If you have school-aged children, you love to hear about their day when they get home from school. Or you would, if they’d actually tell you something. “What did you do today? Did anything even remotely interesting happen? Anything?” With any luck, you might get an answer consisting of more than one syllable. Or you could get crickets. But hope springs eternal. What if your child burst through the door and told you he found tiny sea shells dating back to the late Pleistocene era in a little pile of dirt he was assigned to sift through very carefully? Or your student said she sorted rocks that could be hundreds of millions of years old from hundreds of miles away that had been borne by a glacier to their most recent resting point in Dutchess County, New York? Or he found an eight-inch long hair from a mastodon that had lived near the present Hyde Park, New York approximately 11,500 years ago? Now that would be good for some genuine educational excitement and conversations that might last longer than the blink of an eye.
A group of fourth-graders from the Landisville Intermediate Center School in Pennsylvania had precisely those experiences this spring, and, hopefully, a few enthusiastic chats at home to match. As reported on LiveScience.com, these students are taking part in the Mastodon Matrix Project of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI).
A natural history museum founded in 1932, the PRI is based in Ithaca, New York. Among its ongoing research projects is the Mastodon Matrix Project. In 1999, while excavating for a backyard pool near Hyde Park, N.Y., the remains of a fully grown mastodon were found. In order to preserve as much of the find as possible, PRI took all of the dirt and material surrounding the mastodon along with the animal’s remains. Because this constitutes quite a bit of material, or matrix, they recruit “citizen scientists” to assist in data collection and processing by sorting through the dirt for all of the smaller items found with the mastodon remains, such as shells, rocks and animal hair. PRI gets an enthusiastic network of volunteers, and school children from around the country get the opportunity to help with significant, ongoing scientific research. The lesson requires and cultivates skills of observation, investigation, analysis, and patience. And what a way to teach history, paleontology, and geology, to name only a few of the fields that are touched upon with this project.
This kind of innovative, creative partnership between private organizations and public schools is precisely what so many parents, educators and school districts want to see more of. And there are too many places where, at best, this lesson could only be conducted with interference from skeptical communities, and where, at worst, it could not be taught at all due to the anti-science prejudice of certain religious groups. In addition to the anti-evolution disclaimers read in classrooms, Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 975 F.Supp. 819 (E.D. La. 1997), and inserted in textbooks, Selman v. Cobb County School District, 390 F.Supp. 2d 1286 (N.D. Ga. 2005), scientific knowledge and research as a whole are under attack.
Creationists routinely claim that the Grand Canyon resulted from Noah’s flood and is only about 4,000 years old. And we all saw the ultra-conservative response promising Mitt Romney would never be the Republican presidential nominee when he stated that he did actually believe that global warming is real and humans play a role in it. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky run by the creationist group Answers in Genesis, contains dioramas of humans and dinosaurs living together and a planetarium that demonstrates how light travels from distant stars in a very short period of time and galaxies are color-coded by God. The same group plans to break ground in August on an evangelical Christian theme park called Ark Encounter, partially financed by more than $43,000,000 in Kentucky state tax incentives, which will contain, among other exhibits illustrating a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint of the Bible as actual history, a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark based upon measurements in Genesis. The Ark will contain animals, including dinosaurs. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D) has been dismissive of concerns that the state aid violates the Establishment Clause. So, if Kentucky’s generous plan to finance an entirely Christian ministry is challenged under the First Amendment, what legal precedents will the courts look to for guidance? Up next: the seminal legal test for determining when a local, state or federal legislative act has violated the First Amendment.