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North Dakota paleontologists launch daily kids program amid virus outbreak
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North Dakota paleontologists launch daily kids program amid virus outbreak

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: March 15-21 series
Paleontology live chat

Becky Barnes, a paleontologist and lab manager with the North Dakota Geological Survey, holds a sample of coprolite, or fossilized crocodile poop, as she talks during a live video conference with students and families about the state's geology from her office at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum on Thursday. Clint Boyd, senior paleontologist, far left, said beginning at 10 a.m., Monday through Friday the 45-minute broadcast gives parents a way to entertain and educate their children as schools across the state remain closed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. As Barnes presents topics related to prehistoric fossils and geology, Boyd answers questions by the audience through a chat window.

A video program launched this week by the state Geological Survey is providing daily educational content about past life on earth and giving the parents of home-bound children a break during the state’s extended school closure.

North Dakota paleontologists had been ramping up a program meant to give access to students who can’t make the trip to the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum. The three paleontologists -- parents themselves -- saw a need to fill the day for children who are out of school as the state takes measures to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Instead of waiting for a request from a school, what if we had a live broadcast every day with a topic related to the history of the earth, and take questions,” said Senior Paleontologist Clint Boyd.

The first conference on Wednesday drew 64 families at its peak, which Boyd said was quite a success.

“We had no idea what to expect,” he said. “We thought it might be us talking to ourselves.”

Becky Barnes, lab manager for the survey, runs the program. A different topic related to fossils or geology will be discussed each day. Barnes facilitates through a software program that allows participants to ask questions. They can also send chat messages to which Boyd will respond.

Wednesday’s topic was the mosasaur, described by Boyd as a 25-foot-long komodo dragon with flippers instead of feet, and “a really long tail.”

“It was the apex predator of the ocean,” he said.

Barnes read from a children’s book about the animal and guided the discussion. Questions ranged from the critter’s eyesight to its ability to see underwater. Boyd said the kids participating in the discussion were in second, third and fourth grades, but some participated by audio only and weren’t visible to facilitators.

The group is trying to gauge the audience and use that information to tailor upcoming programs, Boyd said. If schools stay closed longer and shift to online instruction, Boyd said they’ll change their time slot so they don’t compete.

Survey staff are recording the sessions, editing them and uploading them to YouTube.

The goal is to provide a service to North Dakota students, but some of the participants from the initial session were from as far away as Georgia.

“We got emails while it was going on and messages on Facebook thanking us and saying they were going to be tuning in the next day,” Boyd said.

A link to each session can be found on the North Dakota Geological Survey’s Facebook page, ndgspaleo.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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