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Making Them Use Their Noodles: Dr. Stephanie Kuster Conducts “Pasta Lab” at STLCC-Meramec

October 22, 2009

Stephanie Kuster, Carl Campbell and Students from GEO104  

Top: Stephanie Kuster and Carl Campbell reveal the “fossils” that students used to practice measuring and recording results, mimicking the detailed, concentrated work of a field geologist.

Bottom: Dr. Kuster and Meramec students Dzenana Palalija and Scott Johnson discuss the intricacies of fossil identification.

Dr. Stephanie Kuster, a specialist in paleoecological reconstruction, sedimentary geology and bone histrology, who recently received her Ph.D. from Washington University, made a three-day visit to STLCC-Meramec and the Geology 104 class of Carl Campbell in early October to conduct  a “pasta lab.”

The exercise is part of a paleontology lab course Kuster teaches at Washington University and is designed to help students understand the complex and painstaking process of measuring fossils and recording results. The “fossils” in this case are pieces of pasta.

“Students in Geo 104 study fossils, evolution and the diversity of life through time,” said Campbell. “Part of the course work involves identifying fossils. This lab should help them characterize those fossils. It also allows them to be more rigorous and detailed in their observations while thinking scientifically.”

Kuster and Campbell have worked together for the past two summers at the Hell Creek Formation in the Badlands of Montana, taking samples, mapping and finding dinosaur fossils. The Hell Creek Formation is a 250-foot thick section of clay and rock that contains the last of the non-avian dinosaurs. Their work there represents the beginning of a multi-year research program.

“In Montana, Carl, staff and I are working to reconstruct the paleoecology of that last few million years before the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary, which eventually caused the extinction of the dinosaurs,” explained Kuster. “Finding out what the landscape and faunal biomass was like long ago is detailed work that combines interdisciplinary techniques to make it happen. Techniques include detailed geological mapping, vertebrate taphonomy (what happens after something dies and as it becomes a fossil), bone histology, surface sampling of vertebrate fossils, palynology, GIS, etc,” she said.

Eventually, perhaps by next summer, students from Meramec will be on their way to Montana with Kuster and Campbell, giving the students a real-life taste of the training and experience it will take to become field geologists. Campbell noted that he already offers a field geology course each summer: Geologic Field Experience in North America, in which students spend two weeks studying the geology of the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and excavating dinosaurs in northeast Montana.