Few things could be more exciting for geology students than getting to go on an actual fossil-hunting trip to the Badlands of Wyoming. And few things could be more disappointing than having a fossil-hunting trip get canceled due to a pandemic.

“We very rapidly retooled and did a virtual field course, which admittedly is something of an oxymoron,” says Scott Persons, assistant professor of geology, who was accompanied not by his students on his summer trip to Wyoming as planned, but by his wife, Amanda Kelley, assistant professor of biology, and graduate student Brad Thompson. “But we made it work by doing a lot of time lapse filming of excavations at different sites. We also brought a drone out with us and a fancy new portable 3D scanner to scan specimens.”

Talk about making the best of a Badlands situation.

Working out of the Paleon Museum just outside Casper, the team was there for a little over a week in early July. And, in addition to unearthing parts of a Triceratops, Persons discovered Tyrannosaur footprints, as well as those of a duck-billed dinosaur that’s most likely an Edmontosaurus.

“It really was an outstanding success, which frankly makes me a little disappointed we didn’t have students there to experience it firsthand,” says Persons, who also brought back a large sample of different dinosaur teeth in his carry-on (no, TSA did not have an issue with them). “But a lot of what we discovered is stuff that needs future work, too, so it’s opened up a lot of new lines of study.”

Raptor Skeleton

To make the online class as immersive as possible, Persons used a GoPro and his smartphone mounted on a tripod to record lectures of himself excavating the bones and footprints, as well as analyzing fossils back in the museum’s lab. Supplementing the lectures were quizzes and assignments like “Mystery Quarry,” where students had to infer a number of conclusions, such as how the bones came to rest there and whether the carcass was scavenged, based on fossil clues.

Another great thing to come out of the trip: the official partnership Persons developed with the Paleon Museum. CofC will now help helm paleontology fieldwork there.

“Future students will have the experience of working in the museum, in the preparation lab, and then head out to what amounts to the museum’s backyard, where there are multiple different digs going on,” says Persons, who’s had a relationship with the museum since he went on his first hunt there in elementary school. “The digs will give them exposure to a lot of different kinds of fossil hunting.”

The museum also made him its official research curator. “More than anything else, that shows that the museum is committed to having us back year after year to pursue other research projects,” says Persons. “And, at some point, that’s going to mean boots on the ground for CofC students.”