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Rock Stories: Why we need field trips and fossils

The recent Lilydale accident makes our hearts hurt, but for those who teach science, it doesn’t dissuade us from venturing into places where the learning is.

First- to fourth-graders at the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth's Saturday enrichment programs in St. Paul study fossils to understand Minnesota's geologic past.
©The Story Laboratory, 2012

The end of the school year signals the start of high field-trip season for teachers like me. I have eight field trips in 10 days with fourth- through sixth-graders at the end of June — and I planned this field intensity. Why?

Because I have spent my learning life trying to claw my way out of classrooms and to trespass, muddy and unrepentant, across disciplinary boundaries, so I could get at the thing itself: Life. Not talking about it, not watching a video about it, not purely theorizing or only modeling it. Doing it.

To those of us now excitedly planning our camps and workshops, the fatal mudslide during a St. Louis Park school fourth-grade outing last week at St. Paul’s Lilydale Regional Park (PDF) is especially tragic.

It sets off those alarming teacher laser looks. We apprehensively assess every landscape, activity and passerby, scanning for the deathly improbable about to happen.

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Walking across St. Paul’s Grand Avenue Tuesday as rush hour neared, I paused at the base of a curb cut to cock my foot as a safety block just in case the child in front of me who was heroically grinding his trike up the small incline came rolling back —smack into a harried right-on-red driver gunning a lurching turn.

Truly, the Lilydale accident makes our hearts hurt for the children, their families, friends and shaken school community. For sworn field-trippers like me, it pitches us into hypervigilance. But it doesn’t dissuade us from venturing out into the deep end of life. That’s where the learning is, where meaning is made. That’s what the kids were doing at Lilydale, at the site of the old Twin Cities Brick Co. known to fossil pickers as the “brickyards.”

Why fossils?

One reason is the Minnesota academic K-12 science standards that were changed in 2009 and became effective in May 2010 — nearly three years to the day of the tragedy. They require study of Earth’s changing surface, rock sequences and geologic history.

But the real reason you go to Lilydale brickyards is this: to seek the stories of our life because stories are the portals of human meaning. The children on the Lilydale brickyards field trip were seeking authentic learning — mind, body, spirit, senses — of the greatest story ever told, the story of life on earth and of change over time.

My favorite story

It’s my favorite story. I have taught it for 12 years through the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY) to first- through fourth-graders enrolled in two courses I designed for early, authentic learning about the geology of Minnesota: “Rock Stories” and “Revenge of the Rock Stories.”

 I created the courses for this age group because it slays me that the largest scholarly community committed to studying the major curricular pillars of ancient life — fossils and dinosaurs — is composed of members 12 and under. And typically, they are not exposed academically to the subjects so dear to them until long after their adoring interest in them cools; a critical learning period closes; the chain mail of standardized schooling constrains.

But astoundingly, all master the esoterica of paleontology that truly interests them shortly after learning to speak; awe is our first language. Many enter first grade well able to regale you with lively tales of multituberculates and triceratops. Soon enough they stumble over the majestic syllables, just as most adults do.

The classes I design and teach are just one attempt to try to preserve and affirm curiosity-driven interest and mastery of knowledge among the youngest science learners. For the most part, they are a direct translation of my graduate school training in geology at the University of Minnesota, including use of authentic field specimen fossils I first collected at Lilydale brickyards in the 1980s and ’90s with that legendary field tripper who was one of my advisers, emeritus geology and paleontology professor Robert E. Sloan, Ph.D.

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The content is not the problem. Working collegially is. I adjust introductory college concepts to meet the students’ developmental needs, which mainly have to do with impulse control, dignified turn taking and safe use of rock hammers and weak acid solutions.

Lilydale’s treasures

Three words sum up the value of a Lilydale brickyards field trip: Bryozoans. Brachyopods. Crinoids.

©The Story Laboratory, 2012
Bryozoans. Brachyopods. Crinoids.

Bryozoans are colonial animals that form moss-like mats and resemble corals. Typically you find broken branches of bryozoans at Lilydale.

Brachyopods are shelled bivalve animals, like clams. Often you find a small whole or nearly whole animal at Lilydale.

©The Story Laboratory, 2012
Embedded brachyopods.

Crinoids are ancient animals that look like underwater flowers. They were among the most common organisms in ancient oceans all around the world. They are related to modern echinoderms such as sand dollars, sea urchins and starfish, in part because like them, they have five sections that are radially symmetrical.

©The Story Laboratory, 2012
Crinoids are ancient animals that look like underwater flowers.

Sure, you may find the occasional trilobite fragment at the brickyards — and rarely, a  spectacular nearly whole specimen. But typically at Lilydale, you will encounter remains of other “Paleozoic” — read “very early life forms” — that lived long before insects, amphibians, reptiles (no dinosaurs here!) birds and mammals evolved.

These three common Lilydale fossils are especially beloved by children because they are easy to find among the slippery gravel-topped slopes of Lilydale’s sandstone bluffs. Even better, they make visible sense. They are not inscrutable wisps or ambiguous shards, but clearly identifiable shapes that make intuitive structural sense about body plans of fascinating ancient organisms.

Like much of the southeastern quadrant of Minnesota, about 450 million years ago, the Lilydale brickyards were once covered — submerged — by the waters of a warm, shallow sea that invaded the area in a geologic time known as the Ordovician.  Its geology is a direct product of that marine environment.

Lilydale brickyards are made up of mainly St. Peter sandstone, limestone and Decorah shale, all sedimentary rocks that were once part of the old sea bottom. These rock types are layered at Lilydale. Think of a many-layered cake or torte with a squishy filling, something like pudding or whip cream: that’s more like the Decorah shale, which is basically hardened, old mud from sediment deposited in the deeper parts of the vanished ocean. But it can get softer and more mudlike when it rains.

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Tragically, this interlayered mix of limestone and shale can become unstable and dangerous with the additional flows and pressure of rainwater. The result: a mudslide.

For those of us who teach science, field trips and fieldwork are its animating force. The sensory swirl, panoramic sweep of time and place when all of it make sense beats with a new pulse, and meaning is made. And yes, there is danger. Much of our time is spent negotiating the tension between the risk of danger and the reward of authentic discovery.

In this age of virtual experiences — as undeniably powerful, inventive and helpful to learning as they can be — the experience of authentic discovery is rare and increasingly at risk in our learning lives. Big things happened in the Lilydale brickyards in the days of an invading — and retreating — ocean, and the rocks and fossils are still talking about it.

Let’s listen to their lessons. Let’s honor students seeking their stories.

Science writer, instructional designer and historian of science, Anne Brataas is CEO and founder of The Story Laboratory, LLC, a St. Paul science writing consultancy specializing in curriculum development and digital publishing. An award-winning newspaper reporter and science columnist in her first career, Anne wrote a print newspaper nature column called North Country Almanac and an online outings column called Field Trip.