Native American students encouraged to embrace sciences through dinosaur dig

The Black Mesa is located in the Oklahoma Panhandle (Phil Cross/KOKH)

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.

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

But how to 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.

Crocodiles and turtles once lived on this mesa. Paleontologist believe they have stumbled upon the remains of a pond or lake, a watering hole where these crocodile ancestors ate and lived.

“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.

“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.”

“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.

These students are now a part of history. Uncovering a dinosaur quarry that was closed up decades ago and unearthing fossils that have not seen daylight in more than a million years.

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 appears to be a mammal. If that proves to be correct it will be the first mammal ever found in this quarry.

“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.

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.

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