Digital Paleontology: Bringing Museum Specimens into the High School Classroom

Guest post by Taormina Lepore

Fig. 1 Image of digital nimravid specimen, genus Dinictis, courtesy of Andrew Farke at the Webb Schools, Claremont, California. Image taken by my student.

Fig. 1 Image of digital nimravid specimen, genus Dinictis, courtesy of Andrew Farke at the Webb Schools, Claremont, California. Image taken by my student.

For many people, the mental image of a paleontologist in the field conjures up a few things.

Dirty boots. Dusty field hat. Hands calloused by many hours in the field, wielding a rock hammer, skin coated in a thin sheen of sunscreen.

For many high school students, especially in urban centers, getting outside of the city limits may be impractical or impossible–let alone experiencing the thrill of field work.

For these students, and for many others, having a keen interest in exploring field and collections work isn’t enough to get them to hike the badlands or be admitted to the sanctuaries of our collections.

Many high school students simply aren’t aware of the wealth of information that is available to them, for research and general interest purposes, through the incredible variety of digital museum resources online.

I currently teach Advanced Placement biology at an urban high school in Houston, and my background is in museum paleontology and research. This turns out to be a great forum to plug the awesome power of museum collections, and to awaken a curiosity about the natural world in students who still feel their pulse quicken from the childlike wonder of paleontology.

This is what I live for–students getting jazzed about museum collections and about science in general!

For the last couple of years, my colleagues Andrew Farke, Robert Gay and I have toyed with different ways to bring scientific museum specimens to K-12 students–with a specific eye towards urban and suburban secondary school demographics. Robert’s work has focused on building a paleontology field program at his public charter high school in Arizona, and Andrew’s paleontology research specimens are available to high school students at the Webb Schools in Claremont, California.

Andrew’s students, who have access to the collections at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at Webb, are able to use 3D scanners to capture and upload fossil skulls and other bones to a common server at my experiential education website.

Together, our triad is one of several groups of educators looking to tear down the barriers of transporation, time, and collections access that might prevent motivated secondary school students from conducting detailed research in accelerated secondary classes.

What does museum research in the classroom really look like?

Fig. 2 One of my high school students, Erin Ricafrente, conducting research on cat skulls. Used with permission.

Fig. 2 One of my high school students, Erin Ricafrente, conducting research on cat skulls. Used with permission.

My students have undertaken rudimentary research on extant and extinct vertebrates, specifically mammal skulls that have been scanned by Webb high school students in California and shared between our students in both Arizona and Texas.

Using these specimens, my students have been able to:

  • Conduct research on the mechanics of the jaw of an ancient cat-like creature, Dinictis
  • Compare and contrast the skulls of modern wildcats with modern housecats
  • Study the length of nasal bones in modern and fossil horses to speculate scent capacities and ecological niches for the extinct animals

…and are currently in the process of studying new specimens:

  • A comparative study of the morphometric (geometric and statistical feature analysis) of modern and ancient rabbits
  • A look at how Hyaenodon, an ancient creodont carnivore, used its powerful jaws
  • A comparison between the life modes of Dinictis and modern wildcats of similar size and skull structure

And in spite of the hefty nature of these topics, my students have by and large tackled the projects with vigor (and a little extra prodding). The experience they gain conducting anatomical research on digitally scanned museum specimens, learning to deconstruct, read, and write academic papers, and having regular dialogue about the research process is invaluable and, I hope, instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in the students who take the initiative to complete the work.

Using museum collections in the classroom isn’t exactly new; the increasing push for digitization in many museums has led many institutions to offer online collections database searches, digital repositories of images and oral testimonies, and online tours of museum exhibits. The Texas Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin has spent the better part of a decade digitizing its collections for the sake of open access and conservation of specimens (Molineaux et al, 2007).

Many institutions and educators offer digital museum learning, including the education team at the Perot Museum in Dallas and the graduate students behind Past Time Paleo podcast–the latter of whom personally spoke to my biology students. Yale University offers digital specimens collections online, including material from its Peabody Museum of Natural History.

In addition, Digimorph at the University of Texas at Austin is a great digital paleontology resource that my students have used, and is of course a great asset to paleontology research and collections open-access.

Research has touted the benefits of museum specimens in the undergraduate classroom, fostering hands-on, specimen-based inquiry learning and ushering in the inevitability of community-owned and shared “digital repositories” across the board (Cook et al., 2014).

But bringing these same resources into the hands of students who are right at the forefront of figuring out where they want to go, what they want to be, and just what lies beyond the doors of a museum collections?

That’s no longer a dream. It’s no longer virtual reality. It’s a digital truism, and it’s impacting students in a very real way.


J.A. Cook, S.V. Edwards, E.A. Lacey, R.P. Guralnick, P.S. Soltis, D.E. Soltis, C.K. Welch, K.C. Bell, K.E. Galbreath, C. Himes, J.M. Allen, T.A. Heath, A.C. Carnaval, K.L. Cooper, M.  Liu, J. Hanken, and S. Ickert-Bond. 2014. Natural History Collections as Emerging Resources for Innovative Education. BioScience 64: 725-734.

A. Molineaux, C. George, R. Comeaux, E. Dunn, and W. Ward. 2007. Paleontology in cyberspace: Moving museums into digital age specimen collection. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 39(6):418.

Taormina (Tara) Lepore is a professional science educator who has spent the better part of her career working in science museums across the country, and the last three years teaching life science in public schools. She holds a M.S. in museum and field studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a biology degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, focusing her research on collections management and trace fossil paleoecology at both institutions. She is a lead writer at the experiential education-based sister blogs Outbound Adventurer and Outbound Edventurer.

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