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Digging Deep for Leadership

Twelve high school students and a handful of scientists huddle beneath the shade of a pitched canopy on a June afternoon. With paintbrush and chisel in hand, team members of the ExplorOlogy® program meticulously sift through the ground until, at last, a gray, rigid structure emerges: dinosaur bone.


 These are the students, paleontologists and crew of the ExplorOlogy® Paleo Expedition program. Each summer, twelve Oklahoma high school students in 9th-through 11th-grade get the opportunity to gain hands-on paleontology and fieldwork experience by working on-site with professionals. Students can participate in the program a second year as a peer mentor. Peer mentors return to share their experience and assist a new team of students.

 The 2013 site, located in Black Mesa, Okla., operates as the first professional, paleontological quarry in that area since World War II and provides educational opportunities to students via the ExplorOlogy® program, which has served over 53,000 students since 2007. Thanks to supplemental funding by the Whitten-Newman Foundation, the fourteen-day adventure is free for students.

 Life-long paleontology-lover Gray McCutchen, a second-year participant and peer mentor from Edmond, Okla., said the program steered him towards a future in paleontology. In the video below, McCutchen recalls some of his most astonishing finds from his two years with the program.

 Another peer mentor, Laura Gray from Tulsa, Okla., said that her favorite aspect of the Paleo Expedition was the feeling of unity that accompanied the fieldwork, the “inclusiveness of learning together with others who are also enthused to learn.” Gray also said being a peer mentor has helped her to become a more relatable leader.


Laura Gray uncovers sauropod bone.

 However, it’s not all fun and games. First-year participant Morgan Miller of Buffalo, Okla. claimed she never realized how tedious and difficult paleontology and field work could be until the expedition.

 For Miller, however, the excitement that accompanies fieldwork unquestionably outweighs the intensive nature of the job and has instilled in her a desire to further pursue science in future educational endeavors.

 “I know it’s cliché, but there is nothing like actually doing something to get the best feeling for what it is like,” confirms Kyle Davies, museum preperator for the vertebrate paleontology department and Paleo Expedition participant since 2009.

 Although the program ends after fourteen days, the experiences resonate long-term with many students. Ernesto Vargas of Oklahoma City, Okla., an ExplorOlogy veteran, was recently named a Gates Millennium Scholar and will receive a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. Vargas intends to pursue a degree in geology with postgraduate work in invertebrate paleontology.


Vargas conducting field work with the Paleo Expedition program.

“Because of ExplorOlogy®, I have a foundation for what I want to do and where I want to go. As a future scientist, I really look forward to one day sharing my knowledge and experience with others, just like this program has done for me,” said Vargas. “[It] has influenced my next steps more than anything else.”

 Vargas is the second ExplorOlogy student to receive this prestigious award in the past two years, the other being Nancy Ha of Muskogee, Okla.

 “Clearly the future holds immense promise for Explorology® students, those who just returned from the field and those already moving on to bigger dreams. While all of the ExplorOlogy® participants may not pursue a career in science, the skills acquired through the Paleo Expedition program, such as leadership, responsibility, ability to ask questions and find an answers through science, as well as teamwork and self confidence, will undoubtedly benefit students in whatever discipline they pursue,” said museum director Dr. Michael Mares. “As proven by ExplorOlogy® veterans like Vargas and Ha, today’s ExplorOlogy® students will be the leaders of tomorrow.”

 The ExplorOlogy® program would like to thank the University of Oklahoma, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History vertebrae paleontology department, the Collection of Recent Invertebrates Oklahoma State University, Native Explorers and the Whitten-Newman Foundation for making Paleo Expedition possible.

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