Aspen teachers dig in at ‘paleontology camp’ |

Aspen teachers dig in at ‘paleontology camp’

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – For a select group of Aspen teachers who’ve spent long days moving mountains of dirt with shovels this week, excitement eclipses the strain of strenuous physical labor. After all, each shovelful holds the potential for a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.The local educators are among 15 area residents chosen to work the fossil dig site at Ziegler Reservoir, near Snowmass Village, alongside scientists, interns and a seasoned crew of volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.”It’s sort of like being at paleontology camp,” said Lisa Lawrence, a third-grade teacher at Aspen Elementary School, who found the claw of an Ice Age ground sloth on her first day at the dig.”I thought I’d found a saber-tooth tiger claw,” she admitted.Chris Faison, who teaches first/second grade at Aspen Community School, gets the credit for finding, finally, a sloth skull. Dr. Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the museum and the leader on the dig site, had been demanding the skull’s discovery, dubbing the animal Ziggy.”I’d been calling out, ‘Bring me the head of Ziggy the sloth!’ ” Johnson said.Faison, of course, had no idea what he’d uncovered.”I’d like to tell you I know everything, but no. It was my second day on the job. I didn’t have a clue,” he said.Whoops and shouts erupt regularly at the dig site, the teachers report, breaking up the monotony for anyone who’s coming up empty at the moment.The crew is experiencing something far beyond the typical fossil dig, according to Johnson, who is himself astounded by the enormity of the Snowmass find.”No one ever gets to be on a fossil site like this – one where you get to dig out a Flintstones-sized bone every hour,” he said.”Every moment, there’s something exciting,” Lawrence agreed. “It’s completely surreal. It’s been a dream.””Completely unreal,” is how Georgina Levey described the dig experience. A sixth-grade teacher at Aspen Middle School, Levey has known the thrill of finding something as large as a mastodon pelvis bone, but found herself mesmerized by screening dirt for bones no bigger than the head of a thumbtack.”You go through platefuls of dirt – it was surprisingly pleasurable for me. I really liked it,” she said.Lawrence spent one of her days in the washroom, cleaning the dirt from bones for 11 hours, a process so repetitive, it felt like washing dishes after awhile, she said.”Then you look down and see what you’re really washing – it’s beyond belief.”The volunteers get a true hands-on experience in the field – no one more experienced shoves them aside when they make a find – and their days last about 14 hours, just like everyone else’s. A full day includes gathering for breakfast, work at the dig site, then a chance to wash up, eat dinner with fellow volunteers and scientists, and sit in on the end-of-day discussion and announcements.”This is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life,” Lawrence confessed. “I pretty much hit the pillow and that’s it.””It’s a long day, but what fun,” Faison added. “It’s just a real cool experience.”Faison had a chance to tour the reservoir site last fall, after the first discoveries were made, and said he felt as though an amazing teaching opportunity had fallen into his lap, given that the events were occurring virtually in his school’s back yard.”Any and every teacher was handed the most wonderful opportunity on a silver platter,” he gushed. “I felt like I hit the jackpot when I was selected as a volunteer.”He is one of six Aspen teachers who were chosen, along with a staffer at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Others come from schools in Rifle and New Castle, the U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado Mountain College.The local corps was chosen from 55 applicants. The museum was looking for individuals with innovative ideas about how to share what they’d learned.The Aspen School District contingent is contemplating setting up a simulated dig site for students when school is back in session.”I’ve been taking tons and tons of photos out there and asking way too many questions, probably,” said Levey of her preparations to relate her experiences to students.Aspen High School biology teacher Andre Wille anticipates ample ways to incorporate the fossil experience into his curriculum, in everything from three-dimensional mapping, which is how the fossil discoveries are recorded, to anatomy and the identification of body parts.”There are just all kinds of applications to all kinds of different parts of science,” he said.

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