Long before people produced the first books, nature left its own chronicles written in stone. Now students at Soldotna Middle School are learning to read those records of past eons.
Art teacher Terry McBee and science teacher Tish Hallett are collaborating on a unique project to bring fossils into the classroom for interdisciplinary studies.
Last week McBee started instructing his students in the meticulous art of scientific illustration. Standing before the class hefting chunks of dark gray slate, he showed how fossils come in two parts that fit together.
"I really like pieces that have both halves," he told them. "It is like having a book with no title."
Jonathon Baldwin sketches the fossils preserved in a sedimentary rock he found.
Photo by Jay Barrett
The two teachers won a $5,000 grant last year from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation to pursue the project. They piloted it last spring, but this will be its first full year.
The fossils come from three sites in Alaska and a fourth in New York. The youngest are from the Miocene Epoch about 6 to 8 million years ago and the eldest, from the New York Rochester Shale formation, date back about 410 million years.
McBee, Hallett and student volunteers collected batches of local fossils on the south peninsula earlier this fall. They made two weekend field trips to the seaside bluff between Homer and Anchor Point, where the layers include pockets of relatively recent fossils.
The group had to hike about a mile to the beach site after parking next to the Sterling Highway. They were able to collect rocks that had fallen off the bluff onto the beach below the tideline.
Eighth-grader Jonathon Bald-win was one of the collectors.
"There was a good path, but then we had to walk down the side of the valley. We had to be careful," he said.
Soldotna Middle School art instructor Terry McBee points out some of the details in the fossils that his studens made drawings of .
Photo by Jay Barrett
It was his his first experience fossil hunting, and he said he enjoys the opportunity for a new sort of assignment with material from the peninsula.
"A lot of people got leaves," he said, "but I found some seed pods."
Baldwin's pods have been the prize find so far, McBee said. He sent the plant remains to paleontologists for identification.
"They were very interested in it," he said.
Jonathan Baldwin and Natashia Seguin, both eight-graders at Soldotna Middle School, work to break open sedimentry rocks on the beach near Homer, in search of fossilized plants and animals.
Photo courtesy Soldotna Middle School
But getting the fossils is no mere stroll on the beach.
"It's so restricted in Alaska," McBee said.
The prime fossil beds have come under government protection and are reserved for use by scientists. The general public, even school teachers, are no longer allowed to collect at sites such as the Cretaceous beds at Fossil Point by Iniskin Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet.
McBee said he tried to get a permit but was turned down.
Instead he located a fossil quarry in New York that supplied specimens for schools. He ordered boxes of "matrix," the sedimentary stone embedded with fossils. The particular samples are shale dating back to the Silurian period, when marine invertebrates ruled the world.
The biggest expense of the project is getting the matrix. The rocks themselves are a bargain, but the postage proved pricey.
"It's expensive to mail rocks," he said.
McBee is a member of the Chugach Gem and Mineral Society, and his brother is a professional paleontologist.
Hallett credited him for launching the project.
"Terry has been involved in this forever. He is a genuine fossil hound," she said.
"I was willing to jump at it."
Both praised Todd Syverson, former principal at SMS and now an assistant superintendent for the district, for donating money last year to pay for the first batch of purchased fossil matrix.
This year, about 150 students will take part in aspects of the program. They may collect rocks, draw, design a Web site about the project or write display reports.
"We can find a job for every kid," Hallett said.
Eventually, they plan to have an in-school fossil museum and encourage student "experts" to speak to younger grades about the project.
"I foresee a fossil club in the future," she said.
The project's intent is to explore applications of art to science. It serves other purposes, too.
Illustrating the fossils teaches students to become critical observers, as it teaches them to label and learn the ancient life forms, McBee said.
Hallett added that the art angle is a way to encourage girls to pursue science topics.
Along the way, the students will gain hands-on information about geology, paleontology and adaptation.
"If it works, maybe we can find other funding and continue doing it," Hallett said.
The fall collecting and preliminary drawings are only the first steps of the fossil project.
The teachers will be using the fossils repeatedly through the school year in varied contexts to enhance art and science units.
Tuesday and Nov. 8, McBee and Hallett will take students to Anchorage to visit the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Later in the year, students will have a chance to go through a new batch of Silurian matrix looking for Paleozoic goodies. With goggles and hammers, they will break up the chunks to see what they contain.
"We make huge piles of rubble and mess," McBee said.
"There is nothing quite like breaking open a rock and going 'ah!'"
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