Science is advanced by professional researchers and scientists. Yet, many believe that average citizens - including school children - can make contributions to scientific advancement.
Two dedicated citizen scientists created a program called SharkFinder, to bring the excitement of scientific discovery to classrooms. Their efforts were recently recognized by the White House.
Aaron Alford and Jason Osborne have had a passion for fossil hunting since they were kids.
Alford recalls how they met.
“I was out fossil hunting along the bay one day. Jason walks up and says 'Hey, how are you doing?' Before long, we figured out we were two country boys and we had a lot in common,” said Alford.
That was 12 years ago. Ever since, Osborne, now a mechanical engineer, and Alford, a public health researcher, have conducted underwater expeditions and donated their findings to museums. Four years ago they co-founded the citizen science group, Paleo Quest, and designed several programs, including SharkFinder.
“The great thing about SharkFinder, the SharkFinder citizen science project, is we can bring the field research to the classroom,” said Osborne.
Alford explained, step-by-step, how it works.
“We're going to break this sample up, so we're going to run the material through the sifter, and what's left in the sifter we're going to put in the bucket and then that's what we are going to take to the students,” said Alford
In the classroom, students look at the sediment under a microscope or a hand lens to see if they can find any shark or ray fossil remains to send to scientists. At a recent science and engineering festival, school children also looked through material Osborne and Alford had collected over the years.
University of Maryland paleontologist Bretton Kent said the students save researchers a great deal of work.
"If they find any tooth that we think is significant that requires further study, they will receive a certificate stating that they found a scientifically significant specimen. If that specimen is ultimately used in any paper, they get credit for finding that specimen in the professional publication,” said Kent.
Greyson Sequino, a seventh-grader at a Loudon County School outside Washington, is among the students who have received a certificate.
“I am very proud of myself for finding something. I didn’t think I actually would be able to find anything. But now that I have this certificate, I think it is just encouraging me to be an archeologist,” said Sequino.
Osborne was honored as a Citizen Science Champion of Change by the White House last year. Looking back, he said it’s all about the science.
“We are not trying to build tons of paleontologists but we are trying to build tons of interest in science itself,” said Osborne.
Osborne and Alford hope to expand the SharkFinder program nationwide and globally as well.