In the middle of September, the Sternberg Museum joined Smoky Hill Public Television (our local Western Kansas PBS station) in their Family Fun Day. Amid the children dragging their parents to booths to play games for prizes and have their pictures taken with beloved PBS characters, the Museum was able to set up a table showcasing extinct and extant animals from Kansas. The live animals are always a hit, and our Hognose snake (Chubs), Great Plains Ratsnake (Buddy), Common Snapping Turtle (Jeffery - don't worry, kiddos, he doesn't snap!), and mice with pinkies were no exception. Snakes will always stir up a mixed reaction from people, but by bringing mice and explaining how fast mice can reproduce (every 30 days!), we can present a convincing argument for the importance of snakes in the ecosystem. Overall, I think most kids were more scared of Clifford the Big Red Dog than of Buddy and Chubs.
The fossils may not always take center stage when live reptiles and mammals are involved, but our smorgasbord of Kansas fossils demanded attention and raised excitement. Perhaps most impressively, we took a life-size skull cast of Megacephalosaurus - a pliosaur plesiosaur from the Carlile Shale of Western Kansas. (Of note, this fossil is also the Sternberg Museum's most recent holotype. Check out the JVP article by Schumacher et al. from earlier this year.) With a name that means "big headed lizard", our skull cast was quite an attention-grabber. We also had skull casts of a nodosaur dinosaur from Kansas, as well as mammoth and mastodon fossils. The look on a child's face when you tell them they are touching a really fossil is inspiring.
Museum outreach and education is one of the most rewarding parts of being associated with a natural history museum. It is also one of the tenants justifying continued funding of museums. With educational programming geared at children, youth, and adults, the world is truly a student of science. An informal set-up at a Family Day featuring glimpses into Kansas' past and present ecology and the chance to discuss science with people of all ages is just as important of an educational opportunity as more traditional classroom instruction. Having undergraduate and graduate students excited to help and educate out makes the experience even more valuable and educational.