Science Speak: Volume 1: Catalina Pimiento

I thought I would share this video that Laura Beach (Soquel HS Bio) made with some help from Chuck Saltsman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The artist on the banks of the Canal

The artist on the banks of the Canal

As we met one scientist after another, all from various points around the globe, we were struck by the incredible network of scientists that push the boundaries of what we know about the world. Each one of them had taken pieces of others’ research, questions, hypotheses, and data, and pulled them all together to develop their current investigations. The connections are overwhelming, and we all talked about this a lot. We wanted to capture it.

Laura is a very talented artist, so we left it up to her to display how just one scientist – Catalina Pimiento, who studies the extinction of sharks via megalodon fossils in Panama – came to where she is now. Pretty cool.


Laura’s Journal…wow!



Teachers in Panama, so what?

Teacher as learner, scientist as teacher

Teacher as learner, scientist as teacher. (Photo: Rob Hoffman)

The following is something I wrote as I tried to capture the value of the PCP-PIRE trip, months removed, in preparation for a return trip I took in September (more on that later).

Teachers are the expert in the science classroom, but they are not necessarily scientists.  Their task is to develop their students into practicing scientists, critical thinkers, and problem solvers, so that they may consider pursuing a career or college degree in the sciences. However, it is possible, perhaps common, in the US to become a science teacher by taking a test or earning an undergraduate science degree, without ever having participated in scientific research or practiced science beyond the classroom. The result can be an approach to the teaching of science as if it is simply a definitive set of information to be memorized. Through this experience, the practice of science comes alive. Participants are thrust into the dynamic and exciting world of “doing” science. This is why the PCP PIRE program sending California and Florida teachers to Panama to engage in the practice of science, alongside scientists, professors, PhD’s and interns, is such a valuable opportunity for science educators.

The PCP-PIRE teacher experience has influenced the participants both as scientists and as teachers, and will have a significant impact on the way they teach from now on. For example, one could not help but notice the interconnectedness of the international science community, and how each investigation is built upon and connected to other investigations around the world. A new fossil or hypothesis can send a ripple effect around the world as scientists integrate this new information into their analyses. This fundamental element of science is not obvious to the student learning science via a textbook, but for the teachers that scaled the banks of the Panama Canal, walking alongside renowned scientists to find fossils that contribute to Panama’s fossil record, this is part of their experience. The teachers also found value in how the trip reaffirmed some of the dominant discourse about teaching and learning. Teacher collaboration led to a multi-faceted and comprehensive lesson delivered to Panamanian fifth graders at the Gatun Formation. The detailed notes jotted into field notebooks on the Canal digs scientific illustrationreminded some of the importance of students taking good notes. The pool-side chats were reminiscent of “professional learning communities”, as we all contributed our ideas and expertise toward a common goal that served us all.

As visiting scientists, the PCP PIRE teachers are exposed to science in action, some of which began decades ago yet continues to develop. Witnessing the incremental shifts in what is known about the world – in this case, the world millions of years ago – is an important aspect of scientific knowledge, and one that may not be clear to K-12 students because of the need to move on to cover more content. Investigations have a deadline, and then we move on, even when we are leaving more questions on the table. The practice of science, however, is about deep learning in order to develop a comprehensive understanding. The Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC 2011) however, represent a departure from this “mile-wide-and-an-inch-deep” approach to science instruction, and identify 8 science practices essential to the learning of any science content. The opportunity to witness these practices as they unfold in the field will provide teachers with a better understanding of their application, and support the development of lessons and units that actively engage students in these practices.

Brook Knoll Elementary 1st Graders carefully observing 10 million year old fossils from PanamaThe year two PCP-PIRE cohort participated in a number of investigations while in Panama, each of which can translate into a number Biology, Earth Science and Chemistry lessons for K-12 students. These lessons will differ from those offered by any textbook company in that they will be enriched by the hands-on experience developed in the field, as well as the photos taken, specimens collected, and communications with the field scientists. The science in the classroom will be relevant (beyond speculation) to “real” science taking place in Panama by researchers from reputable institutions such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Florida.

The value of the experience does not end with lesson plans; its reach goes far beyond that and can impact more students than just those in the classrooms of participating teachers. With new standards comes a new approach to content, and this will require significant professional development. Using the PCP-PIRE Panama experience as a backdrop, participating teachers will be in a position to share of lessons and lessons learned. Each training would be an expansion on the impact of this project, and each training could lead to improved science instruction in K-12 classrooms. This will be the


In defense of a hypothesis

Bruce MacFadden is telling a story as if it happened to him. It is the story of the evolution of horses and the portrayal of their evolution in museums across the United States. Fossil horses are one of the finest examples of evolution found anywhere in the fossil record. He knows this story extremely well even though it is riddled with specific terms, processes, and details that are hard to understand and/or remember even in isolation, without the context of how it all fits together. This story has been evolving for over thirty years, starting with his work as an undergraduate. But it is not done. In fact, it may never be complete. What he understands makes sense to him now, but each new finding and fresh analysis changes the story, and affirms or challenges what he understands.

Bruce giving his talk at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Bruce giving his talk at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Photo: Jeff Gage, University of Florida)

Bruce’s claim is that the information communicated about horse evolution is more often wrong than right. Their evolution is phylogenic, meaning that their lineage has branched off such that, at times, there were several daughter species living concurrently. The depiction of their evolution found in museums and textbooks often shows what he calls orthogenesis, or “straight line evolution”, where one species evolves directly into another. Why the exhibits and texts show it this way is somewhat of a mystery. It has been over a hundred years since horse evolution was proven to be phylogenic. Is it just easier to portray this way? Is it to save space in museum exhibits and textbooks





At the start of Q & A, immediately following a warm applause for Bruce’s talk, one after another audience member poked at what they perceived as holes in Bruce’s work. He was on the defensive, and the attacks were aggressive. To one commenter, he replied “I’d love to argue with you more about that over a beer”, to which the commenter replied, “I’d love that”.  This is science, and this is the way it goes.  When you put yourself out there, you expose any vulnerable pieces of your claims, or even in the way you told your story. I’d imagine word choice is critical, and I am now understanding better the careful way of communication that I have noticed when Bruce speaks technically.

One of the most significant shifts of the Common Core standards in ELA and Math is the need for students to be able to use evidence to defend their point of view.  In ELA,College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Writing 1  starts out “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics…”, and in Math, Mathematical Practice 3 is to “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” Similarly, the Next Generation Science StandardsScience and Engineering Practices have identified eight practices of science and engineering that are essential for all students to learn. Number seven on the list is “engaging in argument from evidence.” This is a skill that ALL students need to be able to apply to ALL of their learning. Watching Bruce brought the importance of these standards to life.

At last, some clear interdisciplinary alignment of what students need to know and be able to do.


Fifth Grade Fossil Finders at the Gatún


If not for the blasting AC I would have been able to hear the crunching of fossils beneath the tires of our Smithsonian-issued Toyota pickup. We were arriving at he Gatún formation, one of the richest fossil sites in the world. It is easy to see why – they are literally everywhere. It’s hard to pick up anything that is not a fossil.

We had spent the previous evening frenetically developing a lesson for a group of 25 fifth graders that would be meeting us there. I say frenetically because a) the site was familiar to only one of us, b) we are 2 middle school teachers and 4 high school teachers (no elementary), and c) we were introduced to this task at 8:30 the night before. (Read more about this planning session HERE) It turned out to be one of the finest examples of collaboration I have ever been a part of. Jill stepped up with an idea and the rest of us jumped on it, letting go, perhaps, of some of our own ideas in order to further this one. As a result, the group remained engaged and focused on the task at hand, each of us drawing on previous experience and expertise as we made suggestions and revisions. Jill was gracious as she watched her original idea transform into one that we all owned. Stepping up and letting go, it occurred to me, are essential ingredients in successful collaboration.


Mike Lynch, Harbor High biology teacher, helps students identify their findings.

I was nervous as the bus arrived – the lesson seemed great to us, but how would Panamanian fifth graders respond? After a brief overview and introductions we formed groups and got started with the first activity, the scavenger hunt. Students were set free to find as many different kinds of fossils they could, using an identification guide to help identify their findings. They recorded their successes on the field guide with tally marks.


Jill (foreground with hat) and Catalina.

Catalina Pimiento, a PhD student at the University of Florida and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is finding and analyzing hundreds of shark’s teeth from this location as she investigates the extinct, school bus-sized Carcharodon megalodon. She guided the whole group through a demonstration of geologic time, using a ten meter line of rope to represent ten million years – the age of the Gatún formation. Each millimeter was 100 years, the age of a very old grandparent, and it would take a hundred-thousand very old grandparents to match the age of the fossils they were standing on.

Next was Jill’s One-Meter Hike. Jobs were delegated to each student (counters, identifiers, and recorder), and groups wandered off to select a site to lay down – north to south – a one-meter piece of rope that was marked in increments of 10cm. The task was to count and identify the fossils within the transect that lie along each 10cm marking. Heads were down, hands were busy with compasses and field guides, and science was happening.


Before most groups could finish the second part of their One Meter Hike (the east/west transect of the same spot), the rain came and everyone headed for the bus. You never know when it’s going to come, but it seems to have come at just the right time. It was hot, nearing lunchtime, and the students had been focused on fossils non-stop for two hours – we were destined for at least a few melt-downs. We gathered the whole group for a photo, and were impressed and I think a little proud of ourselves when a small girl with confidence and a big voice thanked us for the experience and the opportunity.

Then they loaded onto the bus again, and drove back over the fossils.DSCF0319

The Canopy Crane

Twenty-three years ago, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientists decided to do something about their interest and curiosity about the rainforest canopy. Access was the issue, of course. It’s hard enough to get around the forest floor; the density of debris and foliage can be suffocating. (Well, it certainly takes your breath away!) But the canopy is not much different in that regard, and adding in the fact that to observe the canopy one would need to maintain a position roughly 100 feet, plus or minus, above the floor makes it treacherous and impossible. Right?

The persistent curiosity of STRI scientists was going to find a solution, and why not? That’s what they do. Their solution was the Canopy Crane Access System, in Metropolitan Natural Park, which is basically a DSCF0134re-purposed construction crane placed in dense forest just fifteen minutes from downtown Panama City. The location – selected because its close proximity to the edge of the forest kept installation costs down – affords views of the canopy, the skyline, and the canal. The giant crane lifts researchers up to 34 meters high, and provides pinpoint access to a 48 meter radius of forest that is believed to believed to contain 36 species of trees alone.

I was able to go up into the crane twice, each time for about 30 minutes. The operator DSCF0190toured us around, raising, lowering, and spinning the gondola until we would direct him to take us to a particular spot. We saw wildlife that included an iguana, a Capuchin monkey, birds, bugs, and a variety of plants & leaves being used in modern products, like a small fruit that oozed a white substance that was just like Elmers glue. Turns out, it’s used in glue.

A once in a lifetime experience twice, back to back. Incredible. But I can’t help but look forward to doing it again.


High above the forest floor with University of Florida staff working on the PCP-PIRE project. Why do I look nervous?

Fossil hunters are studs


Like any day, and I think any person, I was happy to wake up and look outside to see blue skies. Not just happy… happy is temporary. It affected me; I had a bit of spring in my step that I’m pretty certain was due solely to that blue hue we know so well, universal to all and indicative of good times. (I will admit, here, tha

t I am from Northern California, and blue skies may not mean the same thing to all people, but more on that later.) The agenda for today was to be provided an “overview of Panama Canal Geology and Paleontology” with Jorge Velez, visiting three fossil collecting sites along the Pacific side of the Canal. But like many agendas before this one, modifications needed to be made.

This program good, and as such the University of Florida is including it in a bi-annual publication about all the great things they are doing in the world of science research. To that end, three University of Florida employees have joined us – Joe, Jeff and Peter. Joe is the editor, Jeff the photographer, and Peter the videographer. Great guys all-around. And, since they were here, and the weather was cooperating, our day became a little more intense, but with good reason. They have just a few days to get their shots, and to document the whole program in just a few days is unlikely, but the skies have now made it plausible. The more we shoot today, the less we worry about good weather tomorrow. The mid-day break (between the Canal and a visit to Punta Culebra to see kids in an after-school program doing science with STRI interns and grad students) would have to go. We’re working through. We would be on the Canal until at least 2pm.

Humidity is a dampness that you just can’t escape. Humidity with sun is debilitating. (We’re adding sweat to this? Seriously?) But onward in the name of science, right?

Jorge led us to the three locations, and each produced fossils. This alone was impressive, but what struck me was who was finding the fossils. Jorge brought two of his interns, Christina and Sylvia, both of whom seemed to be totally dialed in to the dying places of ancient organisms. Sylvia was at the Centenario site for less than five minutes before finding a turtle shell fragment and a tooth of what was presumed to be a sheep relative of 19 million years ago. Christina wandered off at the Cucaracha formation and then explained what she had found – fish vertebra, turtle shell, and …. The rest of us were searching hard – staring at the ground, picking up specks or chunks, looking at them with concerned interest (just like the interns did), seeing nothing, and moving on. It became clear over time that we really had no clue what to look for. Some of the specks and chunks may have indeed been fossils, but how does the Summer-trip field scientist discern the specks from fossil frog leg bones? Apparently, we don’t know. But, this is not an embarrassment. We have other special talents that come out in classrooms in front of a critical audience of skeptical (pre)teens. We (and, yes, I’m lumping all of my fellow travelers with me here – hope they don’t mind…) just haven’t spent enough time in the sweltering heat and juicy humidity searching with our heads down for that special speck or chunk, discerning the differences between fossil gold and the most common rocks on the planet. To do so requires such passion, commitment, and perseverance that few of us have been afforded the opportunity to develop this expertise. Those who have are studs, taking on the heat and sweat and hunched-over searching like an over-matched boxer taking jabs on the chin without consequence. They endure and remain upright. They fight back, and take the small victories when they surface, out of optimism their next find will be the one.

It only takes one, and it is clear that this fact is not lost on those who spend their days/months/semesters/lives searching. As a surfer caught up in the search for perfect waves, I have to say I completely understand. #madrespect


A Day at the Smithsonian, but not THAT one.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is to biologists what the Smithsonian Air and Space museum is to astronauts. Located in Panama City, STRI attracts scientists from around the world for a variety of reasons. Not just biologists, but paleontologists, archaeologists, ecologists, palynologists (you know, people who study pollen!) and many, many other -ologists. Science abounds.

Today we met three scientists…

First was Jorge Velez, a post-doc fellow in the department of paleobiology, who is investigating how the Central American seaway contributed to the evolution and distribution of three species – the pygmy sperm whale, the river dolphin, and monodontids – the group of whales that includes relatives of modern day narwhals and belugas. The distribution of fossils of these three species are widespread, and the current day canal zone – pre-isthmus – appears to be a critical factor.

Catalina Pimiento, a PhD student under Dr. Bruce McFadden at the University of Florida, was next. Bruce is the mastermind behind the partnership that brought us here, and Catalina is passionate about ancient sharks. She is investigating the extinction of megalodon, the school bus sized predatory shark, as it may inform how we protect and sustain species such as carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. This work is particularly challenging, as shark bones are cartilaginous, and often break down before fossilization.  She and her team have collected over 6,000 specimens, mostly shark teeth, as they are all that remains.  Still, it is impressive to hear all that can be learned from the teeth of an organism that died off two million years ago.  Today, however, Catalina shared with us a course that she taught for the University of Panama, a blended course on the paleontology of Panama designed for students with little or no background in geology or paleontology. She engaged students in the practice of science, requiring each to complete the scientific cycle of investigation, analysis, findings and presentation over the course of the semester. This struck me as something that needs to become a larger piece of K-12 science education, and it will — the Next Generation Science Standards will require it.

The third scientist was Jorge Cardenes, a palynologist studying the evolution of neotropical pollen.  The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been loaned a collection of 250,000 pollen specimens meticulously collected over a period of 52 years. Fifty-two years! One man’s life work, in the world of science, gives rise to another’s. A grad student from Illinois, visiting for a month to study the collection, was investigating the impact of the 1997-98 el niño event on pollen spores.  Any noticeable impact could provide palynologists a model of what to look for in fossilized pollen to identify el niño events in deep time. This, however, is just one of many investigations taking place with that collection.

These three presentations took place in a period of about two hours – pretty overwhelming, to be honest. I felt I needed more time to process each before moving on. But moving on is what scientists do. The dynamic nature of science requires that we do. Each new discovery has a ripple effect on what we understand and how we practice. And, perhaps because of that, each of the three scientists spoke about their work with passion, excitement and youthful curiosity. It is inspiring to be among inspired people.

Tomorrow we head to the canal for an overview of its’ geology and paleontology, and we’re bringing our digging gear just in case the rain stops long enough to explore.


I’ve been to Central America twice, and neither time did I have an “agenda”.  The first trip was in 1997, to Costa Rica, and there was no real plan whatsoever…just go with it, find some surf and have fun. The next trip was again to Costa Rica, but this time on my honeymoon. You don’t want to blow the honeymoon, so I did put together what could be loosely referred to as an “agenda”. The level of detail was unimpressive, and basically outlined when we would leave from one location and head for another.

This trip, on the other hand, will execute a very ambitious agenda. Days will be long and jam-packed. Each day has a number of transitions, with accommodations, transportation, permissions, and presentations all worked out in advance. I could actually tell you where I will be and what I’ll be doing on July 19th or 22nd with scary detail, all thanks to the planning of Bruce and Claudia, from PCP-PIRE…..

The first week of the agenda (minus most of the details) looks like this:

July 10 – Travel to Panama

July 11 – Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) for a presentation on pygmy sperm whales and marine “river” dolphins, by Jorge Velez. Tour of the Center of Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology.

July 12 -Back to STRI for “Overview of Panama Canal geology and paleontology”, with Jorge Velez. Travel to Punta Culebra to learn about the CHISPA! Program.

July 13 – Metropolitan Park Crane for a lift into the rainforest canopy. Tour of Panama City.

July 14 – The one “free” day of the trip. Pray for surf.

July 15 – Head to the Gatun Formation, near Colón, to meet with Catalina Pimiento, a leading researcher investigating megalodon, the massive extinct shark. Later in the day, we will be joined at the Gatun Formation by a group of students from the area.

July 16 – Field work at the Canal zone. Not exactly sure what this means, but I’m looking forward to it, for sure.

July 17 – Field work at the Canal zone.

That’s the first week – sounds pretty awesome to me. The second week may be the better half, though, as we visit Barro Colorado Island, Chiriqui, and Pipeline Road, “one of the birdiest locations in Central America.” Week two agenda coming soon!



How this came to be

I’m a Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, which basically means that I support teachers, schools and administrators in improving the teaching and learning in their classrooms, schools, and districts. Since our team is so small, we are not “specialists”, in that we are each focusing on a particular discipline.  Some counties have a Math Coordinator, Science Coordinator, English Language Arts Coordinator, and so on.  We lack the manpower to do that.. We are what you call “generalists”, which means we each support all of the above, and then some. For a middle school science teacher, this is a stretch, but I see it as a great opportunity to learn. So, that’s what I’m doing, learning.
The County Office hosts a county-wide Science Fair, and I was helping to set up the event space – hanging posters, labeling tables by project category, preparing the judging area, and so on – when the phone rang. It’s usually my wife, so I pulled my phone from my pocket fully expecting to see her name and picture.  Nope; it was a local number I didn’t recognize. After a moment of deliberation, weighing the hypothetical risks and rewards of answering, I decided I could use a break from the poster-hanging, and answered. It was Gary Bloom, Superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools. Hearing his voice and name caused a variety of reactions. Is he calling about the cancelled content literacy training, about to tell me it was back on and he needed me for Monday? Did I blow it somehow? Did he have the wrong number?
None of the above.
Gary’s call was apparently what is sounds like when opportunity knocks (or rings, or vibrates). He asked if I would be interested in a two-week trip to Panama to do some fieldwork with the scientists – geologists, paleontologists, biologists, paleoecologists, and so on – that are taking advantage of the ongoing project to widen the Panama Canal. To do the work, forests are being cleared and the canal excavated, which is providing access to strata of rock and fossils that have not yet been well documented. I was intrigued already. He went on to tell me that this “project” was a partnership between The National Science Foundation, The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (although, admittedly, all I heard was the “Smithsonian” part), The University of Florida, and Santa Cruz City Schools. It was odd to hear SCCS mentioned with all these heavyweights, but I listened on as Gary described his participation in last year’s trip – he and five Santa Cruz area science educators doing the science alongside the scientists in order to better understand the teaching and learning of actual science. I was all in by this point, but he went on.
When I hung up the phone, I just sat and considered the opportunity that had just called. This was not the kind of thing that happens to me; I’m more likely to be called by my dentist to return to the office to have a molar pulled.


This will be a trip to remember. But more than a trip… Experience?  Is that what this is? I don’t know. Everything’s an experience. Opportunity? Yeah, definitely, but it’s more than that, too. Some opportunities don’t really amount to anything.  Some are wasted and some are seized. I guess that’s what this is now, since it hasn’t happened; opportunity. I am just waiting to get going, start digging, picking up ordinary stones out of the possibility they might be ancient evidence to support a theory yet-to-be-named. It is opportunities like these that have led many a novice scientist to discovery, and then into textbooks across the world. That’s not what I’m expecting. Of course not.  But it is exciting to be on the verge of this opportunity, or trip, or experience, or discovery or whatever it is.