FOX 25 Special Report: Native Explorers connect to past to preserve future

FOX 25 Special Report: Native Explorers are connecting with culture and history in order to save the future of Oklahoma.

To prepare for the future you must study the past. Oklahoma’s future is looking at a shortage of scientists so to solve a future crisis one group is looking to the past to help recruit students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

To understand how the past is helping save the future you have to take a trip to one of the further corners of Oklahoma.

As the skies clear over the Black Mesa in Oklahoma’s panhandle a group of students begin digging into history. Along the top of one of the mesas is a carefully excavated site.

At the corner of the north ridge, a piece of rebar sticks from the ground in the exact location where a 76-year-old metal spike was found. It was not hard to date the spike, it was left there when this dinosaur quarry was abandoned as the United States entered into World War II.

“It looks like a croc tooth,” the students are told of a fossil that was carefully excavated from along the ridge by the students in the Native Explorers program.

“To me the light bulb moment for the Native Explorers participants is discovery,” said Dr. Kent Smith, the Associate Dean, Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science and Professor of Anatomy at Oklahoma State University Health Sciences Center in Tulsa.

Smith began Native Explorers in response to a gap he noticed teaching in the science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields.

“In my opinion there are too few Native Americans in the stem fields, in health care careers.”

Native Explorers are college students who enroll in the intense, hands on, program that emerges them in learning about science.

It is funded with help from the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations.

Discovery is more than possible because the students take part in an active dig for fossils from the Jurassic Period.

But how do dinosaurs fit into the plan to get students engaged in sciences?

“Dinosaurs, they're compelling everyone's interested in them,” said Dr. Rich Cifelli, the Curator of Vertebrate Paelenotology at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman. “They are in a sense a teaser, so we can lure people in with this attractive fishing lure so they are interested in dinosaurs and before they know it they've learned scientific names.”

From scientific names students soon find their knowledge growing into anatomy and the other sciences.

“We have a pretty good array of dinosaurs here in Oklahoma,” Smith said.

Dinosaurs may be one of Oklahoma’s best kept secret. Some of the larger dinosaurs were discovered in the early 1930s in the Black Mesa, but on this dig it is the smaller reptiles that are attracting attention.

The site being excavated by the Native Explorers is, itself, a history lesson.

It was first explored by J. Willis Stovall with a funding from the works progress administration. Work stopped and the quarry was closed as the country prepared to enter a second global conflict.

“To come back to this place that they abandoned as we entered World War Two and to come back here and open it up and to start finding bones all over again it's really exciting,” Dr. Cifelli said.

He is one of a team of scientists, who are as eager to share their passion for the dig as the students are to participate in it.

“It's really passing the torch,” explained paleontologist and anatomy professor Dr. Mathew Wedel, “Because we're out here to follow up on work that was done 76 years ago and whatever we do here the next generation is going to carry forward.”

Wedel is living proof an interest in dinosaurs can lead to other scientific endeavors. He began as a volunteer with Dr. Cifelli and is now teaching the next generation of medical students.

“To me I’m an anatomist,” Wedel said, “I look at how things are put together; whether it is the human body to teach the future generation of doctors or the anatomy of animals alive today or the anatomy of animals that are long extinct. It's all part of the same continuum of life and all of these things illuminate each other.”

The landscape of the Black Mesa has dramatically changed over several million years. While the Mesa appears to be a series of small flat-topped mountains towering above a prairie, during the Jurassic period the tops of the mountains were actually the floor to a much lusher environment.

In prehistoric times, the ocean was much closer to Oklahoma and dinosaurs roamed the land. The Black Mesa, scientists believe, was the location of a pond or watering hole.

Crocodiles and turtles once lived on this mesa. Students begin by finding turtle shells and skeletons.

“It's enormously gratifying to work with students and see their eyes light up as they get to experience this stuff directly to see them learn,” Cifelli said.

Stovall found much larger dinosaurs. A display at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman showcases a possible scene from the days when the Black Mesa was literally a Jurassic park.

“The last five or ten miles of Oklahoma we have rocks from the Jurassic period,” Dr. Wedel explained, “So we have Allosaurus and Stegosaurus and really giant Apatosaurus and really tiny baby Apatosaurus.”

Doctor Wedel was a student volunteer when his research resulted in the identification of a new dinosaur.

“They had found some giant bones from SE Oklahoma that needed to be identified and we didn't know what it would be,” Wedel told FOX 25. “We didn't think it was going to be a really big exciting project.”

Wedel would do the work that would show it was no ordinary Apatosaurus. Instead, he was able to prove it was a new species of sauropod. With his work came the reward of being able to name the new giant lizard.

“Sauroposeidon means ‘lizard earthquake god,’” Wedel said about his choice for a name for the discovery, “For something that was probably 100 feet long and weighed something like 60 tons that seemed appropriate.”

While some sauropods have been found in the black mesa Sauroposeiden was discovered on the opposite corner of the state and is from a different time period.

“Out in Atoka county we have Cretaceous [Period] dinosaurs things like Deinonychus, the cool predator with the killer claws. Tenontosaurus, which is sort of a proto duckbill, basically the cow of the Cretaceous Period.”

Back at the Black Mesa new discoveries are being made by the Native Explorers.

“I got very lucky to be able to find a tooth of a phytosaur,” said Tegan Maxon, who is Cherokee and a soon-to-be student at OSU. The phytosaur is an ancestor of the modern-day crocodile.

Maxson says she wants to seek a career in medicine and finds the fossils fascinating to compare to other biological systems she has studied.

“For me, I’m Chickasaw and Choctaw and I remember being a young kid not being able to have the confidence instilled to think I could be something else,” said Brandon Postoak, a molecular biology graduate student who is one of the volunteer mentors with Native Explorers.

“We have a bunch of smart and talented young natives,” Postoak said, “We just want to reach out to them and let them know they can do pretty much anything they want to do.”

History could also be made here as Maxson pulls what appears to be a different kind of tooth. Cifelli rushed to the dig location. The tooth appeared to be a mammal. If that proves to be correct it will be the first mammal ever found in this quarry.

It is not just fossils being explored by the Native Explorers. Caves in the Black Mesa still bear the marks of the first Oklahomans. Drawings left behind show what life was like for the early Native Americans to live in the land these students now call home.

“As Natives this is something that ties very closely to our heritage,” said Jacob Wade who is Choctaw and an Animal Science major. Along with his other explorers he got to see early cave drawings located in the Black Mesa.

“I was really looking forward to taking a science class where you could be out in the field rather than sitting in a classroom and go through textbooks and look at pictures,” Jaylee Bain, a Cherokee student majoring in early childhood education said. I've actually got to have a hands on experience.”

“It is very important, there is very low percentage of Native Americans that actually graduate either high school or pursue a higher education,” explained Cody Miller, who also volunteers with the Explorers program. “And out of that small percentage is an even smaller percentage that pursue an education in STEM fields.

Miller is Cherokee and is close to finishing up the Master’s degree portion of the medical degree program at the OSU Health-Sciences Center.

“Even though I’m not going to be a paleontologist a lot of what I show the students has to do with paleontology or just science in general and it is very important in just getting their interest sparked.”

Sparking an interest in science has the potential to be life changing. Postoak described how having a Native American doctor serving in their own community could save lives by sharing medical information in a way that is in tune with cultural traditions.

“For me,” Postoak explained, “Some of the elders they would rather hear from their people someone who looks like them.”

The Native Explorers program is funded in large part by the Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes. The tribes have brought in Native American students from all over the country to take part. They also offer junior explorer programs for students in kindergarten through high school. All the programs are aimed at encouraging students to engage in the sciences as they uncover the past while working to preserve the future.

To learn more about Native Explorers or apply for the program, click here.

The Sam Noble Museum in Norman also has programs for students of all ages, including a group that explored the Black Mesa this summer.

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