Feb 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, February 11, 2010, Issue

Geosciences, museum join forces for annual Dinosaurs and Disasters event

Drew Nelson was bubbling with excitement during Dinosaurs and Disasters.

As the Great Geyser of Morrill Hall erupted behind him, the geology major spent the Feb. 6 geosciences/museum outreach event explaining the science behind geysers. His enthusiasm and knowledge – coming through in quick, easy-to-understand answers, questions aimed at visitors and big hand movements – enthralled parents and children as they waited for the next burst of the geyser fueled by a miniature water heater.

“I’ve volunteered for Dinosaurs and Disasters for four years now,” said Nelson between blasts. “When I first heard about this program, I knew it would be a good opportunity to talk to the public about science.

“The neat part is kids and adults actually get to see how this stuff works. And, we get to see our excitement mirrored in their faces. It’s just a great day to be a scientist.”

Dinosaurs and Disasters grew from a request by a small group of students. In the fall of 2004, a couple of geoscience undergraduates visited Morrill Hall and watched a museum docent pushing a cart used to haul items for presentations to school groups. The undergrads visited with the geosciences department chair, David Watkins, and said they wanted to be cart pushers.

“They were excited about an outreach opportunity,” said Mary Ann Holmes, a professor of practice in geosciences who was also serving as a new outreach coordinator for the department in 2004. “I went and presented the idea.”

Holmes talked with Kathy French, education coordinator for the museum. French told Holmes and the students that the docents are specially trained to deliver presentations that link directly with K-12 curriculum needs. But, French quickly presented a counteroffer.

“I told them they sure could do a special, one-day event that would allow students to showcase their research to the public,” said French. “I told them they had to have at least 12 stations that were fun and interactive.”

The students and Holmes rallied behind the idea. With just a few months of planning, the group cajoled enough volunteers to organize 24 stations at the first Dinosaurs and Disasters event in 2005.

“That first year, we had to explain to everyone what we were planning,” said Holmes. “Now, students tell other students about this amazing opportunity. When we have our first organizational meetings each year, we have all these new faces showing up that were not invited.”

Holmes counted more than 130 volunteers (both from geosciences and the museum) for the Feb. 6 Dinosaurs and Disasters event.

Among those volunteers was Sam Treves, an emeritus professor of geosciences who has worked all six D&D events. Treves designed his own booth for the event, “Meteorites and Meteor-wrongs.”

“It is really a joy to be here and interact with the kids,” said Treves. “The kids ask some very good questions. And I think we do a little good by sparking their interest.”

Attendance is always strong. The first event drew 1,444 visitors. The record is 2,609 set in 2009. The Feb. 6 Dinsoaurs and Disasters drew a solid 2,109 visitors. Regular museum attendance on a Saturday is around 300.

“When we topped 1,000 visitors that first year, it really blew our minds,” said Holmes. “But it showed us that this was a great idea.”

While the public response has been amazing, Holmes also appreciates the way volunteers throw themselves at the opportunity.

“I love watching the students get excited about Dinosaurs and Disasters,” said Holmes. “It’s a lot of work, but they pour themselves into it. I stand back in awe of them each year.”

French said Dinosaurs and Disasters has also forged lasting friendships between students, faculty and staff volunteers.

“What I love about this is getting to know all these students,” said French. “They become a part of your extended family.”

Faculty and students organized 37 stations for the Feb. 6 event. Holmes said the stations vary from year to year, with a few of the popular stops appearing annually. The 2010 station stations ranged from talking with extinct animals and meeting a scientist to coloring tables and hurling rocks into flour to see how craters are formed.

Dinsoaurs and Disasters was a must see for Jazzmen Jones. The Lincoln elementary student kept telling her stepfather, Forrest Clemmons, about the D&D after hearing about it in school.

“She’s really into science and kept talking about this Dinosaurs and Disasters thing,” said Clemmons. “I had to bring her down her to see what it was all about.”

Jones’ favorite stop was Nelson and the geyser.

“It kind of scared me, but I really liked that geyser,” said Jones. “I can’t wait to see what they have upstairs.”

— Story and photos by Troy Fedderson, University Communications

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