SERVICE AND OUTREACH MISSION STATEMENT

My main goal as a scientist interested in education and outreach is to serve the public by promoting scientific literacy and interest in the earth sciences among students, educators, and my local community. I am currently accomplishing this goal by (1) serving as the chair of the Fossil Programming Committee for the Friends of Fort Negley, where I develop educational programs and exhibits for the public at a local Civil War fort; and, (2) developing cross-disciplinary curricula for the Interdisciplinary Science and Research program at John Overton High School, which includes a service-learning component and opportunities for the students to lead authentic paleontological research projects.

FOSSILS AT THE FORT: EARTH SCIENCE EDUCATION AT AN URBAN CIVIL WAR FORT

Fort Negley Park (FNP) is the site of a Civil War fort built into underlying Ordovician limestone in downtown Nashville. FNP celebrates the history of this Union fort, built by African Americans - some freed-slave volunteers, others forcibly conscripted by Union forces. Their contributions under terrible conditions were pivotal in determining the war’s outcome, as Fort Negley helped to secure Nashville’s critical river and railroad hubs for the Union. The cultural legacy of the African Americans who built the Fort is inextricably tied with Nashville’s history and its moniker as the “Music City,” as their spiritual music brought musical recognition to the city during European tours in the late 1800s. Outcrops at FNP contain well-exposed fossils of in situ tabulate corals and stromatoporoids, as well as disarticulated brachiopods, crinoids, trilobites, and bryozoans that were deposited in a high-energy shallow marine setting. FNP offers an excellent opportunity to connect earth science with American history and culture and to engage a unique audience that might not otherwise be introduced to paleontology.  

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Dr. Molly Miller and I serve as board members of The Friends of Fort Negley (FoFN), the volunteer group supporting FNP. FoFN has forged collaborations with multiple community partners to draw Middle Tennesseans to the park to discover the area’s ancient life and deep-time history. Our programs include: “Fossils at the Fort,” an annual community outreach event led by Vanderbilt Earth and Environmental Science students as a service-learning component of the paleontology course; and “Fossil Finders,” a monthly series that features guided fossil collecting from a pile of fossil-rich rock donated by Vulcan Materials Company.  With support from the Predators Foundation (Nashville’s professional hockey team), FoFN began supporting field trips to FNP for K-5 schools in Nashville in 2017. The educational programs offered by FoFN meet Tennessee Academic Standards for Science, focus on hands-on active learning activities, and offer lessons in unique subject areas not easily taught in the classroom (e.g., geology, paleontology, ecology). Targeted Nashville schools include those categorized as 2018 Priority Schools for improvement and those most in need of financial support for transportation.  

With continued support in 2019 from the Predators Foundation, the Paleontological Society, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), FoFN has dramatically improved and expanded our fossil programming. We trained a team of dedicated volunteers who provide fossil programs to 5th grade students from 13 local elementary schools. In Fall 2019, we hosted trips on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays over a 15-week period. Additionally, we have built storage space to house materials used for these programs, installed a permanent exhibit to showcase the diversity of Ordovician fossils found in the Nashville area, and are working on outdoor all-weather signage to educate FNP visitors about Nashville's prehistoric past. Fort Negley offers an excellent opportunity to bring students outside of the classroom, where active learning techniques can be employed and barriers to learning due to ethnic or cultural differences can be broken down. Additionally, our programs help provide MNPS teachers with curricula in the fields of geology, ecology, and paleontology, subjects that are either not taught at the K-12 level or rarely emphasized during teacher training programs. Our efforts help to foster a sense of community and a connection between natural history and culture at a pivotal time in the city’s history, as growth and development rates are at an all-time high.

INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE AND RESEARCH PROGRAM

In 2019, I graduated with my Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences and began a postdoctoral appointment in Vanderbilt University's Center for Science Outreach. In this role, I serve as the resident scientist and co-instructor for Interdisciplinary Science and Research (ISR) at John Overton High School. This class teaches students "how to do science" through hands-on, open-inquiry based lesson plans. Students rotate through multi-week projects in microbiology, antibiotic resistance, neuroscience and traumatic brain injuries, environmental science, parasitology, and more! This year, I am developing a new Earth Science curriculum for the junior class. Through a collaboration with Dr. Michael Gibson at the University of Tennessee at Martin, we are involving students in active excavations and research at Coon Creek - a late Cretaceous Lagerstätte in West Tennessee. Students are learning to plan field expeditions, identify fossil mollusks, decapods, and vertebrates, and perform rudimentary paleoecological diversity analyses - in high school! What a rewarding experience it has been thus far!

In addition to these programs, I have taken on the responsibility of securing funding for and organizing a new student club - the JOHS EcoTeam. With a $5000 grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority, my students and I will be installing a community garden and outdoor classroom at our school. My students are tasked with identifying suitable plants for our region and climate, which will attract and support local pollinator populations. Students will build the garden from the ground up - from design, to construction, to planting, to harvesting - and plan to use the produce grown in our garden to give back to homeless in Nashville shelters. Students will also institute a grassroots composting campaign at the school, diverting potentially hundreds of pounds of biodegradable waste from the Nashville landfill (which is on track to be completely full by 2027). I am awed by these students and their commitment to take on such a massive effort, and can't wait to see what we accomplish together this year!