Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Glamorous Paleontologist

It has become increasingly apparent to me that children first think of a geologist as one who studies dinosaurs. Paleontologists are the geo-specialists that first capture the minds of our young generation. I have to admit, the dinosaur toys, entire museums, and the complicated-to-pronounce species names are pretty enticing. In our children's eyes, paleontologists are the premier rock stars of the profession.  Maybe I'm a bit jealous.

I visited my daughter's school to talk about being a geologist. The children in that first grade class listened so intently. Geologists study the Earth - whoah!! I'm a marine geologist, so I had a picture of the Gulf of Mexico's seafloor showing the impressive Sigsbee Escarpment and the mini-basin province of the salt domain. We talked about maps - how geologists get to use colored pencils and color on a regular basis. We had recently returned from a family vacation to Big Bend, so my daughter showed her classmates some places we visited on the map. I passed around a Brunton compass so they could feel it in their hands. We talked about earthquakes and volcanoes - things that fascinate kids. I passed around a small mineral kit so they could see how different minerals can look from one to the next. The excitement in their eyes was so rewarding.  Then one child said, "paleontology is cooler than geology". Knife through my heart followed with discussion of how paleontology is a kind of geology.

The elementary school my girls go to has a fundraiser every year coordinated by the PTA that includes a silent auction. Parents and local businesses donate many items for the auction and the school ends up raising more than $60k each year to put back into the school's equipment, teacher certification programs, and playground maintenance. I was thrilled to see that even geology was represented in the auction, with not one but two mineral kits and books. These kits were amidst other auction items such as spa vacation packages, photo sessions with a local famed photographer, the tower of Webkinz, the ultimate BBQ grilling supplies package, and the kindergarteners' handmade pottery, among other things. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised these items pulled in a nice price, with starting bid of $25 and follow-up bids that filled the page. But I am surprised - a pleasant kind of surprise!!

A similar sense of surprise and giddy pride came when I received our copy of the first grade class book. The students of my daughter's class each wrote a short paragraph about what they want to be when they grow up. Each entry was accompanied by a drawing from the child illustrating their dreams of future careers. The entire collection was professionally bound in hardback with the cover illustration drawn by the class teacher. 
Some children wanted to be doctors, one wanted to be a dog trainer, another a soccer star. My daughter wants to be a singer/song-writer, like Katy Perry or John Lennon. The big surprise: Two of her classmates wrote of being future paleontologists! Two kids in one class of 20. 

While I don't know the specific statistics for first grader's wanting to be any kind of geologist, it seems 10% is a surprisingly impressive number. Notice, though, that we're back to paleontology again. Yet, enrollment in college geology programs has been relatively low, with some schools offering no geology program at all and some cancelling their field programs because of lack of interest or funding. And paleontologists are some of the rarest of the bunch.

So how do these kids go from being so gung-ho about geology to pursuing completely different interests in their adulthood? My guess is that the sparkle wears off. Perhaps playing with dinosaurs is seen as a childhood fantasy that gets outgrown like Andy outgrew Woody and Buzz.

I think that educators (and influential geo-parents, mentors, and career-day volunteeers) should find a way to cross the dinosaur adventures with other forms of geology so that if/when the interest in dinosaurs fades that geology can still be a viable, interesting, and exciting field to work in. We need geologists now and in the future, so go forth and inspire!

I'll leave you with this fun, catchy video that was shared on Twitter this past week. "I am a Paleontologist" by They Might Be Giants with Danny Weinkauf, part of the "Here Comes Science" set from the band available through iTunes.    
Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment:

  1. "Then one child said, "paleontology is cooler than geology". Knife through my heart followed with discussion of how paleontology is a kind of geology."

    I beg to differ. There is, for sure, a kind of palaeontology where you study rocks, but the rocks happen to be fossils of dead animals. But for palaeobiologists such as myself, we study animals, but the animals happen to be dead and fossilised.

    Palaeo has always had this problem of being suspended between two "proper" disciplines. Biology and geology are both (rightly) respected, but universities seem unsure what to do with palaeo. (In my own affiliation I am part of the Department of Earth Sciences at Bristol, but I don't feel like an Earth Scientist.)

    I guess there are just two sides to the palaeo coin.