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Museum on the move: Program takes fossils, rocks to Utah schools

SANTAQUIN — The eyes of the four fourth-graders were fixed on the gigantic fossil of the dinosaur jaw. On desks before them were pictures of jaws of nonextinct animals.

"How would looking at the picture of the black bear, the coyote or the elk help us learn about dinosaurs?" teacher Nicole Houle asked.

"Maybe it has the same teeth," student Michael Bravo said.

"Maybe it has a bigger jaw," student Taylor DeGroff said.

Through observation and data-recording, the young scientists concluded that the dinosaur jaw was most similar to the elk's jaw. And so they inferred that the dinosaur must have had a similar diet as an elk, grazing on plants.

The 50 fourth-graders at Santaquin Elementary on Tuesday played with fossils, thanks to the Utah Museum of Natural History's Museum on the Move, which has been operating for 12 years.

The Museum on the Move is made up of two minivans loaded with rocks, fossils and assignments — all to get students across the state inquiring like a scientist.

Museum staff will travel this year to all 40 school districts to give fourth-graders in more than 200 schools a hands-on learning experience. The staff is on the road five days a week during the school year, said Lorie Millward, the museum's manager of education and outreach programs.

"We listen to what teachers ask us to do and respond to the curriculum needs," said Sarah George, executive director of the Museum of Natural History.

Teachers told the Utah Science Core Curriculum Informal Science Education Enhancement — also called iSee and made up of museum officials — that they need more science materials to help make textbook learning feel more like the "real world" to students.

Money to get those materials, of course, was a problem.

In the spring, lawmakers gave the program $56,000 in new funds, of a total budget of about $300,000, for a second minivan and part of the salary of a teacher. The program will also provide each school district this year with $2,000 in fossils for classroom instruction.

Curiosity and passion will take would-be scientists much further than brains, said Diamond Fork Junior High teacher Sharon Miya. Miya was named by the Natural History Museum as one of the state's three junior high science teachers of the year.

"Right now, as I look at you, you are the scientists, the engineers and the Nobel Peace prize winners of the future," Miya said to students.

The world faces challenges such as traveling to Mars, global warming and a fuel crisis.

"We need you to solve these problems and take us into the future," she said.