A holiday to the beaches of Cornwall in the U.K. last summer has led to 10-year-old Bruno Debattista finding himself face-to-face with the path of a horseshoe crab from 320 million years ago. A piece of rock shale the Oxford schoolboy collected from there has turned out to be an “extremely rare fossil of footprints” — namely, the track of a horseshoe crab on a muddy shoreline millions and millions of years ago. It’s a remarkable find and also a reminder of why science education is key to understand the past and to help create the future.
Path of Horseshoe Crabs Preserved in Rock
Experts at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History were quite amazed at what Bruno brought into a meeting of its after-school club. As Chris Jarvis, the Museum’s education officer and organizer of the Natural History After-School Club, enthusiastically said, it’s not only that Bruno found the imprints but that he had a sense about what they might be:
‘Still more impressive is the fact that Bruno had a hunch they might be some kind of footprints, even though the specimen had some of our world expert geologists arguing about it over their microscopes!’’
Examination of Bruno’s find by experts suggests that it contains footprints of a pair of mating horseshoe crabs. These were made in the the Carboniferous period, which occurred 308-327 million years ago when “the sea was slowly being sealed off as the Earth’s landmasses crunched together to form Pangaea.”
Bruno and his family are donating the fossil specimen to the Museum’s collection. He had joined the after-school club on the recommendation of his teachers, due to his interest in nature, which was key to his finding the horseshoe crabs’ tracks. Without some prior instruction in fossils, rocks and the lives of ancient animals, he might not have known what to look for and that he was looking at fossilized remains after all.
The Oxford Museum after-school club indeed seeks to help instill a lasting interest in science. As Jarvis comments, “Unfortunately, the excitement and motivation that many children instinctively feel for studying nature is often lost during their teenage years as it is seen as ‘uncool’ or a bit weird,’ and science can become text-book oriented and exam-driven during secondary school.”
The U.S.’s Next Generation Science Standards
New guidelines calling for extensive changes in the teaching of science in U.S. schools also underscore how essential knowledge of science is. The Next Generation Science Standards have been issued by educators, scientists and 26 state governments and call for:
- a greater focus on climate science, which is to be introduced to middle school students; high school students are too learn “in detail” about how human activity is connected to climate change.
- a “firm stand” about the necessity of teaching evolution, a topic that is central to the study of the biological sciences but has come under fire from religious groups, politicians and others.
- an idea of how to “do” science, by developing ideas, analyzing evidence and seeing “how insights from many scientific disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.”
As the New York Times observes, while many states will be adopting the science guidelines over the next year, actually implementing them (by revising curricula) will likely take quite a while.
The new guidelines appear not a moment too soon. While the “importance of science for innovation and growth seems self-evident,” Foreign Policy notes that, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, ”only 60 percent [of Americans] agreed that ‘government investment in research [was] essential for scientific progress.’” Other studies show similar results, that Americans are “reluctant” to devote tax dollars to scientific research.
Such an “anti-science strain” in the U.S. is hardly new. But Americans need to face the facts, that without support for science at the most basic levels of education and research, we could end up in the “minor leagues of innovation,” trailing the likes of China and other nations. A schoolboy’s discovery of a fossil is a simple reminder of why science is simply essential.
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