ECISD teachers: They can dig it

Holding a sieve, ECISD Chief Innovation Officer Jason Osborne explains how to search for fossils while on a professional development dig at Fossil Ridge Ranch with teachers recently. (Photo courtesy of Magaly Nieto)

A sense of wonder was restored for Ector County ISD teachers who took part in a three-day professional development dig in the Dallas area where they found sharks’ teeth, mosasaurus teeth and ammonites.

Organized by the Dallas Paleontological Society, the dig provided access to private property for teacher exploration. Property owners donated fossils for teachers’ classrooms and for the SharkFinder citizen science program.

Along with ECISD Chief Innovation Officer Jason Osborne, the teachers were accompanied on the three-day trip by paleontologists Bob Williams and Roger Farish. They went to Fossil Ridge Ranch, Moss Creek Ranch and the North Sulfur River.

University of Texas Permian Basin and Southern Methodist University are using the fossil data collected by students and teachers.

Crockett Middle School art teacher Priscilla Hernandez and UTPB STEM first grade teacher Sarah Griffin and kindergarten teacher Alexis Machuca were among those participating.

Griffin said she said yes right away when asked if she wanted to go.

“They actually didn’t even really tell us very much about what we were going to be doing. Even when we were there, it was kind of a surprise, but they did that on purpose,” Griffin said.

Alexis Machuca, a kindergarten teacher at UTPB STEM Academy, shows off a large fossil she found during the dig. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Griffin.)

Machuca said the instructions were vague. They were told what to bring such as hiking boots, snacks and cleaning wipes.

When they got to Moss Creek, they drove through bushes and “kind of went off-roading,” Griffin said.

She added that “people who knew what they were doing” found good spots to look for fossils and sharks’ teeth.

“They got us in a circle and showed us this handful of mud. And they were like there’s a lot of sharks’ teeth in here,” Griffin said.

Machuca said when you looked at it, they were black and shiny and there seemed to be a lot.

The teachers were given five-gallon buckets to see what they could find and they filled them up.

After they filled up the buckets that they were going to bring back for students, they were allowed to walk around and dig for stuff for themselves.

Griffin said they went into a deep creek and a paleontologist and ECISD Chief Innovation Officer Jason Osborne pointed to places where they could dig.

They went to another site along the North Sulfur River and someone found a whole mosasaurus vertebrae, Machuca said.

Crockett Middle School art teacher Priscilla Hernandez points to part of an Ammonite she found during a dig in the Dallas area recently. Several teachers from across the district participated in the three-day professional development trip. (Ruth Campbell | Odessa American)

Griffin said the paleontologist told them that the North Sulfur River was unique because it was a very slow moving river and when it would flood the farmland would flood.

The farmers wanted to make it into more of a channel, so they dug it deep and straight.

“So now what happens is when it floods is the water rushes in there and flows real fast and then it dries out. So when you go up there, the riverbed is really empty, so you can walk around there and find fossils. And every time it rains, more of them get uncovered, and so after every rain, you can go out there and find new things,” Griffin said.

As an adult, many times you would probably walk over things that could be special, Griffin said.

“I felt like a kid out there because you found all these rocks and you’re curious about it. What is this? What could it be? Is it this or is it that?” Machuca said.

Griffin added that you wonder why this artifact is here and not in another place; How do you know where to look for them?

“Some of them were so big, because that second place we went had these huge ammonites… They were like 100 pounds and then we were all trying to pull them out. At first because it was so vague when we were getting ready to go, I was thinking we were going to be lucky if we came home with something and then when we got out there and Machuca (said), it’s like shopping, I had to pick my favorite one,” Griffin said.

She added that the second day, they took all the stuff out of their backpacks to make room for the fossils.

Their discoveries will be used in the SharkFinder program.

“That’s really why we went out there is we went and dug up all that dirt and filled up all those five-gallon buckets. We brought all that dirt back. They call it matrix, and then as teachers sign up to do SharkFinder, they’ll bring that dirt into different classrooms and the kids will get a sample and then they learn how to sort through it and find fossils out of it,” Griffin said. .

“It’s going to be really exciting because the dirt was so full of sharks’ teeth, that when the kids get it in the classroom there’s no way they’re not going to find something, so I can only imagine how exciting it’s going to be.” . We signed up for March, so we have to wait but a lot of schools are already starting to do it,” Griffin added.

Machuca said the students already love fossils and dinosaurs, especially in kindergarten. When she showed them the fossils she brought back, the students were amazed.

“I tell them… they’re almost 80 million years old,” Machuca said. “It’s funny because they don’t realize and understand how long ago that is. They just know it’s a long time ago.”

Griffin said she showed her students fossils and then a student brought in fossils that his father found.

Natalie Baeza, a fifth-grade teacher at Gonzales Elementary School, holds fossils she found during a professional development dig at various sites in the Dallas area. (Photo courtesy of Magaly Nieto)

“His dad works in the oilfield and digs up stuff as they’re working,” Griffin said.

Machuca said now when she walks outside she looks at a rock and wonders if it’s a fossil.

As with Griffin and Machuca, this was Hernandez’ first fossil dig.

“It’s just completely different once you’re out there, and then when you’re out there and you’re digging, I’m just speechless. Just to be out there digging… it’s almost like you’re playing in the dirt, but to be in the environment knowing it was once covered in water and there’s all kinds of sea life…,” Hernandez said.

“You’re just in awe. That’s where I was,” she added.

Hernandez said she found one piece that she could not take back because it was so embedded in the ground.

“It’s just an unexplainable thing, like I said. I’m definitely going back,” she said.

Hernandez said it was kind of strange not knowing all the details of the trip, but she knew they were going to be hiking and in the water.

“I prepared myself,” Hernandez said.

She added that she was the only secondary teacher who was invited.

It was an honor to be included in the group with science teachers. I had heard about them going before … As I found out … within a couple of days, I got on Amazon and Columbia websites and ordered me some hiking boots and water shoes,” Hernandez said.

She also took sun block, bug spray and other essentials.

“It was tiring. It was really physically (tiring),” she said.

She had to have help to empty her backpack, put in the fossils and put it back on. She put her things in a grocery bag.

Then they had to climb out of a creek. But if you asked her if she would do it again, she’d say, “In a heartbeat. I’d definitely do it again.”

Hernandez said she would definitely encourage other teachers to take advantage of the paleontological trips and to use SharkFinder in their classrooms.

“I think the experience is just … really awesome. It really is, truly. Who can say that they’ve dug up 70, 80 million year old fossils?” Hernandez said.

She added that sometimes you have to show students something or let them hold it in their hands before they believe it, even though they can find images of it online.

Being able to touch the artifacts “gives it a totally different experience,” she added.

Along with Griffin, Machuca and Hernandez, other participating teachers were Natalie Baeza, fifth grade teacher at Gonzales Elementary; Erika Pocaterra, fifth grade, Hays Elementary; Andrea Soto-Moreno, fifth grade, Goliad Elementary; Sarah Hawkins, science, Travis Elementary; and Rebecca Bugg, fifth grade, Dowling Elementary. Edward Corrales, fourth grade, Ireland Elementary, was expected to go, but could not make it.

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