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Learning gets ‘old’ at VMNH
Governor’s School students have hands-on experience
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Adrianna Sprouse (seated from left) from Louisa County High School, Nicole Reeder from Woodside High School, Alton Dooley (standing), curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Rachel Park from Mechanicsville High School and Chloe Yun from Woodson High School identify seashell specimens to help determine the shells’ ages. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Many of the nearly 170 Governor’s School students from throughout the state who visited the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Tuesday likely will never look at seashells the same way again.

That is because students determined the ages of specimens of seashells, fossil shells and other finds that were collected from near Suffolk in a biostratigraphy class led by Alton Dooley, curator of paleontology at VMNH.

The students are part of the Governor’s School Residential Program, and are technically from the math and science section of the school, according to Zach Ryder, a spokesman for VMNH.

Based at Lynchburg College, students visiting the museum in Martinsville had the opportunity to take part in hands-on interactive programs such as CSI Investigation, Climate Change, Food from the Past, and Techniques for Making Molds from Specimens, according to Ryder and a list of the sessions.

Each session was led by museum curators from VMNH’s research collections department, he said of Dooley and others.

In the biostratigraphy session, Dooley told students the most important way to determine the age of the specimens is to look at the fossils themselves and identify them, because certain organisms were alive only at certain times due to evolution and extinction.

A sheet that detailed the various zones in which specific fossils were common also was included in students’ working papers.

Students arranged themselves in groups of four or five around several tables in a downstairs classroom.

A box of seashells/fossil shells, identification guide with pictures of seashells found along the coast of Virginia and a specific color dry erase marker were placed at each table, Dooley said.

“Take the guide, the sample of the shells to identify the shells,” Dooley directed the students. He also cautioned them that “one of the ways science works is you don’t do it in isolation.”

Each group used its marker to transfer its answers to a dry erase board. If the identification was flawed, Dooley said it gave others the opportunity to challenge the data.

If an answer was found to be incorrect, Dooley said students could go back to their specimens and figure out why it was wrong.

As the hands-on exercise began, students removed shells from the box and tried to match each to a picture in the guide based on shape and distinct markings.

Chloe Yun from Woodson High School, Rachel Park from Mechanicsville High School, Adrianna Sprouse from Louisa County High School and Nicole Reeder from Woodside High School gathered at one table to examine their fossils.

“It doesn’t have one of these (markings) so it can’t be that” one, Park said, pointing to the photo in the guide. “I'm leaning towards here,” she said, pointing to another shell.

Yun disagreed because the sample appeared smoother than the reference picture, she said.

The sample “could have eroded,” Park said of the shell with the smoother exterior.

The girls went through similar discussions for each shell.

Two of the groups finished up about the same time and transferred their findings to the white board, filling blanks beside many of the different types of shells with colored “ Xs” and “ Os.”

“Is everybody happy” with the results, Dooley asked. “Well, I’m not. I see some problems” and conflicting data.

After reviewing incorrect answers, he encouraged the students who thought their answer was correct to check their samples and those of other groups which had conflicting answers to determine which was right.

“If you think they’re wrong, show them why they’re wrong. If they’re not wrong, suck it up and change your answer,” he said, encouraging students to challenge other groups’ data.

All of the samples were found to be between 3.8 and 4.2 million years old, Dooley said.


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