Loudoun Country Day School students get hands-on experience in hunting for fossils


Research scientists Aaron Alford, left, and Jason Osborne and students at Loudoun Country Day School with a bag of sediment that might contain fossils. (Loudoun Country Day School)
June 11, 2014

Middle school students at Loudoun Country Day School recently got a close look at creatures that lived 19 million years ago. Through their research, some of them even made their own bids for immortality.

Seventh- and eighth-graders at the Leesburg private school took part in an innovative science curriculum in which they searched for fossils in raw sediment collected by two scientists in the Calvert Cliffs area of Maryland and Virginia. The students sifted through the sediment, examined samples with microscopes and identified what appeared to be fossils, hoping to make significant finds that would earn them permanent recognition.

“This is a way you can bring the science to the student,” said Jason Osborne, who introduced the program to the school in 2012 with his research partner, Aaron Alford. “They get to find and discover and see fossils for the first time.”

Osborne and Alford travel across the country involving students in their research through PaleoQuest and SharkFinder, nonprofit groups they co-founded and continue to run outside their day jobs. Osborne is a mechanical engineer at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, and Alford is a health research scientist with the nonprofit organization Battelle.

Osborne said that he made the connection with Loudoun Country Day School through a co-worker whose child attends the school. After getting approval from the school administration, he began training the science teachers. “It’s so much more engaging when we can give the teachers the knowledge so they can pass it on to the students,” Osborne said.

Science teacher Laura Kitselman said the scientists brought the sediment, which looked like sand, into the classroom in gallon plastic bags. Each student got a sample of the sediment in a Petri dish and went through it grain by grain, using dissecting needles, tweezers, magnifying lenses and microscopes.

“As they did that, they realized that it wasn’t just sand,” Kitselman said. “In and among the grains of sand were little tiny sharks’ teeth and vertebrae of fish . . . and as they found them, they would put them under the microscope and confirm that they were something organic and not just sand.”

Each student was given a vial marked with an ID number. They put their finds into their vials and indicated which batch of sediment they came from.

The materials were sent to a lab at the University of Maryland, where a team of undergraduates under the direction of entomology professor Brett Kent analyzed the finds and determined whether they were actual fossils, Osborne said. The undergraduates wrote papers based on the research, crediting the middle school students for any materials they found.

“When these publications come out, their names will be in there,” school headmaster Randy Hollister said.

“We believe that if they found it, they should get credit for it,” Osborne said. “Their finds actually go into the [Calvert Marine] Museum, and they’re curated forever.”

Osborne said that the students were looking for “new occurrences,” which he defined as “the first occurrence of a species in a geographical area in a geological period of time.”

Their work “is extremely important, especially when you’re looking at marine diversity and evolution, or species diversity,” he said. “Each one of them is worthy of a scientific publication.”

Last month, 29 students and science teacher Adrienne Corso were rewarded with certificates for finding documented fossil remains. The names of the fossils will be revealed in a research article this summer by the professors at the University of Maryland who certified their origins.

“They were thrilled,” Kitselman said. “They were so excited. Of course, [the students’] first question is, ‘Can I name it?’ Because they were hoping that they had found a new species. But that wasn’t the case. It was just the first occurrence. But still, that’s pretty exciting.” She said the research project gave the students firsthand experience with scientific research.

“It certainly puts them in the role of a scientist, doing exactly what a real paleontologist would do,” she said. “Going through the sediment is tedious and laborious, but in the end, you might find something that’s really wonderful and new that nobody has ever seen before.”

Hollister praised Osborne and Alford, as well as the school’s science teachers, for their work on the project. “Our students were given an opportunity as middle- schoolers that many students do not get until they are science majors in college,” he said.

Kitselman said she hopes to continue to pilot the program next year and possibly expand on it, so that the students could get experience processing the sediment.

“We will definitely continue to have a relationship,” she said.

Jim Barnes is a freelance writer.

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