Merry Wilson hopes to someday fix a gaping hole in earth science education. Wilson, a geology professor at Scottsdale Community College, said this branch of science carries a poor reputation as a topic relegated to the bottom rung of learners. High schools sometimes call it "rocks for jocks.’’
She knows youngsters dig earth science. However, the key to increasing interest is to show teachers how to teach the subject well.
Equally passionate about paleontology, Wilson put this philosophy to work in November for the television show "Three Wishes,’’ which aired earlier this month on NBC.
The show granted a wish for 7-year-old Brett Trenier of Claremont, Calif., who dreamed of going on a dinosaur bone expedition. NBC sought help from Project Exploration, an organization that makes science accessible for youths.
Project Exploration then tapped Wilson to come along, based on her previous field work. She and her team spent two frigid days digging up dinosaur fossils at a quarry in Faith, S.D. They excavated a 3-foot rib bone from the duck-billed edmontosaur in time for the arrival of Brett, his family, the show’s film crew and famed paleontologist Paul Sereno.
An awe-struck Brett finally witnessed the detailed process of preparing a dinosaur fossil for transport to a lab. He even discovered the edge of another dinosaur bone sticking out of the ground during filming, Wilson said.
Footage with Wilson ended up on the editing room floor, but that doesn’t matter.
"My job was to make sure his experience was reality,’’ said Wilson, 30, of Tempe. "If I hadn’t been there, it would have been a little too Hollywood.’’
In fact, some annoying facets of television production latched onto an otherwise educational adventure. Not only was the cold camera crew eager to enter a warm car, but capturing the right shots competed with Brett’s learning.
For example, they blacked out a brand name on Brett’s gloves. Then after he donned another pair, the show had him wear the original gloves to maintain film continuity.
"They just kept shuffling him around,’’ Wilson said. "I know it’s not good on camera to have his nose running, but hey, we’re learning about dinosaurs.’’
Even if the weather was about 9 degrees with wind chill, that’s just a fact of life for paleontologists.
"This is what we do. We sit in the dirt and the cold,’’ Wilson said. "It’s work.’’