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Working at the dig
Teachers will work in teams of three to excavate and record findings in each of the Alaskan dinosaur quarries. Roland Gangloff photo
Berkeley-led team of teachers digs for Alaskan dinosaur fossils

11 July 2002

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - Janet Alpert, a first grade teacher at King Elementary School in Richmond, has a very old bone to pick.

It may be a splinter of pelvis from a 70-million-year-old duck-billed hadrosaur, or a fragment of bony sternum from a 90-million-year-old horned ankylosaur. When she finds it -- later this month, in a handful of silt along Alaska's icy Colville River -- staff from the University of California, Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology and the University of Alaska Fairbanks will be there to help her identify it.

  Poverty Bar on the Colville River
This site along Alaska’s Colville River, lined with caribou tracks and known as Poverty Bar, will be both home and research station for the Berkeley geoscience team during their excavation in July. Judy Scotchmoor photograph

"Paleontologists from UC Berkeley and the University of Alaska Museum have been excavating sites along the Colville River bank in northwest Alaska for more than a decade now, because the region contains thousands of dinosaur fossils from the early Cretaceous period," says Judy Scotchmoor, director of the paleontology museum's education and public programs and a leader of a special outreach program for teachers like Alpert.

Last year, Scotchmoor says, the museum received funding from the National Science Foundation to introduce a program of educational field work on Alaska's North Slope to K-12 Earth science teachers from a single school district.

The program is designed to provide a rich and intensive professional development opportunity to these science teachers by involving them in the process of science through field exploration and research. In addition, the "Geosciences in Alaska" will connect the teachers to other science teachers in their district, as well as to the scientific community.

Destination: Ocean Point
The Bay Area teachers met in Anchorage on July 8 to begin their instruction on the geology of Alaska. The next three days were spent driving to Fairbanks and stopping at geologic and paleontologic study sites along the way to learn about Alaskan geology, glacial dynamics, tectonics and geomorphology. Field stops were scheduled for Matanuska Glacier, the north and south perimeters of Denali National Park and the coal mining area of Healy.

  Preparing to depart by bush plane
Team members prepare to leave Deadhorse by bush plane, the only mode of transport to the remote research site along the Colville River. Roland Gangloff photo

Their final destination is a remote place called Ocean Point, tucked along a 75-mile-long stretch of dinosaur bone beds near where the Colville River empties into the Arctic Ocean. The region was once home to flocks of 10-foot-tall, three-ton hadrosaurs, three-toed therapods, flesh-eating albertosaurs and horned ankylosaurs.

In 1998, some spectacular finds in that area turned Alaska's North Slope into the premier high-latitude dinosaur graveyard, proving that at least seven families of carnivorous and plant-eating dinosaurs had migrated from Asia to North America much earlier in the Cretaceous than any experts had suspected.

Touching something that old
"It's amazing that there are polar dinosaurs that roamed Alaska when it was a much more temperate zone," says Alpert, who has stocked up on mosquito repellant and a mosquito-proof vest for the 13-day excavation at Colville River. "It's a bridge to the past and I can't wait to touch something that was alive millions of years ago."

"I've never done anything really hands-on like this," adds Phelana Pang, an El Cerrito High School science teacher also preparing for the trip. "I hope to be able to bring back some fossils and design some activities for the classroom that mock what we did in the field."

Staff and paleontology crews will teach the group geologic field skills and basic vertebrate paleontologic field techniques, says Scotchmoor. At the end of the excavation, the newly trained teachers will unpack their fossils at the University of Alaska Museum and learn about curation as they identify and classify what they’ve collected. Some fossil fragments will be loaned to the teachers to take back to the classroom, adds Alpert, who is reserving a little room in her backpack just for that reason.

"This ongoing work along the Colville River is an excellent opportunity for Earth science teachers to learn some hands-on skills and understand more of how science really works," says Scotchmoor, who is making her third trek to the site this summer.

Philip Wharton, an eighth grade science teacher at Portola Middle School who will be teaching high school biology at Richmond High School this fall, agrees.

"During the field experience, we will actually be doing science," he says with excitement.

Roots of Arctic dinosaur research program
Although this is the first time a group of school teachers has gone off to help excavate the Colville River dinosaur fossil beds, Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology has been involved in a collaborative dinosaur research and curational program with the University of Alaska Museum since 1985. That was the year campus paleontologists were first asked to examine the fossil fragments of some giant hadrosaurs unearthed by the late Shell Oil geologist Robert Liscomb.

In 1961, Liscomb had discovered dinosaur fossils that were 75 million to 80 million years old while surveying the Colville River tundra for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves. The finds were spectacular — they showed that dinosaurs had inhabited Alaska's North Slope 25 million years earlier than was previously thought — and, not surprisingly, they were met with widespread disbelief in the scientific community. Unfortunately, after his untimely death in a rockslide the following year, Liscomb’s survey records and notes were buried in Shell Oil Company’s archives and forgotten, until an unsuspecting archivist ran across them again in 1985.

Word traveled fast, and by the late 1980s, paleontology crews led by the University of Alaska Museum's curator Roland Gangloff were reexamining Liscomb’s survey sites along the Colville River. They discovered dinosaur trackways of their own, and the footprints of ancient three- and- four-toed dinosaurs, which had razor-sharp duckbills and lethal, sickle-shaped claws.

The dinosaur tracks proved to be authentic, and so significant that Berkeley paleontologists returned to their home institution and initiated a collaborative program of ongoing excavation work. That laid the foundation in the 1990s for a long-term, field-based research program in Arctic dinosaurs and associated vertebrates between the two institutions.

Putting field lessons to work
After the teachers have returned from this year’s field trip, they will begin the second phase of the educational outreach program. Scotchmoor, who was a K-12 science teacher for 25 years before joining the Museum of Paleontology, will begin a curriculum development program, along with her education staff, to help the teachers rewrite their district’s Earth science curriculum. Like Pang, the teachers will draw on their newly acquired field skills to help them dream up imaginative hands-on lessons for students at all grade levels.

Another unique dimension of the partnership will be mentoring. Each of the field trip participants will serve as a mentor for four other teachers at their respective schools. The goal will be to help the instructors introduce a new Earth science curriculum in their classrooms.

Latest information:
The Geosciences in Alaska web site will provide updates on the team's adventures later in the summer.