We met at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning at Midway Airport for our 6 a.m. flight to Billings, Montana, via Denver. I joined thirteen young Junior Paleontologists (JPs), who had just spent eight hours a day together over two weeks of intensive, college-level instruction led by practicing scientists. Each day was spent learning about the long and fascinating history and evolution of the earth and its creatures, the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era, the geology and the rocks that preserve the fossil record, the anatomy of humans, mammals, reptiles, birds, and…yes, dinosaurs.
For many of our sleepy JPs, this would be their first time on an airplane. But they were ready to head to Wyoming to start digging. Coming from ten different Chicago public schools, the JPs included boys and girls, and African Americans and Latinos ranging in age from soon-to-be 8th graders to incoming college freshman. Even just sitting with them in the airport, I was struck by how they had already learned to work as a team.
After a long journey, we arrived in Montana. It was HOT and we were tired. We loaded onto two big, white 15-passenger vans and started the three hour drive to Shell, Wyoming – Population 83. Along the way, we stopped at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand – or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it is called by the Cheyenne, who led the Native American armies of the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne to victory. We got a personal tour of the battle site and a discussion of the Native history there from Cinnamon Spear, an amateur Cheyenne historian and a friend and a classmate of Dartmouth alumna and JP trip leader Elsa Rodriguez.
The next day was our first day of digging. The JPs got an introduction to the Big Al quarry, named for the Allosaur remains found there in the early 1990s. The students donned their field hats, slathered on sunscreen, lugged tools and coolers of Gatorade up the hill to the dig site, and tried to adjust to the 102 degree heat. Grabbing shovels and scoops, awls and brushes, we got to work.
There is so much history and science laying just below the surface in Wyoming. The amount these curious students learn in three weeks about dinosaurs, geology, and the history of our planet is extraordinary. But I witnessed discoveries even more important than dinosaurs – the discoveries that these burgeoning scientists made about themselves and the limitlessness of their talents and potential. The most memorable and meaningful part of the trip, for me, was seeing these young people come together as a family, seeing them inspire, challenge, and support each other on these parallel journeys of discovery.
They didn’t know each other at all two weeks before embarking on this journey that would take them very far from their familiar surroundings. But, over the course of the program, they had gotten to know each other for who they really were. Through sharing their journals and reflecting on their experience as it happened, they had come together as a true community. Together they excavated for 150 million year-old dinosaur bones as an extended family of young people who shared several key qualities: a willingness to explore and take risks, deep curiosity, and a desire to connect to something outside of and bigger than their individual worlds and daily experiences.
Unfortunately for me, I had to head back to Chicago and rejoin the bustle of our many other summer programs that were happening at the same time the JPs were in Wyoming. I had fallen in love with these kids and was so blown away by the bond that they share – and I missed them already as I stood on the porch in the early morning before my flight home, coffee in hand, waving goodbye as the white vans pulled out, kicking up big plumes of dust.
I know their experience made an impression on them, and I hope they carry that sense of possibility and belonging with them to high school or college in the fall. Truthfully, I hope it stays with them always and forever. I can’t wait to see them again soon – and to see what they do next!