A fine day in the classroom

by Sharman Apt Russell

My daughter, Maria, teaches third grade in the border town of Deming, N.M., where every child in the school qualifies for free breakfast and lunch, test scores are chronically low, and science is a neglected subject. Eager to help out, I discover the Mastodon Matrix Project, which is run by the Museum of the Earth. For $18, this citizen science program will send me about two pounds of the fossil matrix surrounding an 11,500-year-old mastodon excavated at Hyde Park, N.Y. The students then sift through the dirt in order to reconstruct how this long-gone megafauna once lived. It’s a simple and brilliant hands-on project: Who, after all, doesn’t love mastodons?

Maria’s students first watch a movie about the excavation, which opens with a reconstructed scene of hunters and gatherers spearing a computer-generated mastodon as it lumbers onto an ice pond. The animal sinks and dies, but is preserved in peat. Maria explains to the 8-year-olds that the American Southwest used to have mastodons, too, as well as mammoths and giant sloths and other super-sized animals that are now extinct.

Next, we divide the class of 22 students into groups of six to eight children, working in pairs at three different tables. On each table are jars labeled ROCK (for any black chert, which is sometimes used in tool-making, and for metamorphic specks carried to Hyde Park by glaciers), PLANT (for bark, twigs, cones, fibers, seeds, charcoal and leaves), ANIMAL (for shells, hair, insect parts, ivory and bone) and UNKNOWN –– which is where the imagination can really take flight.

Then we pass out paper plates, each holding a handful of the gray fossil matrix. More like chalk, the matrix includes clay-like lumps, embedded with the tiny shells of snails and clams. A toothpick in each hand, one child breaks open the lumps while the other records the data. Almost immediately, they are calling out, “Over here!” “Look, a leaf!” “A hair!” The room is an aviary of excited cries, and I circle my table, round and round, going from child to child. “Wow,” I say, looking at a snail shell. “Isn’t that amazing?” And no one disagrees, not the little girl dressed like a pop singer in pink nor the boy who has trouble sitting still for five minutes: This spiral a tenth of an inch across, this perfect whorled shell, is undeniably amazing.

Snail shells are transferred to the jar marked ANIMAL. Plant materials go into the jar marked PLANT. “I need more dirt!” “Is a seed a plant?” The thrill of treasure-hunting is frankly exhilarating.

If we’re a little over-excited, we also try hard to be careful. One boy teases out a single long twig. Another holds his breath while excavating. Only a single jar is overturned, its data scattered on the floor. Only some of the kids drop their shells and can’t find them. These are third-graders, after all, not miniature paleontologists.

Even so, I read later in a paper in Paleontographica Americana that the nearly all-volunteer project, which has sent samples to over 3,000 classrooms, found 17 taxa of seeds not reported in smaller, professional studies. At the same time, a lot of people may have dropped their shells; as the author of the paper notes; “The total number of mollusks picked out does not seem to reflect expected natural abundances.”

After that first session, I sort, measure, and bag the results and take them back to the classroom. Later, all the material will be returned to the museum. Maria explains why some twigs look the way they do, crushed at one end and broken on the other: they may have been eaten by a mastodon and then passed through its intestines. “Ooooh,” the children say. And then, naturally, they add, “Ick.”

We talk about elephants, which are not descended from mastodons but have their own distinctive branch on the family tree. In their lifetimes, I think, these children might see the end of modern-day elephants in the wild. But I don’t say this out loud. Together, we look closely at these tiny bits of animal, plant and rock, and try to imagine the mastodon’s world.

Later, the kids use butcher paper to create a mural about the Pleistocene Era. One girl draws a mastodon silhouette as if born to the task, making me reconsider the gender of some of those cave-painting artists. Another writes a report in which she remembers the excavation as “the coolest Monday I ever had.”

These are the children who will live through the problems brought about by climate change –– the water shortages, massive shifts in human populations, catastrophic wildfires, the wars brought on by resource scarcity. They will be part of both the solutions we dream about and the failures we fear. Some of them may live to see the beginning of the 22nd century. I try to imagine that world, and from the bottom of my heart, I wish them well.

Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Silver City, New Mexico.

© High Country News