So what’s my plan?

I will begin my adventure at home. I have arranged for interviews two geologists, one who works with the Indiana Geological Survey and one with the Indiana State Museum. Hopefully they can help me with my mysterious soil samples! Next I will pack my bags and drive across the Mississippi to Nebraska’s Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park to observe 12 million year old fossils of rhinoceros, horse, and camel species that died due to dust inhalation from a volcanic eruption. From there I will drive to Dinosaur National Monument to see 138 million year old dinosaur fossils, and then Arches National Park to hike through rock arches that have been eroding since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Then I will make a stop in Capitol Reef National Park to witness rock strata spanning 200 million years of time. After making my way through the Rocky Mountains, I will enter Yosemite National Park to observe the results of 25 million years of uplift and glacial erosion and speak with a ranger about Yosemite’s geology. During the hikes in each of these places, I will record and narrate videos of my experiences. I will also record interviews with geologists and paleontologists who can share their expertise in these fields. Upon reaching the western shore of the continent, I will go to the La Brea tar pits where I will walk among ice age mammals that died there 11,000 years ago. A staff member at the Page Museum, has agreed to be interviewed for my blog. Then I will head back east through Death Valley, where I will see rock formations that date back 1.4 billion years, followed by a few days at the Grand Canyon where I will explore even older rocks! On the long haul home, I will make a few quick stops to stretch my legs and learn a little more. One in Carrizozo, NM to observe 5,000 year old lava flows, one at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument to observe how ancient peoples used the rocks in this area, and one at Alabaster Caverns State Park to tour caverns that formed in a shallow sea 200 million years ago. Again, at each location I will make videos and take pictures to document my hikes, and interview the specialists I make contact with this spring.

So, why did I ask the Lilly Endowment to support this journey? I believe that jumping around on the timeline of natural history through this journey will allow me to gain a new perspective through one of my favorite activities: travel. I find that travel can be the source of a great deal of understanding. Making invaluable personal connections with scientists will fuel my passion and increase the depth of my understanding, as well as provide my students access to a resource they currently lack. As a teacher I often have time to travel in the Midwest, but long journeys are expensive. Having the ability to get away for such a long time will allow me to travel much farther than I am accustomed to doing. It would be very rejuvenating to have the luxury of going all the way to the West Coast and stopping at so many of the National Parks along the way to explore the history of the continent. While I am no Einstein, I believe I share one of his traits. He once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Passionately curious is a perfect description of my personality, and receiving this grant will help me follow that passion for a few weeks and then share it with my current and future students to ignite their curiosity.

 

 

What’s this journey all about?

Every year, the Lilly Endowment emails teachers in Indiana and invites them to apply for a grant called the Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program. I have often thought of applying, and after 15 years of teaching, I finally found the time to do it in the fall of 2013. Here is part of my application which explains why I’ve created this blog:

I propose to travel through space and time to observe and study the deep history of North America over the last 1.8 billion years, and to produce an online video log documenting my adventures. As I journey across the North American continent, I will learn more about geology and paleontology. These subjects have always intrigued me, but are beyond the scope of my educational path.

 

America’s natural history is immense and fascinating. There may be no other country in the world where so much diversity in landscapes, biomes, and historical events can be seen now and recorded in the fossil record. A recent experience that seemed so ordinary at the time has rekindled the burning desire I had as a child to experience the natural history of the planet. This summer I spent some time in a freshly dug, forty-foot deep borrow pit that was being excavated by the company my husband works for. I came to collect soil samples for a class project at various levels in the pit, but in the process, I was enthralled by imagining how old the sediment layers were and wondering who or what lived in that place back when the soil formed. I had planned on grabbing a few samples of dirt and being done with it, but the different colors and textures in each layer amazed me, and I spent much more time there than planned. I found a black layer about thirty feet deep that had what appeared to be plant matter that had not been fully decomposed. I took a small sample and moved on, but the presence of this plant matter nagged at me for days. At first I thought the plants might have been burned in a forest fire, and that was why it was black. Wondering if there was any record of a forest fire in central Indiana back when this layer was deposited, I went home and did some research. I found that an inch of soil in a temperate deciduous forest takes from 200-1000 years to form. This layer was thirty feet deep! That means this soil was probably over 100,000 years old! So, if there is any record of a fire then, it is only in the sediments. There were certainly no humans to record it, because humans were just leaving the African continent at this time and writing had not yet been invented! Since then, I have been consumed by questions. Why did this plant layer not get decomposed the way the plant matter in the other layers must have done?Was it quickly covered by sediment during a flood or ash from a volcano? How does soil form and under what conditions are soil formation rates faster than erosion rates? Certainly there are many factors involved like wind, rain, freezing, thawing. How do these interact with the decomposition processes that turn organic matter back into mineral? I took my samples back to school and put them in a cabinet to await our soils unit, but I just could not get them out of my mind. I came in one weekend to set up a lab, and noticed the soil samples sitting on the shelf. I pulled the sample with the plant matter out and stuck some small pieces under the microscope. I found recognizable parts of leaves and stems. So, it was plant matter, not just black soil, but I still have so many questions! The pit has since been filled with many feet of unusable dirt, but I have shared my experience with other environmental science teachers and with the excavating crew. Each time I talk about it, it ignites curiosity in others and we come away with new questions that I feel need to be answered! These plants keep pulling me back into the past, and I suddenly find myself with more than mild curiosity, but a need to learn more about geology and deep time.

 

I have always been fascinated by evolutionary history and deep time. As a child, I was passionate about rocks and fossils. As I got older my interests shifted, and my love for animals drew me toward biology instead. As a student at Purdue and IUPUI, I spent a lot of time learning about how life evolved, but very little time learning about how rocks and landscapes have changed over time. This recent experience reawakened my desire to learn about the deep history of this land. I have been teaching science for fifteen years now, and I have found that a good understanding of the subject requires a broad, integrated approach. Environmental science, especially, is an interdisciplinary mix of biology, geology, paleontology, chemistry, meteorology, demography, oceanography, and many other disciplines. Some of these I have not studied in depth before. I believe that my thirst for knowledge of deep evolutionary time requires first-hand experiences in geology and paleontology.

 

Lacking an actual time machine, I propose to travel to parts of the United States in which the country’s deep history is evident. I hope to observe and learn about the oldest rocks in North America and ancient species that lived there. My goal is to develop a blog where I will post narrative, photographic and video accounts of my travels. I believe these could be used as resources to bring the fascinating history of North America alive for my students, other science teachers, excavating crew members, and anyone else interested in following my journey.

If you are interested in geology or paleontology, please join me!

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog!  I’m just getting started here.  I’ll be posting some interesting things soon.  For now, I’ll tell you a bit about myself.  My name is Lisa and I’m a high school science teacher in Indiana.  I recently received a grant to fund a project, and this blog is part of that.