NH State Fossil? – Part 2: Interview with 4th Grade Students

NHSF - Class members

[image of Rep. Dave Borden, select members of the 4th grade class working on the State Fossil proposal and Thom Smith, their teacher when they were in the 3rd grade, courtesy of Thom Smith]

Below is the initial Q&A I exchanged with Thom Smith (the students’ former teacher when they were in the 3rd grade); Lauren Simpson (the teacher of one of two 4th grade classes at Kearsarge Regional Elementary School) and the students.

All answers were given as “Ms. Simpson’s 4th grade class.”

1. Why do you want a state fossil in NH?

We want a state fossil because all the other states around us have state fossils.  There is only one other state has the mastodon, and that is Michigan.

 

2.  What have you learned about fossils in your class?

We have learned that there are different kinds of fossils.  Not all fossils are bones.  We learned that fossils are like clues.  We learned that digging for fossils can be a lot of fun, but can also take a long time and be difficult. 

 

NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith, students and Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

3.  Do you ever imagine what NH might have looked like when mastodons lived? Does Mr. Smith’s/Ms. Simpson’s class make you think about things like that?

 

We know the Earth does not look like it did back when mastodons roamed the Earth.  The White Mountains were probably really tall back then, because the mountains hadn’t eroded as much.  Mount Sunapee was probably taller back then, too. 

 

NHSF - at statehouse

 

[some of the students getting a tour of the NH State House by Rep. Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

4. Do you think you’d ever want to work with fossils? Discovering them or excavating them as paleontologists?

 

Yes, because…

  1. it might be cool to find a real fossil from way back and just be able to feel it.
  2. you could see the animals back then that don’t exist anymore.
  3. I think it would be fun digging fossils up like a treasure hunt.
  4. You might go on a really long fossil hunt. You might not find anything interesting but you also might find undiscovered species.  You would need a long attention span, though. 

 

5.  What do you think about the process of making a mastodon the state fossil? Has it been hard?  Or has it been fun?

 

I think…

  1. It’s a very long, hard process; it might actually take too long.
  2. It will be fun and a great way for us to learn about bills and stuff like that.

 

NHSF - at statehouse 2

[image of students touring the NH State House with Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

6.  Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would want people to know about on the blog?

 

  1. People should read up on the mastodon.
  2. A fossil of a mastodon was found on the coast of Rye, NH.
  3. It’s going to be really fun to see if we can make it be our state fossil.
  4. If other kids can make other state symbols, we can make this the state fossil.

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This is the first half of posts on the NH State Fossil. Up next, comments from some of the legislators themselves.

 

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Thom Smith, Lauren Simpson and all of the remarkable students who worked so hard toward a State Fossil!  I remain impressed and inspired by all of them.

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Representative Dave Borden who supported the class and its initiative from the very beginning.  An equally large THANK YOU to the two other sponsors of the bill: Rep. Nancy Stiles and Rep. Tom Sherman!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Will Clyde and Wallace Bothner at UNH and Gary Johnson at Dartmouth!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to my friend, Gary Andy, who informed me of their work as it developed!

Thank you so very much to Allie Morris of the Concord Monitor for being the first to do a story about this process!

Thank you, Brady Carlson of NHPR and Dave Brooks of the Telegraph, for continuing to highlight this story!

 

NH State Fossil? – Part 1: Interview with Thom Smith

In the Fall of 2013, Thom Smith and his 3rd grade class in Bradford, NH began their quest to create a State Fossil.  After much research and consultation with local paleontologists, Mammut americanum (a type of mastodon that most likely resided in NH) became their fossil of choice.  They were finally able to present their testimony to a committee within the NH House of Representatives this past February.

The story does not end well.

And it is a story that did not get as much attention as another proposal for a State Raptor proposed by 4th graders from a different NH town.

Rather than begin the story with my version of events, I wanted to let Thom Smith and these marvelous students speak for themselves.

Below is the initial Q&A exchanged between Thom Smith and me this past January.

NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith with his students and Rep. David Borden, the first NH legislator to take an interest in the bill, courtesy of Thom Smith]

1. How do you discuss fossils with your students?

Thom Smith: Instruction of fossils is centered on the idea that discovering fossils is equivalent to discovering clues about our past and our planet’s past.  Fossils are clues that help us look into the lives of ancient animals and plants.  Students become excited when they discover that paleontology is not just digging up old things, but about being a detective looking for clues that will help tell us the history of our backyard’s past.  We delve further into fossils by learning about the four main types of fossils, as well as by participating in a “mock” paleontology dig on our school’s fitness and nature trail. 

2. How did you (or do you) learn about fossils/paleontology?

Thom Smith: I initially learned about paleontology in elementary school as well.  To be honest I do not remember any further education in paleontology beyond that point – except perhaps teachers occasionally touching upon paleontology matters in other science classes.  I currently learn about fossils by reading up on any current event article that comes to light in the news, or by reading about recent discoveries in magazines or online. 

3. What was it about this class that inspired you to try to have a state fossil created in NH?

Thom Smith: It was a shared inspiration, and honestly, it was my students that originally came up with the idea.  When studying fossils my students often discover through readings and research of their own that New Hampshire does not have a state fossil.  This past year was no different, and when they became discouraged at that fact I asked them if they wanted to try and do something about it.  We had just been involved on a unit of study on citizenship, and I thought it might be a good opportunity for them to see what speaking up for their concerns as citizens might do.  As a third grade teacher, I also get the privilege of instructing our students on the New Hampshire state “officials”.  Every year students become greatly interested in learning about the ladybug, the Karner Blue butterfly and the purple finch.  I also encouraged my students to try to have a state fossil declared in New Hampshire because I knew it would help increase student interest in paleontology and the importance of learning about our state’s ancient past if a bill was to become law. 

4.  Have you had any experience with legislation before? (How have you found the process so far?)

Thom Smith: I have not had any experience with legislation before, yet the process so far has been very educational and encouraging.  Representative David Borden, who was the first state representative to offer our class his assistance, has been incredible.  He is a kind, sincere individual who really cares about our state’s youth and education.  He has gone to great lengths to encourage and educate our school’s students about state legislation, and has done so with a humble and generous attitude.  He understands that this quest for a state fossil is not just because some students in a small town in New Hampshire want one, but because these students who wish to have a voice have good reasons for their request and need supportive adults to help them.  The process of legislation takes a lot of time, but I think it is understandably so, at least in this circumstance.

 

5. The Concord Monitor article indicates that you connected with Dr. Gary Johnson at Dartmouth and Dr. Will Clyde at UNH. What prompted you to connect with these two people? What have you learned from them?

Thom Smith: The class initially needed advice on discerning which fossil they believed would be the best fossil to represent our state.  I connected with Dr. Will Clyde at UNH because the class watched a news clip on WMUR that featured Dr. Clyde providing his expertise.  I connected with Dr. Johnson because I searched online for other experts on fossils from New Hampshire and discovered that his sedimentary geology field of study led him to the discovery of fossilized dinosaur footprints.  Both professors were immediately helpful and encouraging.  We learned that New Hampshire is not a good state in searching for fossils because of its granite make-up, but that fossils have been found in NH, including brachiopods, mammoth and mastodon fossils.  The mammoth and mastodon fossils had been found more recently, including by fishermen off the coast of Rye.  We more recently learned of support for our classes’ request from Professor of Geology Wallace Bothner at UNH as well.

6. Did your students think anything other than a mastodon should be the state fossil?

Thom Smith:  I found the decision to determine what fossil should be our state fossil another good lesson in citizenship responsibilities. Our class made a chart with brachiopods, mammoths and mastodons, and in each column we wrote down facts about each fossil and how it related to our state.  We discussed the possible “candidates” for a couple of class sessions then held a big vote.  The mastodon won unanimously for a variety of reasons – ones we outlined in a letter that we sent to state representatives asking for support.  Those reasons included:

  • This fossil was found recently off the coast of New Hampshire
  • This fossil is an official state fossil in only one other state
  • Two well-respected paleontologists from New Hampshire suggested it as a possible official state fossil
  • This fossil connects our state’s present (New Hampshire’s fishing industry) to our state’s past
  • This fossil is a piece of our state’s ancient history that we should recognize, and as an official state fossil has the potential to encourage others to learn about our state’s ancient past
  • Our surrounding states have state fossils but New Hampshire does not

 7. Do they understand what a mastodon is?

Thom Smith: My students understand that the mastodon is an extinct, shaggy-haired elephant-type creature, similar to the mammoth except often smaller, and with shorter legs and flatter heads.

Cohoes mastodon

[image of Cohoes mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, picture by the author]

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

[painting of mastodons from an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum for this post]

8.  Have they seen the mammoth tooth at the Rye Public Library?

Thom Smith: We have yet to see the mastodon tooth (as well as the mammoth tooth) that were found off the coast of Rye, but hope to soon!  Dr. Will Clyde has seen the mastodon tooth and it is one in excellent shape.   The interesting connection to Rye is that our class also learns about the rocky shore each year and visits Odiorne Point, near the location of where the mastodon fossil was found.  Last June Representative Borden and his wife met us there on our class field trip – it was a great experience.

9. What can people do to help (if anything) with the establishment of a state fossil?

Thom Smith:  Advocate for it.  Publicize the possibility – make it known that this legislation is occurring now and that the more support we have the less likely our students’ bill will be dismissed.  Blog about it (like you are doing), post it on social media, email the possibility of a state fossil to friends and ask them to support the endeavor.  Contacting state legislators is incredibly easy – they are often just an email away, and many are ready and willing to hear your thoughts and voice your opinions in the state house.  The first committee hearing on the possible establishment of a state fossil is January 27th*, and we hope there are more that lead to this LSR becoming a state law.

[*This date was pushed to February, due to inclement weather in NH at that time–author’s note.]

10.  Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you think would be important for people to know?

 

Thom Smith: I would want everyone to know that this request for an establishment of a state fossil was made by students who had a genuine, valid concern and had the motivation to do something about it.  This request was to change our state’s history so that others might learn more about our state history – its ancient history.  It may be debated as to whether or not the mastodon should be considered our state’s fossil, and a healthy debate would be fine, but we would not want our students’ quest to be lost in arguments that could go round and round when the request for a state fossil is not just about what the fossil should be, but more importantly why there should be one: having a state fossil would result in a lot of positives, including an increased interest in paleontology at a variety of levels, particularly New Hampshire’s youth.

NHSF - Rep Borden and Thom Smith

[image of Rep. Dave Borden and Thom Smith at Odiorne Point State Park, courtesy of Thom Smith]

You can read more detail about the events leading up to this past March at Thom’s blog: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com