UC Geology Student Proves To Be A Rolling Stone

Geology student Sean Cornell must believe in multi-tasking. While still a graduate student with UC, he has helped develop a database for the Department of Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). He presented a description of the Web site at the recent 116th Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, which was held Nov. 7–10 in Colorado.

Cornell’s presentation, “A New Resource in Geoscience Education: Taking Invertebrate Paleontology Collections Online and Back to the Field,” was co-authored by Jessica Cundiff (Department of Invertebrate Paleontology, Musuem of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University), Frederick Collier, (Department of Invertebrate Paleontology, Musuem of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University), Matt Corbett (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Northeastern University), Frances Caudill (Department of Invertebrate Paleontology, Musuem of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University) and James Hanken (Department of Herpetology, Harvard University).

Through the construction of an interpretive Web site that documents both a fossil collection and the geological background of the collection locality, the MCZ has developed an innovative tool for advertising its own collections and enhancing educational opportunities for a wider audience. Groups across the country are now looking to follow the example set by this UC student working for Harvard University. 

“Beginning in late December and working through May of this past spring, I worked almost exclusively on the project, which for me turned into more than just writing some background geology material,” says Cornell. “In the end, I designed most of the Web site, organized the content areas, collected and gathered many of the photographic images of the locality, drafted or re-drafted and colorized the majority of published figures, and wrote the entire sections on geology and social history of Trenton Falls. Through my work I have tied together many bits and pieces of nearly two centuries of published and unpublished research into a complete story of Trenton Falls.”

Burgess Shale.

Burgess Shale.

One of the key figures in the history of American paleontology is Charles Doolittle Walcott, discoverer of the famous Burgess Shale in British Columbia. (The Burgess Shale, in Yoho National Park, is considered the world's finest collection of Cambrian fossils.) His abiding interest in collecting fossils inadvertently established a legacy in North American geology. At age 23, Walcott, who never completed high school, spent a week at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, unpacking and arranging the fossils he had sold to the college. This week in September 1873 was the extent of his college career.

Charles Doolittle Walcott.

Charles Doolittle Walcott.

Charles Doolittle Walcott became fascinated by fossils as a youngster, living in Utica, New York. In his adolescent years during the Civil War, he spent summers helping out at a farm in the vicinity of Trenton Falls, an area considered to be heaven for Ordovician paleontologists.  Walcott’s extensive invertebrate fossil collections from the Ordovician Trenton Limestone, combined with nearly two centuries of geological research at Trenton Falls, represent a significant contribution to natural history and the history of geology. Based on his work with the Trenton Limestone, Walcott was able to prove conclusively that trilobites were arthropods. He went on to hold many influential positions, such as being the third director of the U.S. Geological Survey and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Given the substantive number of fossil specimens and extensive publications on Trenton Falls, Harvard’s initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides an overview of aspects of the sedimentary, stratigraphic and paleontologic history of this world-famous locality. Through the documentation of specimens and the geologic summary of the collection site, readers are presented with a virtual fieldtrip from which they can take away an appreciation for the locality itself and the historical development of Trenton Falls. They can also benefit from a series of geological “primers” on aspects of sedimentology, stratigraphy and paleontology, as well as many illustrations describing key processes and important concepts, such as paleogeography, tectonics and paleoclimatology. Although the Website was initially intended for a college-level audience, the development of the site assumes only an introductory understanding of physical geology. It is therefore accessible to students of high-school age and even younger, depending on their earth science curriculum.

“In the end, the Web site is not only a pictorial showcase of a spectacular fossil collection (which was its original intent), but it now represents a substantial resource for novice and professional paleontologists. It is also a significant curriculum resource for educators and students in many levels from high school through college earth science courses. What is exciting to me is that it is a virtual field trip that not only takes the reader back to the field locality, but it puts the fossils back in the field within the context of basic geologic principles. In essence, the rocks and fossils become a book and their history is read and told through the Web site.”

At the November 2004 GSA meeting, not only was Cornell’s talk well received but — more importantly — the Trenton Web site was featured throughout the entire conference at the Paleontological Society’s booth. Meeting participants — including students, teachers, professors, and researchers — were given short tours of the Web site and were given the opportunity to provide feedback regarding the potential for this type of educational tool within their curricula.

“Overwhelmingly, the feedback was positive and encouraging,” Cornell says. “In fact, many other museums and even the National Park Service are interested in developing similar online exhibitions that showcase individual fossil collections, and relate them to important geological localities and the historical significance of these localities for land use and cultural development. Across the country, and indeed across the world, museum collections represent a significant resource for the scientific and educational communities, yet as a resource their actual educational value is usually unrealized. The goal of this Web site was to help ‘realize’ the latent or at least unrecognized resources hidden in museum collections.”

Sean Cornell.

Sean Cornell.

Now that the Colorado conference is over, is he back in Cincinnati? No — he’s teaching in a temporary sabbatical replacement position at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania. At some point maybe he’ll drift on back to Cincinnati. In the meantime, we here in the Midwest can avail ourselves of Cornell’s work by visiting the

Harvard MCZ Web site.

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