March 10, 2010

"Rocking Out" on the Fossil Freeway

If you have visited the exhibit Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway in recent weekends, you may have encountered UW students hanging out in the gallery, showing off fossils and talking to museum visitors. These students are part of a group called Rocking Out – they focus on presenting hands-on outreach programs in the earth sciences, and they’ve been kind enough to lend their time to the Burke Museum so that visitors have the opportunity to touch real fossils and ask questions about what they see on exhibit.

So what motivates these students to volunteer their time to talk to museum visitors?

Rocking Out member Shelly Donohue describes why she loves volunteering at the museum:

For me, the best part about volunteering in the Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway exhibit is giving kids the opportunity to hold and touch some of the specimens. I am studying science because of educators in my past that took me exploring on field trips, let me hold a snake at the zoo, and energetically answered any question I could think of. These people fed my curiosity and opened me up to how interesting and exciting science can be. When I volunteer, I love giving kids a specimen they can hold, such as a dinosaur vertebra or a fossil shark tooth, and asking them to guess what it is. Some of them get that same excited sparkle in their eyes that I used to get in mine, and it’s great that now I can be the one inspiring curiosity and showing these kids that learning can be fun… or at least to give them bragging rights over their friends about getting to hold a dinosaur bone.

Earth and Space Sciences graduate student Karl Lang discusses his personal favorite fossil – “Jefferson’s Chesapeake Scallop":

This past Thursday was Free First Thursday at the Burke and that evening I was chatting with visitors to the Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway exhibit when I ran into an old friend: Chesapecten jeffersonius. Oh the memories! You see “jeff” and I go way back, at least five million years to the early Pliocene. We originally met in the Yorktown formation, a soft sandy coquina forming large bluffs along the York River in the Virginia coastal plain. Growing up in Virginia, I spent many lazy summer afternoons crawling over these bluffs pulling out handful after handful of Chesapecten jeffersonius.

These shells are the fossilized remnants of a scallop-like creature that dominated the shallow marine seas off the east coast of North America for about five million years in the late Miocene to early Pliocene. The shell is known as an “index fossil” because it is so plentiful over only a short segment of the stratigraphic record, characteristic of a very specific piece of geologic history. Chesapecten jeffersonius has found its way into American history as well. It was the first fossil described in North America by English colonists, and remains the state fossil of Virginia. The Burke museum has a fantastic collection of fossils actively used in research, including this very special scallop. Be sure to stop by the Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway exhibit to say hello and meet the remarkable Chesapecten jeffersonius.

Visit Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway this Saturday from 10 am – 2 pm to meet the members of Rocking Out and try hands-on activities in the gallery.