Affecting Change One Citizen Scientist at a Time

Guest Blog By X-STEM Speaker Aaron A. Alford, PhD, MPH, PMP

Hands-on learning and human connections are essential to STEM education. Without exception, all of the scientists that I know were inspired to enter STEM career tracks by someone who helped them make an emotional connection to science and discovery.

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 10.24.38 AMAs a scientist and an educator, I was absolutely thrilled to be a part of the X-STEM Extreme STEM Symposium and the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. at the end of April. Both events provided a grand opportunity to interact with students and learners of all types over the course of four days.

As a speaker at the X-STEM Symposium, I shared the stories of my adventures and misadventures exploring dangerous swamp rivers for evidence of ancient life. I also opened up to the audience about the sense of wonder that continues to drive me to participate at a professional level in a variety of sciences.

By day, I am a psychiatric epidemiologist and evaluator for the Battelle Memorial Institute in Arlington, Va. On nights and weekends, I am a paleontologist, explorer and extreme athlete in the name of science. I cofounded a collaborative science incubator in 2010 with my good friend and business partner, Jason Osborne.

Paleo Quest is a Virginia-based non-profit organization designed to create a greenhouse for innovation by using the combined experience and expertise of professional-amateurs, professionals and citizen scientists in a variety of disciplines to identify and tackle unique or risky scientific endeavors related to paleontology and geology. This approach has helped us answer scientific and methodological questions in paleontology, stratigraphy, STEM education and citizen science.

Our work with educational outreach at Paleo Quest has reinforced the importance of participatory, hands-on learning experience in the sciences. More specifically, I have wondered why real acts of science do not play a larger role in the average classroom experience. We don’t train Olympic skiers by making them only do exercises in the gym. They have to train by skiing – by doing the real thing over and over.

shark finderWhy should the sciences be any different? Ultimately, we want people entering the sciences that can deal with the unknowns and ambiguities that are part and parcel of working at the boundary of human knowledge. By definition, that is where science takes place. The best way to train for engagement in the sciences is by actually doing science.

In 2011, Jason and I began the SharkFinder program as a way of engaging students and citizen scientists in the thrill of discovery through real research endeavors in paleontology. True to its name, SharkFinder is focused on finding fossil evidence concerning the life and times of ancient sharks, skates and rays along the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

SharkFinder gives students and citizen scientists the opportunity to search through highly concentrated fossil-bearing media to find, study and report fossils that provide information about the world that ancient sharks inhabited. Participants that find scientifically important fossils will have their names included in resulting publications as the discoverers.

Does this approach have an impact? One of my first experiences in understanding just how meaningful the opportunities we have crafted for students really are took place several years ago while working with former Paleo Quest intern Katya Derzon. At the time, Katya was a high school student who was enthusiastic about fossils but had little direction in her interests or studies. I began engaging her in a customized version of SharkFinder.

Before too long, she had found and donated many scientifically important fossils and published a science-focused article in a local museum newsletter. She leveraged her experiences at Paleo Quest into a brilliant college essay about her research endeavors that won her the largest scholarship offered at Juniata College. She was awarded the scholarship for her public service to science while at Paleo Quest.

Since then, hundreds of students have found scientifically important fossils through the SharkFinder program, and thousands more have contributed important data. At the end of this school year, we will begin notifying students and citizen scientists around the country that their names will be published with their fossil discovery in professional publications. We are helping children get their names and discoveries published in scientific journals as early as the sixth grade.

photo (1)We gave away over a quarter ton of fossils at the X-STEM Symposium and USA Science and Engineering Festival. Over 700 students – some as young as two-and-half years old – and their parents were engaged in SharkFinder research at the Scientific American booth. Fossil shark researchers at our partner lab at the University of Maryland (UMD), led by Dr. Bretton Kent, have already begun processing all of the fossils generated by students at the festival.

Two of the UMD researchers, Emily Wagner and Jess Howard, have processed 30 of the 700 samples. Of those 30 samples, five contain at least one scientifically important fossil that will likely be included in a science publication. We anticipate that more than 100 students who participated in the festival will receive credit in publications for their discoveries.

We were amazed by the sheer talent and focus of the students who participated in our research. One seven-year-old student had such a remarkable gift for finding fossils that he might be invited to work as a research assistant in Dr. Kent’s lab.

We have been focused on expanding our educational impact since we partnered with JASON Learning in 2013. As an educational affiliate of National Geographic and the Sea Research Foundation, JASON Learning was founded on the idea that scientists can make great role models in STEM education and including them in that process can help create an emotional attachment – and a human connection – to STEM learning.

As a STEM role model and mentor and a citizen science methodologist for JASON Learning, I get to interact with students around the country and internationally. As the organization expands its primary focus from middle to high school students, we are looking forward to expanding our STEM education outreach with them.

JASON Learning is now our partner in the SharkFinder School Adventure. This experience brings the excitement of digging for real, scientifically important fossils to the classroom environment. We encourage direct interaction between the students and host researchers to complete hands-on work that contributes to professional research efforts and allows the students to be potentially recognized in new discoveries.

To learn more about how Paleo Quest and SharkFinder are accelerating innovation in paleontology and citizen science, visit us online at and


Dr. Aaron Alford is a psychiatric epidemiologist and evaluator for the Battelle Memorial Institute in Arlington, Va. He works with federal agencies to improve healthcare, evaluate the impact of healthcare practices and programs, and study problems of behavior and mental health. Increasingly, his work focuses on evaluation in education, as many of the research challenges are similar. His work has helped shape the measurement of healthcare quality, evidence-based medical and prevention practices, national education policy, and the understanding of effective intervention programs.

In paleontology, Aaron is currently leading the first rigorous and data-driven study of the contribution of amateurs to a museum collection. Under his leadership, Paleo Quest members are completing papers on two innovations in fieldwork, including novel underwater jacketing methods. He regularly contributes to museum collections and his field research has resulted in yet-to-be described new species, new occurrences, important new field sites and thousands of fossils for classrooms across the country. He is the cofounder and vice president of Paleo Quest and the cofounder of the SharkFinder citizen science program.

Aaron lives with his wife Monica and several hundred thousand fossils in Alexandria, Va. In his free time, he enjoys long-distance trail running, cooking and theater.


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