The Royal Tyrrell Museum believes that science should be accessible for everyone to understand and engage with. This is why we are involved with the citizen science movement. Citizen science is the concept of having civilians work with professionals to collect and measure scientific data together. To engage people with palaeontology, there are several programs at the Museum that enable citizens to contribute to active scientific research.
One of the services the Museum offers to the public is fossil and rock identification. We provide an electronic form for people to submit, that includes photos and location information about the objects they encounter. Although more than 80% of discoveries can be identified from photographs alone, many turn out to be non-fossiliferous rocks or modern bone. Those that are fossils can often be identified in broad terms using the photographs. Dr. David Eberth, lead scientist for the Museum’s fossil identification process estimates that each year the Museum receives hundreds of reports from the public and follows up on 10–20 of the these with field investigations or by contacting appropriate researchers at scientific institutions across Canada. Among this smaller subset, four or five are eventually deemed significant enough to warrant further study by the Museum.
If you find something you think is a fossil, take a picture, note its location and contact us here. (Don’t move it! The original location is called the provenance and it’s very important). It could be one of our annual significant finds!
Encana Badlands Science Camp
The Encana Badlands Science Camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a little bit different than most summer camps. There is no horseback riding or archery. There is, however, real palaeontological work.
The Museum has been running an educational camping program since 2005, but it was only in 2010 that campers began working with the Museum’s researchers, principally Dr. Don Brinkman, Director of Preservation and Research, and former Betsy Nicholls Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Mike Newbrey (now a palaeoichthyologist at Columbus State University).
Their first major project was sorting through Myledaphus (a Late Cretaceous guitarfish) teeth. Dr. Newbrey wanted to prove that both adults and juveniles were present at the site the teeth were from, but to do that, every single tooth had to be inspected. The campers were given this project and eventually helped Dr. Newbrey prove his hypothesis.
While the campers sorted, Dr. Newbrey was doing a parallel experiment; testing to see how accurate the data was. The acceptable error rate for a project of this nature is 2-5%. How did the campers stack up? At a very competent 3% error rate, they were well within acceptable limits.
Since then, the campers have prospected for fossils, helped in excavations, screenwashed and sorted fossil matrix, and have done more data collection. They have also helped in conservation efforts for Midland Provincial Park and began work on a cast of an Ornithomimus skeleton that they are hoping to donate to the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
It’s a win-win situation. The campers get valuable experience doing real scientific work and our researchers get solid data from extremely large projects.
This experience has had far-reaching benefits. Many campers who participated are now pursuing science degrees or degrees in science education. Some are already on the road to becoming palaeontologists themselves one day. In fact, former camper Greg Funston has just published a paper on Avimimus, in collaboration with the University of Alberta’s Dr. Philip Currie and our own Dr. David Eberth.
There are three kinds of Science Camp: Junior (for campers aged 9-12), Senior (for campers aged 13-16) and Family Camp (for adults and their children). You can find more information about Science Camp here.
Palaeo Project Edutours
With the success of Encana Badlands Science Camp, the Museum decided to extend the concept to targeted school groups. In 2012, the Palaeo Project was piloted with a group of high school students for a day, and the first Palaeo Project Edutour was delivered in October 2013.
The Palaeo Project Edutour is now a two-day session offered to targeted school groups, with participants sleeping over in the Museum. They are introduced to the fossil specimen, participate in a screenwashing exercise, taught how to identify microfossils, sort through fossil matrix, and then in the evening, they do data collection for real research projects. Their current project is measuring fossil crocodile teeth for Dr. Don Brinkman to understand the size-frequency distribution of crocodile teeth in vertebrate microfossil localities. The goal of this study is to use this information to draw inferences about growth rates in crocodiles. In previous years they have worked with gar fish scales and Myledaphus teeth.
The students work in groups. They measure the fish scales but they also double-check each other’s results. In this way, the program is self-regulating. Through this hands-on work, the students not only learn about palaeontology but also about following the steps of the scientific method from hypothesis to data collection to conclusion.
One of the big challenges of the Edutours is finding willing students. Unlike in Science Camp, where all the campers are there because they are interested in palaeontology, classrooms have students with diverse interests. One of the most important and tricky aspects of planning a Palaeo Project Edutour is finding classes who will enjoy the work.
Although Palaeo Project Edutours have not been in operation as long as Science Camp has, the results so far have been promising.
Citizen science is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Scientists get much needed help quantifying and analyzing massive amounts of data, while participants learn about the scientific method, improve their critical thinking skills, and develop a stronger feeling of connection with scientific research. Successful citizen science projects prove that science truly is for everyone.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is proud to be involved in the citizen science movement. For more information on getting involved with the Museum’s citizen science projects, visit tyrrellmuseum.com.