SCIENCE FROM THE MASTODON MATRIX PROJECT: INVOLVING CLASSROOMS AND COMMUNITY GROUPS IN AUTHENTIC DISCOVERY
Each project also involved removal of several thousand gallons of mud from around the skeletons, to be used to search for bone fragments and other small fossils that were impractical to retrieve at the site. School classes and community groups have been offered the opportunity to recover fossils from the mud for scientific study, providing both an authentic exercise in discovery and an enormous potential pool of human resources for gathering specimens.
The project has stimulated discussion about limitations of scientific utility of the recovered specimens, and the significance of such limitations upon the educational value of "research partnerships." Because of lack of stratigraphic constraint on most (though not all) of the samples, and because of sampling biases inherent in having nonspecialists recover specimens without microscopes or special instruments, the primary scientific benefit arises from the ability to inventory more thoroughly at coarse stratigraphic resolution the fauna and flora of post-glacial Upstate New York, (1) increasing likelihood of finding relatively rare macrofossils, and (2) providing very large sample sizes of collected taxa. The near-term result is museum collections of general use in Quaternary taxonomic research. This contrasts with, e.g., PRI's Devonian Seas research partnership, in which student data collection on stratigraphically constrained samples, designed to answer predefined questions about faunal turnover through time. A long-term goal is to contrast the educational outcomes from these two approaches.