Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


Step Outside Ordinary


The 2013 OSA campers

Summertime: lazy days by the pool, sleeping until noon and all the video games your controller can handle. It’s the overworked student’s paradise. In the summer of 2013, however, 14 Oklahoma middle school students left ordinary behind to take part in a most amazing adventure. The Oklahoma Science Adventure (OSA) camp, a weeklong educational endeavor operated by the Sam Noble Museum’s ExplorOlogy® program, allows students to discover alongside professional scientists, without paying a cent.


Campers at the ropes course 

That’s right, without paying a cent. Thanks to partial funding by the Whitten-Newman Foundationthe program is free for participants. During OSA, students have the opportunity to conduct field research, conquer the University of Oklahoma’s ropes course, canoe down the Illinois River and sleep beneath the world’s largest Apatosaurus in the museum’s Hall of Ancient Life. What more could you ask for? 

Last summer, students also investigated a unique Oklahoma fossil site known as White Mound, an ancient shallow ocean where, more than 400 million years ago, an assortment of animals, including trilobites, crinoids, brachiopods and corals, lived. Nick Czaplewski, the staff curator of vertebrate paleontology, assisted students in collecting a variety of fossils. Based on their understanding of modern animals and fossil evidence, they constructed an example of what an ancient ecosystem might have looked like.


Fossils at White Mound

Although OSA promises new friends and fun-filled memories, it’s about much more than that. The program affords budding scientists a chance to gain hands-on experience, awarding them awareness and confidence in their own abilities. For many, this revelation generates the initial spark of a lifelong passion.

“It really surprised me how hands-on it was. It was a good surprise,” recalled Abby Holden, of Claremore, Okla. Holden explained that science used to be a sore subject for her in the classroom, but after OSA she feels enthusiastic and confident.

Holden conducts ecology research

 According to Holden and several other students, field experience ranks high above classroom learning when it comes to both education and enthusiasm. According to Clay Dominy of Shawnee, Okla., there is no comparison.

 “If you want to be in paleontology, learning in a classroom does not prepare you. They don’t teach you about geographical maps. Out in the field, though, you can see everything you need to know,” Dominy said.


Moxley gets up close and personal with nature

Another camper, Ella Moxley, a seventh-grader from Norman, Okla., said she never realized how hands-on science could be until spending a few days in the field, where she learned to overcome her squeamishness towards insects. Moxley learned first-hand that to be a scientists, you’ve got to be willing to get down in the trenches of nature.

“I would recommend OSA to any science enthusiasts who are definitely not afraid to get dirty,” Moxley said.

Of course, OSA isn’t all work. Moxley and Holden both described their canoe trip down the Illinois River as the pinnacle of their journey. According to Dominy, however, jumping into the ponds and scooping up tadpoles proved to be the most fun.

Dominy hunts for tadpoles

So whether you’re hoping to have the time of your life, explore an interest or escape the mundane routine of long summer days, OSA is for you. Don’t let this summer be just another series of wasted days by the television. Applications will be available in the winter of 2013, and we hope you’re ready to take the plunge. Join us, and step outside ordinary.

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.

Worn to the Bone

Thanks to several Hollywood blockbusters, we are familiar with the image of paleontologists digging in the field, but what happens after the big discovery when the end credits roll? What occurs between the field and museum in the life of a prehistoric bone?

According to Mr. Kyle Davies, Museum Preparator for the vertebrate paleontology department, once a fossil is discovered in the field, paleontologists dig a trench around it and surrounding rock. They then cover the piece with thin tissue paper, which serves as a protective barrier, before coating the artifact in a mixture of plaster and burlap. Once the plaster has set up, they undermine the specimen, cautiously remove it from the ground and wrap the exposed side in plaster and burlap. Paleontologists refer to this completed object as a field jacket.


An unopened field jacket.

Field jackets, like the one above, are then sent to museums for further preparation. The above field jacket contains Tenontosaurus bone from a dig at the McLeod Correctional Facility near Atoka, Oklahoma on May 2, 2002. The Tenontosaurus, a fairly common herbivore from the Cretaceous Period, roamed much of North America approximately 110 million years ago. This particular field jacket remains unopened, but will be examined by the 2013 Paleo Expedition ExplorOlogy team this summer.

When ready for preparation, the field jacket is opened using a cast-cutter, the same tool used by medical doctors. Then, paleontologists begin the tedious process of slowly chipping away at unwanted rock to expose the bone.


A typical tool-kit

Due the extreme level of caution required, removing bone from a field jacket may take several thousand hours. In the case of the Sam Noble Museum’s Pentaceratops skull, the largest found in the world, the removal process required roughly 3,000 hours. For this reason, the vertebrate paleontology department utilizes a large number of trained volunteers


A pin vise chips away at unwanted rock.

Of course, common practices have evolved over many years to determine the most efficient means of specimen removal.

“Everything we do is done under the lessons from the past about what does and doesn’t work,” explained Mr. Davies.

Once enough bone becomes visible, paleontologists seek to identify the species. But how do scientists identify an entire dinosaur from simply bone?

“How do you know what model car you have?” asked Mr. Davies in reply. “You know by looking at it. An expert could tell you a model and make just by looking at a tail light.” He explained that in this way, identification of species relies heavily on specialized knowledge and previous training in comparative anatomy.

Occasionally bone fragments require repair, which calls for specialized forms of adhesive glues. Once the pieces are glued together, paleontologists use the help of a sandbox and gravity to hold the bone together as it dries over several minutes to hours. In the video below, Mr. Davies explains this process.

From here, paleontologists prepare the bone for study, display or storage. For display, bones are reconstructed before use. Sometimes, but not always, they are replaced with precision castings made by molding and casting the actual bones or reconstructions in the lab. Staff members in either vertebrate paleontology or exhibit departments then paint the castings to resemble the actual bone. Finally, staff workers assemble the bones to form full skeletons inside the one of the museum’s exhibit dioramas. Museums are most likely to showcase dinosaurs for which they possess many of the actual skeletal pieces, such as the Sam Noble Museum’s Tenontosaurus.


Our Tenontosaurus display

The original bones rest inside the highly organized walls of a massive collection facility. Here they are protected and available for scientific study, or further replication.

Summer Explorers in the News

A young explorer wades in a local pond in the museum's Slime and Scales class

This is the time of year when our Summer Explorers program is in full swing. Every day our education team leads groups of kids out into the ponds, streams, fields and forests around Norman to experience nature close-up and personal.

For some of these young explorers, it is the first time they have ever really been out in nature on this level. Over the years, our educators have ceased to be surprised at how many students know more about the animals of the African serengetti than the animals native to their own back yards. The lure of electronic entertainment draws our kids deeper and deeper into the climate-controlled virtual world and further and further away from the real one. You don’t need to hear me argue in favor of getting our kids out and dirty, but if you want to learn more about it, read Richard Louv’s best-selling book “Last Child in the Woods.”

Anyway… it’s a fun time of year. Every morning a group of clean kids troops out of the museum. And a few hours later a group of very wet and muddy kids troops back in.

Last week Steve Sisney, a photographer for the Oklahoman, joined the “Slime and Scales” class on a trip to a local pond and captured some of the action. Follow this link to Steve’s video footage on Newsok.com and join education officer Jes Cole and her class of 7 and 8-year olds as they make an unusual discovery…


ExplorOlogy in the News

Sorry to be slow to post. So much has been going on with our students who have been out in the field in Utah! But sadly, I was moving this week, so I failed to document. I’ll catch up this week. In the meantime, here’s a link to a story on our fabulous Oklahoma students from the Salt Lake Tribunehttp://www.sltrib.com/news/ci_12655664