Oklahoma students 'dig' southern Utah monument

Science » Expedition lets paleontology novices explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
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Ten students from Oklahoma last week were "digging" the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument's vast grandeur -- as well as for fossilized bones of some of its former creatures.

The students are taking part in "Paleo Expedition 2009," part of ExplorOlogy, an education program offered by the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, Okla. The program includes hands-on uncovering dinosaur bones while the students camp until Monday in a remote and rugged area of the southern Utah monument.

The students, chosen from varying places and economic circumstances from around Oklahoma, will work with paleontologists and other scientists to identify and excavate fossils of the reptiles that roamed the area during the late Cretaceous Period 75 million years ago.

The high school-age participants will also have an opportunity to learn wilderness basics such as mapping, GPS navigation and desert survival.

Richard Cifelli, curator of the Sam Nobel Museum at the University of Oklahoma, said the expedition is based on a similar program offered by the University of Chicago that takes students to dinosaur quarries in Wyoming.

Cifelli, who has a doctorate in zoology and leads the expedition, said the program is funded with a $950,000 grant from the Whitten-Newman Foundation in Oklahoma.

"All they [students] had to bring were clothes and a sleeping bag," he said.

Cifelli said he has been working in Utah and elsewhere on public lands for 27 years, and in that time he has developed a good relationship with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the 1.9 million-acre Utah monument.

He said the expedition gives the students a chance to be active in science instead of passively viewing fossils in a museum or working on them in a laboratory setting with someone in a "polyester suit."

"We want to get the kids into an outdoor lab and make science relevant to their lives," said Cifelli. "Its inquiry-based and meant to develop observational skills. Let them open their eyes and ears."

Holly Hughes, head of education for the Sam Nobel Museum and who is along on the expedition, said the student selection process included writing essays, recommendations from teachers and interviews with the students and their parents.

The students come from Oklahoma's smallest towns to its biggest cities.

Charlie Evans, 17, and a high school senior in Marlind, Okla., said while his class was studying dinosaurs, a teacher encouraged him to apply for the expedition.

Evans is looking forward to scraping away the gray soil from an old river drainage to expose some of the prehistoric bones locked in the fossil-rich area he describes as "awesome."

"It's [monument] pretty big," he said looking out over a vast expanse of the once-tropical area. "At night, you can look out on the horizon and not see a light."

Rhys Sitz, a 16-year-old high school junior from Lawton, Okla., said his mother learned about the expedition from a Web site and suggested he apply.

Sitz said even though he plans on being a medical geneticist, the expedition has its fascination.

"I've always loved dinosaurs,' he said.

Nancy Ha, a high school junior from Muskogee, Okla., said an uncle familiar with the area recommended she apply.

"I just love science in general," said Ha, 16.

Brian Davis, a graduate student in zoology and expedition instructor, said the program is important for the future of science.

"If you get them [students] interested in science at a ground level, it can make their lives and ours more interesting."

Alan Titus, the BLM paleontologist for the monument said he worked with the museum arranging the field trip and that the students will help provide important information on cataloging what they see.

Titus said Cifelli is renown in his field for discovering late Cretaceous mammals.

"It's cool working with someone like him," said Titus.


To find out more

Additional information about ExplorOlogy can be found online at explorology.snomnh.ou.edu.