A group of elementary-age girls excitedly sifted through pieces of slate rock, searching for remnants of plants and shells, part of an educational program about fossils, held Feb. 3 at the M. S. Kirby Library. When the girls found imprints of fern leaves or sea shells in the rock, they proudly held them up to Dr. Matt Finkenbinder, the local geologist who volunteered his Saturday morning to teach kids about fossil activity.
While young Evelyn Harmon was sorting through fossils of sea life, searching for shells, corals, and clams, her friend, Olivia Kripp, was busy discovering tree bark. She actually found the remnant of a scale tree, which Dr. Matt pulled up a photo of on his phone. The tree existed in Mountaintop 300 million years ago, he explained, when this area’s climate was tropical like the rainforest. To this, the girls and their parents all gasped in surprise.
Third grader Julia Barr then called upon Dr. Matt, relating that she thought she found the fossil of a worm in her rock. The tiny ridged line, that did indeed look like a mealworm, was actually the stem imprint from a fossil of an animal called the sea lily. Using a reference book this time, Dr. Matt produced a photo of the creature, which looked nothing like an animal, but rather a flower attached to the ocean floor. Julia marveled as he pointed to what looked like petals on a flower, explaining that this was actually the animal’s face.
A professor of engineering and
Earth sciences at Wilkes University, Dr. Matt was invited to the Kirby Library by children’s librarian Laura Keller, who met him when he brought his three-year-old daughter there, and the two got to discussing his fossil work. A natural teacher, he had a good rapport with the children as he educated them about being an Earth scientist.
He explained that his job as a geologist entails “studying the Earth and how it’s changed over tens of thousands of years.” He went on, “To give you the simple definition of fossils, they are the remains of plants and animals that lived a long time ago.” Lexie Richmond raised her hand several times to interject about her excitement for discovering fossils. Lexie was even more impressed to find out that the fossils presented to the kids to inspect in shale rock or silk stone were actually over 300 million years old.
Always a favorite among children, Dr. Matt passed out various colors of playdoh and had the kids make their own fossils. They did so by pressing sea shells, conifer leaves, Swedish fish, and gummy snakes into the playdoh. The girls smiled and giggled as they experimented with different patterns in the clay.
As they played, Dr. Matt explained how scientists use fossils to determine what the environment of different locations was like thousands of years ago. Fossils, from leaves to dinosaur or other animal paw prints, formed as easily as being placed on the ground, followed by mud gathering on top and trapping it in an impression that lasts over time.
He encouraged the group to explore their own backyards, when the weather is warmer, and not only look for fossils, but make their own as they did that day, by putting rocks, leaves, and shells in playdoh or modeling clay. He described himself and colleagues searching for fossils on the mountain along Route 309, between Mountaintop and Wilkes Barre, sometimes all day. Some days no fossils are found and other days are successful, as the scientists search pieces of stone carefully and patiently, shifting the rock so sunlight hits it different ways.
“Finding fossils takes all of your observation skills and you have to be persistent,” Dr. Matt told the children. With a “Libraries Rock” summer theme planned, Miss Laura invited the geologist back to the Kirby Library to share more fossil fun later this year.