Dig in for adventure: Students learn about prehistoric Kansas, dinosaurs

SAFE BASE, the after school program, and Title I teachers joined forces to offer an evening of prehistoric adventure. Students came to learn about dinosaurs and practice their paleontology skills, while also learning about math and reading.

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May 6, 2022 - 3:18 PM

Ian Trevethan, education driector at the Sternberg Museum in Hays, talks with fourth-grader Leanna Flory about dinosaur bones. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Think of it as a murder mystery set millions of years ago.

Paleontologists excavate an area and discover a variety of dinosaur bones. They wonder: “Why are there so many meat-eating dinosaurs and so few plant-eaters?”

Iola student Leanna Flory examined the replicas of bones laid out on tables at Jefferson Elementary School on Thursday evening, ready to solve the mystery. 

She learned to identify the bones of the plant-eating dinosaurs.

“Their teeth are less sharp. They’re flat,” she said. “The dinosaurs chew plants to make them easier to digest.”

To solve the mystery, you have to imagine the scene and use critical thinking skills:

A handful of plant-eating dinosaurs wander into a mud bog, looking for food. They get stuck and die.

The scent of their rotting corpses attracts a group of hungry meat-eating dinosaurs, who also get stuck in the mud and die. That attracts even more meat-eating dinosaurs who face the same fate.

Ian Trevethan, educational director for the Sternberg Museum in Hays, set up the bone replicas and the murder mystery for Jurassic Blue Plate Special, an event organized by SAFE BASE and Title I for Iola elementary students.

Paige and Jim Olson dig carefully through plaster for tiny dinosaur bones. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Hundreds of students and their families gathered at Jefferson for a night filled with games, activities and educational events. 

The students filled out applications to become an honorary paleontologist, then set about on a journey through the school, checking out various stations along the way.

They were able to meet Trevethan and learn how paleontologists use fossils to study prehistoric life on Earth.

Cambree, left, and Tess Harper make dinosaur skeletons out of toothpicks and marshmallows.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

They dug through coprolite — that’s dinosaur poop — to determine if a dinosaur was an herbivore, a carnivore or an omnivore.

They practiced excavation techniques. Some of them used real shark teeth to chip away at plaster casts to find tiny dinosaur bones. Others dug into chocolate chip cookies, sorting the chips from the dough as a test of graphing and mapping techniques — and willpower. 

“I really liked the digging,” student Braylon Johnson said. “But the marshmallows were my favorite because I could eat them.”

He referred to a station that asked students to put together a dinosaur skeleton using toothpicks and marshmallows. The marshmallows are supposed to hold the “bones” together.

A taco bar allowed them to create a meal and determine if they were carnivores, herbivores or both. 

Oliver Insley picks out a basil plant to take home.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

SAFE BASE students have been learning about prehistoric Kansas, most of which was once covered by a warm, shallow seaway. Because of that, Kansas is known for its fossils and salt mines.

This is the first time SAFE BASE partnered with the Title I teachers for an event, and it combined a series of educational lessons on math and reading with fun and adventure. 

“It worked really well and we had an awesome turnout,” SAFE BASE Director Angela Henry said.

Ava Gragg, far right, reacts to digging through coprolite (dinosaur poop). Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Carter Ashworth, Conner Herb, Matrim Olson and Grif Olson excavate chocolate chips out of a cookie.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Ty Thomas excavates a cookie.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

In the past, SAFE BASE celebrated Shark Week. That has evolved to a wider range of lessons, such as all aspects of prehistoric life.

“At one point in time, the area where we live was pretty close to being ocean-front property. Our area of the state was just on the edge, and there were some pretty vicious creatures that lived here,” Henry said.

Harper, Hendrix and Weston Folk pose for a photo.Photo by Vickie Moss

THE SAFE BASE Summer Program begins May 31 and concludes on June 23. It is offered from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. except the first week, which begins on a Tuesday. On Fridays, the group takes a field trip.

This year, field trips will go to the Oklahoma Aquarium near Tulsa, Strataca: The Underground Salt Museum at Hutchinson, the Urban Air Trampoline Park at Lenexa in the Kansas City area, and Rock River Rapids — Derby Aquatic Park.

The program is free to USD 257 students currently enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, and to home-schooled children. 

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