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The Fossils Are Old; The Scientists Are Young

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By Marquisha Spencer and Charles Taylor Kerchner

How old does a student have to be to do real science?  In early February, 150 students in the, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades at Los Angeles Summit Prep charter school began study small fossils from the famed La Brea Tar Pits Museum.

IMG_0008 Tar pit.JPGThe tiny fossilized remains of plants, rodents, invertebrates, and reptiles are called microfossils, and they help professional researchers understand ancient ecosystems.  The tar pits are best known for the large animals that were caught in the sticky petroleum that still oozes near Wilshire Boulevard.  But the mirofossils tell scientists about the environment that mammoths and saber-tooth cats lived in. (At left, students at work sorting and identifying microfossils.)

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Summit Prep students are the first of local schools to help excavators gather microfossils and other specimens to determine what lived in the area during L.A.'s ice age. In October 2016 Summit Prep teachers attended a day-long training at the Tar Pits Museum in which they learned to sort and identify microfossils. These teachers also helped the museum develop accompanying materials and lesson plans aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards to ensure that the program acts as an effective complement to classroom learning."This newest addition to our robust citizen science program gives local students access to real collections materials, and puts their work at the center of significant scientific research," says Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of the Natural History Family of Museums.  "Through outreach projects like this, our Museums are poised to play a critical role in science education and inspire the next generation of scientists."

Soon, the students will return their fossils to the Museum sorted, identified, and ready for scientific study. While it will take time to evaluate successes of this project and make programmatic improvements, this is just the beginning of what could be a massive venture that engages thousands of students across Los Angeles County with local ancient history. On the Museum side, researchers will build tools to uncover the interactions between members of Southern California's Ice Age ecosystem, which will help them better understand future diversity under the climate change we face today. At Summit Prep, students already feel the impact of their work. As Arianna Haut, the head of school says, "Our kids are real scientists now!"  

About the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

The asphalt seeps at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum represent the only active urban Ice Age excavation site in the world. Outside, all year long, visitors can watch paleontological excavators carefully extract fossils of animals trapped in the seeps 10,000 to 40,000 years ago in both Project 23 and Pit 91. The mid-century Observation Pit, the first museum in Hancock Park, was refurbished and reopened for "Excavator Tours." Inside, visitors see the next step of the paleontology process, as scientists and volunteers clean, repair, and identify fossils in the transparent Fossil Lab. The museum displays the final result: extraordinary specimens of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, dire wolves, and mastodons, as well as fossilized remains of microscopic plant remains, insects, and reptiles. For more information, call (323) 857-6300 or visit www.tarpits.org.

Marquisha Spencer is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University and an 'On California' research assistant.

Photo: Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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