Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners
Throughout the U.S., more than 60 fossil clubs and paleontological societies hold meetings, host speakers, organize festivals, and run field trips; conduct outreach; work with scientists; build their own collections; and use the Web to learn about paleontology. However, in contrast to other science hobbyist groups (e.g., birdwatchers, stargazers), fossil clubs are not closely networked (nationally). Moreover, some fossil clubs have only limited interactions with professional paleontologists and natural history museums. Together, these realities limit participation in the science of paleontology and reduce capacity for informal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning.
Coordinated from the Florida Museum of Natural History and funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, FOSSIL will cultivate a networked community (known as a community of practice) in which fossil club members and professional paleontologists collaborate in learning, the practice of science, and outreach. This national community will help determine the scope of FOSSIL activities, tools, and resources, and collaborate in their development and implementation. Mediated by the myFOSSIL Web space (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/myfossil), FOSSIL components may include opportunities to: (1) communicate electronically and socially (e.g., social media, chat, blog, and wiki); (2) engage in training and development; (3) attend meetings and workshops (in person or virtual); (4) conduct K12 outreach to underserved audiences; (5) contribute to and have online access to the growing digitized collections in U.S. natural history museums; and (6) create and share personal digitized fossil collections. The inaugural FOSSIL project meeting will take place in conjunction with the 10th North American Paleontological Convention in Gainesville, FL in February, 2014.
More than 30 of the fossil clubs surveyed during the development of the FOSSIL funding proposal, and in subsequent communication, have been enthusiastic about participating in FOSSIL, as are an initial cohort of professionals. FOSSIL includes research to better understand how this transformative approach supports the community of practice and impacts participation in science. In addition, FOSSIL would like to build upon ongoing national “big data” initiatives that over the next decade will make available millions of digitized fossil specimens, thus enabling access by diverse stakeholders, including fossil clubs and other amateur scientists. The knowledge gained from FOSSIL will enlighten informal learning and STEM educators about how to effectively engage the public with scientific data.