Project Puts Fossils and Bones in Schools

Owen Hopkins
Owen Hopkins

You may remember AAPG Public Service award winner Owen Hopkins, a past president of the Corpus Christi Geological Society, whose goal was to put geologic maps in the classrooms of fifth and sixth graders.

And while the purpose may have been to put science on the walls, his hope was to instill excitement in the students.

Well, he’s at it again – and this time it’s not just maps. It’s bones.

But first a review:

Hopkins, as part of a program he called “Planting the Seed of Geologic Knowledge,” wanted to:

  • Place colorful, laminated, framed U.S. geological time and terrain maps into the classrooms of fifth and sixth graders.
  • Make personal appearances in these classrooms, speaking to kids and educators in an effort to spark enthusiasm.
  • Get colleagues in and around the Corpus Christi area to make similar visits.

And it worked. To date, his initiative has resulted in more than 1,600 such maps in Coastal Bend Area schools. More information

The bone stand on the left was designed and welded jointly by Jeremy Rodriguez, Ricardo Gaitan and Michael Dodge of Mathis High School at the Craft Training Center of the Coastal Bend. The bone stand on the right was done by Andrew Torres and John Rodriguez of Gregory-Portland High School.
The bone stand on the left was designed and welded jointly by Jeremy Rodriguez, Ricardo Gaitan and Michael Dodge of Mathis High School at the Craft Training Center of the Coastal Bend. The bone stand on the right was done by Andrew Torres and John Rodriguez of Gregory-Portland High School.

Phase II, the “Bones in the Schools Program,” began when, after encouraging students in two Corpus schools to start paleontology clubs, he encouraged the Texas A&M University, Kingsville, to donate 62 boxes of bones to the schools.

To make the project more inter-disciplinarian, Hopkins then took the idea to high school welding students and asked them to choose a bone and then design and build a stand for it.

"Our stated goal," Hopkins says, "is for … students to select a bone, design a stand, weld the stand, paint and prep the stand."

He envisioned a display case, not unlike the trophy case outside the gym, where students could see their work.

"The stands will be signed/initialed by the welding student," he added.

To date, he has placed fossil bones in more than 84 schools – including 30 boxes of Ice Age Mammals, many from an area near Corpus Christi.

Hopkins says the diversity found there rivaled that from the La Brea Tar Pit fauna and also of the Anza-Borrego fauna in California.

What Happened in Vegas

That possibility of such a program in Corpus Christi, he said, was made clear to him in a place 1,500 miles away: Las Vegas.

He and his wife, Susan, were in Sin City the weekend before the 2008 AAPG convention in Long Beach, Calif., when they took a taxi to the Nevada State Museum – “not a usual tourist destination,” he said.

But they found the place spectacular, especially when they found themselves under a 16-foot cast of a Mammoth that lived during the Ice Age.

Hopkins said he wondered what it would be like to have something similar in Corpus Christi.

“These same animals lived in Corpus Christi,” he said, excitedly. “It was exciting to walk under the creature and really experience its size, because when you tell a student that these animals were 16 feet tall, it is hard to imagine how big they are.”

Better to show them.

His plan, then, was to introduce such spectacle and history and to prepare a permanent display for each middle school in the region that would contain:

  • Large, actual bones from an extinct mammal that was collected in Nueces County, Texas.
  • Drawings of the skeleton of the extinct animal with the displayed bone highlighted.
  • An artist’s drawing of what the animal looked like when alive with reference scale.
  • Maps showing the Nueces River flood plain as it looked 18,000 years ago.
  • Renditions of the Corpus Christi Bay “Serengeti Plain,” showing the diversity.

To further aid the program, teachers from the specific schools had an opportunity to attend a “Bones in School” workshop to learn more about the incredible diversity of mammal bones found in Nueces County.

"Funding for a project like this," Hopkins concedes, "will be considerably more than for Phase I, but I think it is worthwhile."

For both the student and Hopkins himself.

What’s Past is the Future

Though retired from active oil and gas management at Suemaur Exploration, Hopkins said the two programs – Maps in Schools and Bones in Schools – continue to add to his knowledge of what he calls the “continuing saga of the oil business.

“I can tell that I must miss the excitement of generating a new idea and the heart pounding thrill of deadlines and meetings and wells logging, because I am approaching my CCGS Educational Program like an oil deal,” he said. “My own, self-imposed goals and deadlines have been putting, possibly, undue stress on me. That is how I have learned to attack projects – spend some time assessing if the project is needed, then forge a plan and blaze ahead to completion.”

What’s new, he says, is that while the drive may be the same, the turf is more winnable, more rewarding.

“But unlike oil/gas prospects, I do not have to wait until we have all the leases,” he said.

Instead, he now bases his success on how many kids get excited about science.

Has it worked? Have students caught Hopkins’ fever for both the topic and the future of geology?

One answer may be found on the area’s geological website (www.ccgeo.org), where there are scores of student testimonials. A fifth-grader, in particular, wrote something that should make the schlepping of all those maps and bones into classrooms worth it for Hopkins.

“I want to be a geologist when I grow up,” the student wrote. “You taught me a lot of stuff.”

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