By Dr. Jenna Weinman
When two archaeologists, Cara Ratner and Michael Taylor, are introduced to 3rd grade class at Valencia Park Elementary School, the students’ faces light up with curiosity and awe. Mr. Taylor, who’s sporting a khaki field outfit and boonie hat for the occasion, happens to be one of only two professional Black archaeologists in San Diego—both of whom work for his firm, NWB Environmental Services, LLC. He thanks the students for their attention and asks, “Has anyone ever heard of a person working as an archeologist?” Only one student raises his hand. “Does anyone happen to know what an archaeologist does?” asks Mr. Taylor.
It’s a question that would likely stump most adults. “They dig up dinosaur bones?” suggests one student. Visibly stirred by the mention of dinosaurs, students start raising and waving their hands in eagerness. Ms. Ratner responds to their rapid-fire questions and comments about dinosaurs, fossils, and cavemen with genuine excitement and encouragement, and proceeds to explain the crucial distinctions among the three types of scientists who “study the past.”
Paleontologists study fossils, geologists study rocks, and archaeologists like Ms. Ratner and Mr. Taylor, study what humans did in the past through the artifacts they left behind. “Did you guys know that people have been living here in San Diego County for at least 10,000 years?” asks Ms. Ratner. This diverse, captivated group of young thinkers grapples with the magnitude of the question—“You mean, like, before we were babies?” asks one student. According to Ms. Ratner, these types of statements about past civilizations are always very “eye-opening” for students because it is likely “their first experience learning about other cultures.”
This compelling and enthusiastically received introduction to archaeology is only the first lesson in an interactive, five-part STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) program called Archaeology For Kids. Founded in 2016 by Ms. Ratner, who has a Master’s in Anthropology and over twelve years of experience in the fields of archaeology and education, Archaeology For Kids’ curriculum emphasizes the highly transferable skills of scientific inquiry, planning and carrying out an investigation, and analyzing and interpreting data. Archaeology For Kids is funded through a $3,200 combined donation from NWB Environmental Services, LLC, and Valencia Park Elementary School, where 240 3rd through 5th grade students will participate in the program.
Located in Southeast San Diego, Valencia Park Elementary School is a Title I School serving a large number of economically-challenged students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are immigrants to the United States. Valencia Park is one of four elementary schools in the San Diego Unified School District to receive a federal grant by the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. As a STEAM magnet school recognized for its growth potential and promotion of diversity, Valencia Park’s curriculum encourages globally-minded learning and emphasizes the connections between different subject areas of knowledge.
Valencia Park Principal, Lori Moore, expressed her enthusiasm for the school’s collaboration with Archaeology For Kids, noting that the program “harmonizes perfectly with our STEAM curriculum and our mission at Valencia Park, which is to encourage students to be courageous learners who are equipped with the knowledge and curiosity to make a difference in our school, our community, and in our world.” Mr. Caleb Allen, a third grade teacher at Valencia Park Elementary, echoed Principal Moore’s support and commended the program for encouraging students to “collaborate in learning to use their abilities.” Carolyn Sommer, Valencia Park’s STEAM Magnet Resource Teacher, praised Archaeology For Kids’ curriculum for its emphasis on “deductive and analytical reasoning skills.” “These skills,” explains Ms. Sommer, “are critical for twenty-first century job preparation. We would like to equip our students to be the pioneers of thinking in their generation.”
The excitement and support for this unique program extended beyond school educators and administrators. Paulene De Mesa, Community Representative and Communications Advisor for District Four Councilmember Myrtle Cole, attended the September 21st, 2016 program launch on Councilmember Cole’s behalf. “We are thrilled to have Archaeology for Kids at Valencia Park Elementary,” said Ms. De Mesa.
The most enthusiastic reactions to Archaeology For Kids, however, came from the kids themselves. For their first hands-on archaeological lesson, Ms. Ratner presents the students with an assortment of artifacts—an archaeology term she defines as “anything made or used by people.” Seated in small groups, the students take turns examining, manipulating, and making observations about the various artifacts, which range from a footed metal egg poacher to a buzz saw toy.
When the students are asked to share their inferences about the artifacts, their eagerly delivered responses are striking in their creativity and, in some cases, their precision. One student, for instance, correctly identifies a large wooden knife holder right away, and reasons that it must be from “the old days” because it’s “brown, made of wood, and my grandma has one.” Other artifacts, such as a plastic potsticker press, inspire some rather imaginative guesses. “Is it a mousetrap?” one student asks.
Throughout this fun group exercise, Ms. Ratner emphasizes that the observation and inference skills they’re practicing now are actually “the two most important skills for any scientist to master.” These skills also provide the foundation for the four subsequent lessons in the Archaeology For Kids curriculum, which include detective work, mapping, site excavation, and experimentation. “As an archaeologist, this is what I get paid to do every day—this is an actual career,” says Mr. taylor, who studied anthropology at San Diego City College and Columbia University in New York. His San Diego-based cultural resource management firm, NWB Environmental Services, LLC, provides an array of archaeological services, and is widely recognized as an industry leader in professional drone photography and mapping technology.
“It’s important to expose young students, especially those from underserved communities, to viable and exciting careers beyond the narrow scope of familiar, typically chosen career paths,” says Mr. taylor, adding, “archaeologists acquire a broad and versatile set of skills and expertise essential to our evolving cultural, environmental, and technological landscapes.” Indeed, in addition to its practical, science-based applications, Ms. Ratner reminds us that archeology is also essential to the humanities. “In what other discipline can you encourage students to use the scientific method while also learning about other cultures, and about how people lived from all over the world, all throughout history?” It is both imperative and empowering for young people to learn that “history is still being written,” notes Ms. Ratner.
In reflecting on their own pasts, Ms. Ratner and Mr. taylor attribute their successful careers to interests and skills they developed very early on in life. “Can anyone guess what grade I was in when I prepared myself to be an archaeologist?” asks Mr. taylor. The students’ guesses range from third grade to college. “I started in kindergarten!” he tells them, and insists, “any one of you can be a scientist in the future, but you have to pay attention and study really hard starting now.”
The Archaeology For Kids program launched on Wednesday, September 21st, 2016 and will run through March 2017 at Valencia Park Elementary School. For more information about the Archaeology For Kids program, please visit www.arcforkids.com. More information about NWB Environmental Services, LLC can be found at www.nwbenvironmental.com