Day 5: The Fossils Beneath Our Feet, New Panamanian Paleontologists, and Getting Clean

Part 1: Gatun Formation Exploration & Collection with Local Panamanian Students

Today is that day! (A little saying of mine.) Today is the day us teachers have been looking forward to for two reasons: first, we have the privilege of collecting fossils for our classrooms; second, we have the unique opportunity to work with local Panamanian students. All of this will occur at the Gatun Formation. We will use the fossils as a basis to develop and implement lesson plans, bringing in the history and science of Earth’s geological timescale and ocean life alive and in a tangible format for our students back home.

We began by scoping out the lay of the land of the Gatun Formation. It is awe-inspiring to jump out of a van in a residential neighborhood of Panama City, make your way around a locked chain set between two poles, and hit an invertebrate fossil jackpot: black, grainy sediment heavily spotted with white partial and whole shell fossils. They were almost glowing.

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Soon enough, the Cambio Creativo Program students, roughly twenty-five in all, arrived. Even with some logistical confusion and a late start, Amanda Waite (a post-doc at the University of Florida) got our groups of teachers, scientists, chaperones, and students organized and began our activities. Each of the five groups had their own unique lesson plan, which was quickly abandoned and modified to fit the new constraints of limited time and students wearing nice clothing and shoes, despite the warning that this particular field trip for the students would be a muddy and messy one. This flexibility is something to which veteran teachers are accustomed and must practice continually. The students` clothing simply did not match our surroundings, which highlighted the cultural difference that can occur between U.S. Americans and Latin Americans: as students were going on a special field trip, they dressed in nice clothes and shoes in order to respectfully represent their families; whereas in the U.S. many parents would dress their students in clothes that more closely match the activity.

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Most groups reported that the students were reserved and quiet at first, not really wanting to answer questions, yet would give each other surprised looks and sideways glances when they learned where they were standing used to be the bottom of the ocean, and fish, sharks, and other ocean life used to swim and dwell there. This shy attitude took a head-spinning 180 when they received their bags (complete with a digging tool, an official and authentic collection bag, a field guide for the fossils which would be collected momentarily, and a plastic folder with paper) and began to collect fossils. In our group, one particular girl who was in a dress and fancy sandals took off and really wanted to dig fossils out of the dry, packed sediment. I followed her and attempted to instruct her on how to dig out the fossils without breaking them. This process took several tries and modeling to her how to do this, moving the dig tool from being close the the fossil and working away from it. She got it and was so proud with a mile-wide smile when she unearthed the first unbroken one. This moment was gold inside my heart. No, not gold, fossils, but you get the idea.

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After debriefing with other groups, everyone had wonderful moments with the local students as we shared our passions for learning, teaching, children, and science. However, while those are the typical buzz-words people use and talk about with these types of experiences, I believe what we all really mean to say is that we love connecting with other people over a common, shared experience.

Now back to it. As a quick-and-dirty wrap-up piece to the two hours with the Cambio Creativo Program students, we took a very large group photo and made a circle with all people involved. Students were invited to take our their favorite find of the day to share with the circle. These favorite ranged from giant killer cone snail shells to sharks teeth and everything in between. I believe the favorite find for the teachers and paleontologists of the day was the connections we made to the students and knowing the lasting impression and impact our work has. As Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, one of our young, bright, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic grad student paleontologists put it while addressing the whole group circle in our last moments together, the students are now paleontologists and have learned something new about their country Panama, and now it is their turn to teach others about the amazing fossils of Panama!

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Part 2: Getting Clean at Corozal Lab

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The second half of the day was spent at Corozal Lab where we learned how to screen wash our fossils. While this was obviously not rocket-science (which also is not really that hard, as I have taught it to my eighth graders in past years), there are a few tips to make things easier and to ensure you do not loose any small fossils. These are top secret and cannot be divulged.

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The screen washing method allows us to remove sediments with toothbrushes and hoses with running water over the fossils, all of which is done with screens mounted between wood frames. There are typically two or three of these framed screens stacked one on top of the other with diminishing hole sizes as you move down the stack, so as to catch the smaller fossils, preventing them from going “down the drain.“ Our drain was outside, positioned over a paved trench for the water to run off. We had two screen washing stations set up with six or so people crowded around each one, all working together, cleaning our bounties to take home. There were three of us, myself included, who made our own little washing station, minus the screens, on the ground where one of the hoses had sprung a leak. We only washed our larger finds here. While this set up was technically not screen washing, our little trio had a good time sitting on the grass, getting a bit soaked (how do you get “a bit“ soaked? whatever!) by the spray from the hose, a welcomed feeling in the heat and humidity of Panama. Every one of us was tickled pink with the fossils we have the special fortuity of taking home to eagerly share with our students. Let the lesson planning begin!

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The participation of youth through the Cambio Creativo program was  supported by National Science Foundation OCE-PRF Awards to Amanda Waite (#1323649) and Maya deVries (#1323837).

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