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Summer Sessions

Field Paleontology of Oregon

May 07, 2009

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Looking Forward by Looking to Our Past

Last summer, Ben Crabtree’s Field Paleontology of Oregon class found an as-yet-unidentified marine mollusk on a fossil-finding excursion to the northwest Coastal Range near Vernonia. Crabtree called it a “very unusual find”–-one that represents an undescribed species from this area. The fossil is presently under study with mollusk experts at local museums.

This year, Crabtree will again be teaching Biology 107, which involves lectures and lab sessions, as well as two weekend-long field trips where it is possible that another rare fossil could be found. “I like to make it investigative,” Crabtree says. On field weekends, the class convenes on Friday at 10 a.m. and returns to Portland around 4:00 pm on Sunday, after two days of camping and searching Oregon’s beaches, riverbeds, and cliffs for fossils.

Digging in the Dirt

“Learning hands-on beats the classroom any day!” student Adam Berthel exclaims. But as Berthel and fellow student Hongda Jiang soon discovered, the hands-on process of excavation is often more difficult and tedious than one might expect.

“We found out how difficult fossil digging can be, especially when we have to exert strength to extract a fossil but at the same time be gentle enough to preserve the integrity of those fragile remains,” Jiang explains. “Of course, we also enjoyed other things like watching the sun set by the beach, getting soaked while making a camp fire in the rain, camp fire conversations, and Mr. Crabtree’s great cooking.”

“In some locations, discovering a fossilized specimen was a real test of patience,” Berthel observes. “Once you begin to get a feel for the process though, it’s like you’ve unearthed buried history. It’s a cool feeling to know you found an organism that lived and died in that spot millions of years ago.”

A New Appreciation for Science

When asked why students should learn biology, Crabtree gets quiet for a moment, then speaks slowly and intently: “It’s a common question. [But] when you look at the world in which we live, without knowledge about that world, without knowing about the properties of the natural environment, you really don’t have a clue. That’s why we try to give [students] a foundation…as well as an appreciation of diversity.”

Many of Crabtree’s students—especially the non-science majors—come away with both a new appreciation for paleontology and a renewed interest in all of the natural sciences.

Barthel offers his insight: “What I especially liked about the paleontology class, in addition to the field experience and camping trips, was the relevance this particular field has in our understanding of biological evolution. We can’t look forward without first looking at our past. I had never really considered the biological importance of this point before taking the class”.

“This course did exactly what it was designed to do: give an introduction to a field within the natural sciences, and spark students’ curiosity and interest for further exploration,” Jiang says.

“Also, it’s a great excuse to get out of town with new people and have some fun,” adds Berthel. “You’re getting credit to camp, have fun, and dig in the ground. What more could a student ask for?”

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