Recently, the buzz of excitement could be heard outside Exploris Middle School in downtown Raleigh. Members of the school’s Fossil Club, led by Students Discover 2014-2015 Kenan Fellow, Juliana Thomas, were sifting shark tooth fossils out of “fossil reject dirt” from the phosphate mine in Aurora, North Carolina. I made my way, unnoticed, into the bustling room of 20 middle school students huddled over paper plates containing precious samples of shark teeth.
“I found another one!” exclaimed one student while holding up a miniscule, fossilized shark tooth from the sample in front of her. Another student proudly (and gently) showed me a small glass vial containing shark teeth that ranged in size from less than 1 millimeter to 2 centimeters long, collected over the course of that afternoon.
“Mine’s cooler!” a boy from another table shouted, while jingling a plastic bag full of large shark teeth.
The students were finding teeth from many different kinds of sharks that roamed the seas 5-25 million years ago. It takes a certain amount of patience and concentration for students to find the smallest teeth — and quickly a band of students formed showing off their smallest finds.
“The coolest thing is that the kids are holding pieces of deep evolutionary history. They’re holding something that is millions of years old!” Ms. Thomas excitedly explained while placing a shark tooth under a Dino-Lite microscope so her students could better see each others’ discoveries, projected onto a large screen. Suddenly something very small became very large, and very real.
“The coolest thing is that the kids are holding pieces of deep evolutionary history. They’re holding something that is millions of years old!”
Since Fossil Club started meeting, the students have logged over 340 shark teeth. Students have meticulously collected measurement data about the size and species of each found tooth. This new citizen science project puts the real science, the process of paleontological digs and data collection, into the hands of middle school students.
On November 15th the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences will host their annual Fossil Fair from 9am-5pm. The students from the Exploris Middle School Fossil Club will be working shifts in the Paleontology Lab with Dr. Bucky Gates to share the expertise they’ve gained about shark tooth fossils with museum goers.
Ms. Thomas summed it up well: “The students love this. They feel like scientists. This project allows students the opportunity to be scientists, themselves. They can do something that nobody has done before.”