FOSSIL COLLECTING AT THE GREAT NEW YORK STATE FAIR: OUTREACH FROM THE PALEONTOLOGICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTION
PRI has had several dumptruck loads of Devonian fossil-bearing shale (from the Hamilton Group in central, NY) dropped just outside the 4-H building. Visitors to the shale pile can keep the fossils they find, and fossil collecting on these piles of shale is a prime attraction to the PRI booth. For some families the shale pile has become a location to revisit at the Fair over successive years. Some children stay on the pile for 30 to 60 minutes or more if allowed by their parents (some of whom may collect alongside their children). At the booth PRI provides bags for carrying fossils, simple identification sheets, and examples of specimens. PRI typically serves 200 to 500 people per day, and the booth is best staffed by several individuals, who can identify fossils, maintain supplies, and talk to visitors. The interest generated through participation opens the opportunity to suggest other Earth system education programming at PRI's Museum of the Earth and elsewhere.
PRI uses such shale in other outreach contexts as well, such as at "Fossil Lab" in the Museum of the Earth, and at other events such as at the Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Though most of the fossils are very small brachiopods and bivalves, many participants are intrigued by the authenticity of the experience. Excitement and enthusiasm about finds is contagious among participants, and children occasionally make unusual, scientifically interesting finds.