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Engaging the Public – The Experiment of the “Valley of the Mastodons” Workshop & Exhibit

This guest post was contributed by science writer Jeanne Timmons (@mostlymammoths), as a follow-up to her first post. The post reflects the views solely of its author, which are not necessarily shared by PLOS. Full disclosure: The author of this blog post was offered a travel stipend and received housing to attend the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit. All images in this post are by the author.

Anja with Dr. Ashley Leger at the Western Science Center

She didn’t show any outward signs of excitement. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you might think she’d simply accompanied her dad, who was asking the paleontologists intriguing questions. But you would be wrong.

She was deeply, deeply interested.

As soon as her dad received the email announcing the “Valley of the Mastodons” events at the Western Science Center, Anja had been anticipating this day. The events took place during the week, and her dad could only take one day off of work. This particular day, Leif Eldevik explained later, was chosen to give Anja the chance to actually speak with paleontologists as they worked on the floor of the museum. He wanted her to able to find out “what gets them out of bed and spend nine hours in the hot sun!”

Anja might not have needed that insight. He’d discovered how serious she was about paleontology at a local fossil dig. He expected to have to drive her home after ten minutes. Instead, she stayed seven hours.

But Anja was shy. A corner of the Western Science Center that day had carts of mastodon fossils surrounded by paleontologists working on them. Various visitors moved in and out of that area like ocean waves—the ebb and tide of interest pulling some to fossil displays in the museum, some to actively engage with the scientists.

And then Dr. Ashley Leger (Paleontological Field Director at Cogstone Resource Management) appeared. With characteristic enthusiasm and the skill to connect with people of all ages, she introduced herself to Anja. Before long, previously shy and quiet Anja was sharing her dinosaur cards and her field notebook—in which she drew and took notes of fossils she had found!—with Dr. Leger. They spent about an hour together, each of them asking questions of the other. They were joined from time-to-time by other paleontologists, all of whom encouraged Anja to follow her passion and to contact them if she had any other questions after the event.

Leif explained later that Anja loved the experience; that she spoke of it for days following the event; that as soon as she got home that afternoon, she took out a piece of fossil sediment and worked on it until she found the fossil within.

Anja wasn’t the only one affected by that experience. Her interest at such a young age, her dad’s active support and encouragement, the connection Anja made with those who love paleontology: witnessing this and being part of this impacted us all.

Public engagement was one of the goals of “Valley of the Mastodons.” Dr. Alton Dooley, jr. (Executive Director, Western Science Center) and Dr. Katy Smith (Georgia Southern University) didn’t just want to create an exhibit. They envisioned something else entirely. Something new. Something that would take several steps closer to breaking the wall between those attending an exhibit and those that research the subject of an exhibit.

Preparing a white board prior to the exhibit opening

So they invited a handful of paleontologists from all over North America–all of whom had studied proboscidean anatomy in some fashion and all of whom valued the importance of connecting with the public–to study the largely unstudied mastodon collection at the Western Science Center. Rather than conducting research behind closed doors, the public was invited to observe the scientists in action on the floor of the museum, encouraged to ask whatever questions they had, and to attend the various talks the paleontologists presented. Those same mastodon fossils the scientists researched that week would be displayed in the museum’s exhibit a few days later. White boards with comments and questions pondered by the scientists would accompany the fossils.

Katy Smith preparing a white board caption for the exhibit

Two of the paleontologists invited were the very two responsible for finding the 100,000 fossils now housed in the Western Science Center: Kathleen Springer (USGS) and Eric Scott (Cogstone Resource Management). The area they excavated in the 1990s was to become an enormous reservoir: Southern California’s emergency water supply should it ever be needed. With a team of 50+ volunteers, they worked six days a week for seven years, uncovering a treasure trove of Pleistocene fossils they named “Diamond Valley Lake Local Fauna.”

“I think what Alton [Dooley] and Brittney [Stoneburg, Western Science Center Marketing and Events Specialist] and the others did with that workshop is nothing short of amazing,” said Eric Scott by phone.

“What Kathleen [Springer] and I tried very hard to do [in our outreach efforts during the Diamond Valley Lake excavations] was talk about what we were doing to make it personal, to make it local. I think both Kathleen and I can say we’re proud of that.

“Alton took it to the next level with that workshop. Not just ‘here’s what we’re doing,’ but ‘here’s how scientists communicate’ and ‘here’s how scientists conduct the research; you can sit here and watch; you can sit here and be a part of it.’ And that was extraordinary.”

Proboscidean fossils at the Western Science Center

Kathleen Springer—the one who maintained, long before construction began on Diamond Valley Lake, the existence of fossils in that area and the eventual lead paleontologist of the excavations—also expressed great satisfaction with the workshop and exhibit.

“It’s so remarkable that this small group of very, very interested people NOW know, NOW see [the importance of the Diamond Valley Lake collection.] Now the dialogue is going back and forth,” she stated by phone, referencing the ongoing research that continues to this day. “It’s pretty amazing!”

“Connecting with Anja was unreal,” wrote Dr. Leger in an email. “For me to meet a ‘mini-me,’ albeit shy, was really exciting…She’s a very bright young lady and has HUGE potential to be an amazing paleontologist. The fact that she carries around her field notebook and sketches her finds puts her leaps and bounds above most youngsters. The data is what science is all about…To help kindle her passion and just talk to her was one of the highlights of the whole conference for me.”

“It’s essential for interactions like this to fuel the future of the field of paleontology,” she continued. “Every paleontologist I know can tell you who that mentor or who that first person to really inspire them was. I imagine Anja had met someone long before me, but when professional paleontologists take that little bit of time to speak to someone with an interest, it can really open up their minds. It’s that almost tangible feeling of ‘if they can do it, so can I!’”

And, she added, “[i]t’s good to interact with the future of paleontology….even if it may be decades before you get to work with them again!”

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