Junior Paleontologists

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Miguel C., Erik M. and Brianna W. learn the technique of screen washing. This is used by paleontologists at the Mammoth Site to find tiny pieces of bone fragments. © Project Exploration. Click image to view photo gallery.At Project Exploration, becoming a Junior Paleontologist (JP) is more than just attending a summer camp. It’s the entrance into a mentorship program that lasts throughout high school, one which can have a lasting effect on a teenager’s future.

A dozen minority students from Chicago Public Schools, ages 12 to 17, are chosen each year to be a part of the program. Interest level, not previous academic performance, determines who will become a JP.

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Erik Marquez, a rising senior at Curie Metropolitan High School, has been a JP for one summer. He participated in the three-week summer fieldwork program, spending the first two weeks studying at the University of Chicago before heading to South Dakota's Mammoth Site to put his theory to practice.

Read the following Q&A with Erik about his experience as a Junior Paleontologist.

Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I am currently a high school senior at Curie High School, and I have always been very interested in learning about dinosaurs ever since I was really young. I started out watching movies and cartoons about dinosaurs, and that's how I started having an interest in dinosaurs, and how I decided that maybe this is what I would study when I go to college as one of my options for a career.

How long have you been a Junior Paleontologist?
I have been a Junior Paleontologist for one summer, but had previously been part of Project Exploration as a Dinosaur Giant working at the Field Museum.

What type of science/paleontology experience did you have before the program?
I only knew what I had seen on documentaries and what I read in books and what I saw in the museums. But, other than that, I had never had classes at a lab given by a scientist, or tours of labs where I learned interesting facts about dinosaurs and mammals, or been able to work on a real dig site. The cool thing about the program is that you do not really have to know anything about dinosaurs—there's plenty of interesting things that you get to learn about the evolution of the earth, and lots of other interesting things. Erik M. has always wanted to be a paleontologist. Here he is digging in a fossil rich bone bed at the Mammoth Site. © Project Exploration. Click image to view photo gallery.

What first attracted you to Junior Paleontologists? Why did you apply?
I was first attracted to the JP program because I wanted to learn as much as I could about Paleontology. I applied because it was an opportunity to go visit a dig site and discover fossils and other things about dinosaurs that I didn't know.

Now that you’ve become a Junior Paleontologist, what do you enjoy the most about the program? Are these the same things that you expected to before you began?
What I enjoyed most about the program was the hands-on experience. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be, because it turned out to be better than anything I could have expected. I had a great time and everyone made me feel comfortable to be in the program, from my project leaders to all my teammates.

Can you describe a typical day?
A typical day at the field was waking up early and getting ready for the field work. Some days we would trade positions and one group would explain what fossils are, and others would describe the reptiles and dinosaurs to people visiting the Mammoth Site in South Dakota. Other times we would practice making casts on fossils for the exhibits at the Mammoth Site.

Had you ever been to South Dakota before?
No, I have not.

What was your favorite part of the trip?
My favorite part of the trip was digging up sediment while in the Mammoth Site (sediment is a type of rock that fossils are found in), and a chance to make new friends and learn new things, but also be able to have fun doing it.

How did your experience on the dig differ from your work in the lab?
In the lab I learned how to carefully make molds that were there in the lab to test out before we went into the field. While out on the dig, I was able to dig for real-life fossils with tools they showed us how to use in the lab so we could use them in the excavation field.

What did it feel like to be on a real dig?
Being on a real dig site was pretty exciting to me because I actually was able to use tools and excavation materials to try and find fossils, like the excavations that I had seen on TV with real paleontologists on their excavations when they were digging up dinosaur bones.

Do you think you have grown as a result of Project Exploration? If so, how?
Yes, I think I have grown. I was able to go to another state without my family, which is the first time I have gone anywhere without them. I went with the JPs and the instructors, which I didn't really know them too well, but came back with lots of new friends and stories of what I had done on our trip and that meant a lot to me.  I also found out a lot of information on paleontology that I didn't know about before. I think that this program has given me the opportunity to experience what I hope to be one day (a paleontologist), and at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota I got to dig, and meet field paleontologists and instructors who showed us so many things that I never knew, like sealing fossils and casts and how to use the tools for digging fossils.

What is your favorite thing you have learned about dinosaurs? The most unexpected? 
One of my favorite things that I learned about dinosaurs is how to transport fossils by carefully using plaster to seal the bones along with the sediment around them so they arrive safely, so the scientist in the labs could study and learn new things that we might have not known. On my Mammoth visit I was able to learn a lot about how to excavate on a real dig site.

Has becoming a Junior Paleontologist helped you academically? If so, how?
I know that this program will help me with my science classes. I learned a few terms that I know I will be using in my class. I always enjoyed learning about the extinction of dinosaurs and what their purpose might have been, and what we can learn about them. I hope that in the future I could join in on one of the real dinosaur excavations with world-renowned paleontologists like Paul Sereno that go around the world digging dinosaur bones. My goal would be to become a Paleontologist. So the Project Exploration program has been a positive experience for me.

Would you recommend the program to others?
Yes, I had a great adventure on this trip, and learned a lot about myself, and I would recommend this to other kids who are interested in having a good summer as well.

What was your favorite part?
My favorite part was being able to make the molds of fossils, because we were able to make moldings of actual fossils that were used for other projects, and some we were able to make and keep for ourselves. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, I would like to say that it’s important to learn about  how dinosaurs lived and died, so we can use what we learn about the dinosaurs’ past traits and their extinction, so we could prevent our own extinction. We have all this new useful information to use on present discoveries. I had a great time learning all these new things with the Project Exploration program.

For more on the project, visit the photo gallery and links below.

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