Typically, finding a rodent graveyard would be bad news. But for the fifth-graders who were getting a lesson in paleontology from Russell Graham, director of the Penn State Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum, that pronouncement was a compliment.
The students, who were sorting out fossils from a cave in South Dakota, were among about 500 fifth-graders participating in this year’s “Shake, Rattle & Rocks.” The Department of Geosciences hosts the event every year for the State College Area School District’s fifth-graders, giving them hands-on lessons on ice cores in Antarctica, what makes planets habitable and ocean acidification. The event was spread over three days in the first week in January to accommodate all the elementary schools.
“You found a rodent graveyard,” Graham said during one of his “Bone Picking” classes. The bones they were carefully picking out of rocks and sand are 15,000 to 20,000 years old. What animals were present offers researchers clues about the climate at the time. Some animals live in moist, cool forests, others prefer dry, warm grasslands and some can live in both.
“Sometimes we get snakes and toads and lizards, but most of them are small mammals,” Graham, explained.
Professor of Geosciences Tim Bralower, who organizes the event, said the idea is to give students hands-on experiences, which they’ll remember. The short courses also tie directly to what the students are learning in the classroom. Jennifer Walcavich, a teacher at Radio Park Elementary, said her class is working on a geosciences unit. “When some of them think of science, they only think of a microscope. It’s good for them to see the broad range,” she said as her students carefully sifted through sands in search of fossils. In another class, the budding scientists got an up-close look at plankton from 20,000 years ago off the coast of South America as part of a lesson on ocean acidification with Bralower and Jon Schueth, a doctoral student in geosciences. “The fossils you’re looking at are really, really tiny,” Schueth said to the students taking turns at one of the microscopes.
In Peter Burkett’s class, “From Penn State to the Poles,” glass jars filled with layers of different colored sand filled in as Antarctic ice cores. The students took notes on what they found in the layers of ice including insects and ash, learning about ice cores and what types of information scientists gain from studying them. They also had a chance to pepper Burkett, who is part of Penn State Ice and Climate Exploration and has done research in Antarctica, with questions: How long do the scientists stay in Antarctica when they go? Can they talk to their families? Do you need a passport? Burkett explained that a passport is needed to make pit stops in New Zealand or Australia before heading to Antarctica and that while radios were used in old days to communicate back home, nowadays email takes care of it.