The Allendale Columbia 6th grade students just finished up an incredibly rewarding and authentic science experience thanks to an opportunity provided by the Paleontological Research Institute, PRI for short, in Ithaca, New York. I found the Mastodon Matrix Project by thumbing through twitter feeds and websites, looking for relevant science opportunities for my 6th grade Earth Science students. On the SciStarter website (http://www.scistarter.com/) was the description of the perfect opportunity for my students to get their hands on some real science, quite literally.
After filling out an application, and sending along a small fee for shipping, our adventure arrived in the mail. It was a kilogram of history. Inside a huge zip lock bag, surrounded by bubble-wrap, was 12000 year old matrix. My colleagues couldn’t understand my excitement as I jumped around the day the matrix arrived. My students would soon have their hands in his material, and I was excited for them. A mastodon was excavated from a site in Hyde Park, NY about 10 years ago, and scientists collected and bagged over 20,000 kg of the material surrounding the skeleton. On my lab table, 12000 years later, was the dirt and material which surrounded and shared time with the mastodon.
Looking at the “hunk of dirt” which some students called it, I had no idea what to expect. Luckily, I was working side by side with a colleague who did this sort of thing for a living; a professional archeologist by trade. He was ready with paper plates, plastic baggies, and old toothbrushes. Luckily, PRI included excellent directions on how to sort the material so it could be returned properly, and also provided the website for an online database, so the scientific community could share our findings. In general, this project only lasts for a few days in the classroom, but because of my colleague’s expertise, and the depth in which we covered the topics of mastodon, the Pleistocene, and the Ice Age, we took almost 3 months to really dig deep and give the students an in-depth and intensive experience.
The Mastodon Matrix Project was ideal for our students, and I was thrilled with the outcome. The project coordinator, Dr. Carlyn Buckler, brought this project to life for my students, offering to Skype, blog, and email students when they had questions or wanted feedback. Students cannot make relevant and authentic connections to science unless they are exposed to wonderful projects and helpful and inspiring professionals. We had an amazing experience – and it has me inspired to seek out other opportunities out there that would be great for budding scientists. The students knew that this material was priceless, and they had one chance to examine the matrix correctly. They knew that their data was part of a bigger picture; and that scientists would be looking at what they photographed, measured, weighed, and handled. Citizen science allows students that ownership.
There are hundreds of citizen science projects on the web. Searching for “citizen science” will show just how many opportunities of how students could be involved in everything from ladybugs, star counting, bird watching, tree bud watching, to traffic observations. I encourage any teacher who is looking for a way to grab their students attention to given citizen science projects a try.