timeline is January to March, 2019, so start thinking of ideas soon! You can read more about the competition here.
  2. Upcoming events at the Burke Museum
    There are a number of awesome upcoming events at the Burke Museum, including your final chance to visit the old building before it permanently closes! Here’s a list of what’s on the calendar:–Final Free Week at the Burke: Your last chance to visit the old building (and see the Tufts-Love Rex) until the museum reopens fall 2019!
    Photo credit: Cathy Morris

    –I Dig Dinos: A great chance for young aspiring paleontologists to learn about dinosaurs in a hands-on way!
    Photo credit: Rachel Crick

    –TAKE FLIGHT: Last Night at the Museum: A New Year’s Eve party (and the last night in the old museum) that you definitely don’t want to miss!
    Image credit: Burke Museum

  3. Other happenings in paleontology:

    –Publication on Prehistoric Body Theater, an art-science collaborative project created by performance artist Ari Rudenko and DIG founder and director Dr. Greg Wilson.

    –Paper on the evolutionary history of mammalian tooth attachement, co-authored by former DIG instructor and UW graduate student Megan Whitney.

    –A paper on the osteohistology of Rapetosaurus, an interesting sauropod dinosaur, co-authored by UW graduate student Zoe Kulik.
    –Paper on the morphology of the Neanderthal thorax, co-authored by UW faculty member Dr. Patricia Kramer.

Updates from the DIG Research Community

It’s been a busy fall for members of the DIG team, Wilson Lab, and UW Paleobiology community! Read on for updates on what we’ve been up to.

  1. New paper by Brannick and Wilson
    UW graduate student and DIG instructor Alex Brannick and DIG founder and director Dr. Greg Wilson recently published a paper in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution, which sheds light on the paleoecology of early marsupial relatives. You can read the paper here. Huge congratulations to Alex and Greg!
  2. 2018 SVP Annual Meeting
    Several past and current members of the DIG team recently presented on their research at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting. Each year, the SVP annual meeting brings together paleontologists from around the world to discuss cutting edge research in the field. You can read more about the meeting and the society here, and here is a full list of those who presented (you can look up the details in the abstract book here):
    (1) Luke Weaver, (2) Megan Whitney, (3) Amanda Peng, (4) Natalie Toews, (5) Henry Fulghum, (6) Gabriel Goncavles.
  3. Promotion talk by Dr. Greg Wilson
    Dr. Greg Wilson recently gave a promotion talk for consideration to full professor in the Department of Biology at UW, entitled, “The ecological context of mammalian evolution.” You can watch a video of Greg’s talk here or by clicking the link below.

    Photo credits: Alex Brannick, UW Biology

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.

2018 DIG and Summer Fieldwork

We are excited to report that we’ll announce final acceptance decisions for the 2018 DIG Field School next week! Thank you to all who applied, and thank you for your patience in waiting to hear back on your status.

This year we received 94 applications for 35 open spots. We received applications from 24 different states—as well Canada, Algeria, and Turkey—and were extremely impressed by the quality of the applications and the diversity of teaching backgrounds and experiences. Unfortunately we can only accommodate a small portion of the applications we receive, so if you are not accepted please consider applying again!

The DIG is a part of a larger field research project that Dr. Greg Wilson leads every summer, and includes a dynamic group of researchers from a number of institutions. We are gearing up for a very busy summer, and will return to a number of macrofossil sites discovered last year (including some promising dinosaur specimens!), collect as much fossiliferous sediment as we possibly can, and continue a detailed geological survey of our research area. We look forward to sharing the results of our research and the field school in the near future!

Photo credits: Adam Smith, Brody Hovatter

Upcoming Events

Final Sorting Party

The final sorting party of the school year will take place Sunday, June 3 from 11a–2p at the Burke Museum. So far this year participants have made a number of exciting discoveries, including mammal teeth, Triceratops and T. rex teeth, and salamander and lizard vertebrae. Please RSVP to admin@digfieldschool.org by May 31 to secure your spot. We hope to see you there!

Fossil Fridays

Come see fossil preparators at the Burke work on the spectacular Tufts-Love Rex at the upcoming Fossil Fridays event! This exceptionally well-preserved specimen represents one of only 15 mostly complete T. rex skulls ever discovered, and viewing it in person is an experience you don’t want to miss.  Visitors will have the opportunity to experience the specimen (and others!) up close, as well as speak with members of the Burke’s paleontology team. The event will take place Friday, May 25 from 12–4p.

2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium

The annual UW Undergraduate Research Symposium is happening Friday, May 18! Undergraduates from across the university we be presenting on a variety of exciting research projects from a number of disciplines. We are excited to announce that Wilson Lab undergraduate student Henry Fulghum will be presenting on his work with Dr. Greg Wilson and Wilson Lab graduate student Luke Weaver investigating the bone microstructure of small-bodied mammals. We hope to see you there!

Photo credits: Brody Hovatter, Adam Smith

Recent News

NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship Awards

We are delighted to announce that Drs. Stephanie Smith and Dave Grossnickle were both recently awarded prestigious NSF Postdoctoral Fellowships! This fellowship provides PhD graduates with two years of funding to spearhead cutting edge research in their respective fields. Stephanie will head to the Field Museum in Chicago to investigate the biomechanics of shrews, and Dave has joined our lab at the University of Washington to elucidate macroevolutionary patterns of mammalian jaws. Please join us in congratulating both Stephanie and Dave!

Drs. Stephanie Smith (above left) and Dave Grossnickle (above right)

Ghosts of Hell Creek

The Ghosts of Hell Creek performance was a huge success! This visual art piece combining theater and natural history wowed audiences and left everyone ready for more. You can read more about the project and its future directions here. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Recent Papers

Dr. Courtney Sprain, a former DIG instructor and current postdoc at the University of Liverpool, and collaborators (Drs. Paul Renne, William Clemens, and Greg Wilson) recently published a paper providing new radioisotopic ages and paleomagnetic data from the geological deposits of the Hell Creek area in northeastern Montana. This work provides crucial additions to our framework for understanding the timing of changes in the biota and in the environment surrounding the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event. You can access the full article here.

For all the multituberculate mammal enthusiasts out there, you can read about a recently discovered island dwelling and strangely dome-headed multituberculate from the Late Cretaceous of Romania. Here’s a link to the paper.

Photo credits: Stephanie Smith, Dave Grossnickle, Greg Wilson, Ari Rudenko