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Episode sixteen transcript

The Virtual Staffroom Podcast

Episode 16 – Fossil hunting with Dr Matthew McCurry

 
 

Joachim Cohen:

Welcome to the Virtual Staff Room, a podcast made for teachers by teachers and all with a dash of educational technology thrown in. My name is Joachim Cohen, and today, like every day, I am joined by two rather awesome members of the technology for learning team, Linda Lazenby and Yvette Poshoglian. Welcome team.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Hey guys.

Joachim Cohen:

What do we have in store for you today? Well, did you know this week, May the 18th in fact is International Museum Day. And we here at the Virtual Staff Room thought we have to celebrate. As we know, in the era of COVID-19, many organisations, including museums were forced to rethink the way they do things and many went digital. But one place, one museum is about to take it to another level. Let's go on adventure. The Virtual Staff Room is heading to the museum.

Joachim Cohen:

Now, many of you will have visited the Australian Museum, seeing the rooms full of fossils, life sized dinosaurs, spiders, beetles, and more. But are these places steeped in the past or have they too been infected by the awesomeness of technology? Well, today we're lucky enough to be joined by, wait for it, a paleontologist. That's right. Someone who works with these amazing artifacts to see what we can learn, what we can predict and what we can discover. Dr. Matthew McCurry, vertebrate paleontologist, welcome to the Virtual Staff Room.

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Thanks for having me on here.

Joachim Cohen:

Now, Dr. Matthew, you had all of our listeners on the edge of their seats at the mention of paleontologist. We have visions of night at the museum and Indiana Jones. But tell us, what does a day in the life of a paleontologist actually look like?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So look, my work is very varied. So some of my time I spend at the museum looking after the collections. So we have a collection of around 165,000 fossils at the museum. And it's my job to organise it and to look after the specimens. But also to go out and collect new ones. So I spend a lot of time in the field on digs, trying to find fossils and bring them back to the museum for the collection.

Linda Lazenby:

Now I have visions of you as a paleontologist out digging away. And I'm keen to know how technology has played a part in changing the work of you and your colleagues?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So look, a lot of the work that we do in the field is still quite old school. So we spend a lot of time walking around with hammers and chisels and looking at different types of rocks and looking to find the fossils. I guess, some ways that we've used technology recently, to map sites. So it's now common for us to take a drone into the field, to map the deposits that we're finding fossils in. That allows us to pinpoint exactly where on the ground each thing has come from. And then I guess the other way that we use technology is when we get those fossils back to the museum. So we often CT scan things to look inside them, to find out as much as we can about the artifacts.

Joachim Cohen:

Can I just ask a question there. When you take a drone up and you're taking this 360 degree footage, does it then map back an amazing virtual map that you can then go and figure out where the best places to go and search actually are?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah, definitely. So I was just looking at one earlier today. We're all working in the field and the drone is mapping away as we're doing things out of the ground. And you can zoom in actually to see the tools in everyone's hands, which is pretty amazing.

 

Yvette Poshoglian:

Wow, can you tell us some of the places or some of the sites you’re working on at the moment?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So a lot of our sites are in New South Wales. So I work a lot out near Gulgong In Central New South Wales, then occasionally all throughout Australia and the world. So I've excavated fossils from the Cradle Of Humankind in South Africa and also various sites throughout the USA as well.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Matt has this always been part of your plan to become a paleontologist or was it a bit different. What’s your career pathway been?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So look, I don't think I was a really dinosaur obsessed kid, but I've always been interested in nature. And I think the point where I really decided I was going to be a paleontologist was actually at university. So I started taking classes in biology and geology, and I met some really passionate people. And they're some of the people that convinced me to go down the path of becoming a paleontologist.

Joachim Cohen:

I can totally hear the passion in your voice. I'm sure that teachers have got students out there who are really keen to explore a career as a paleontologist or an archeologist. I know I did when I was at school. What are the types of skills that are really important and how could these students start to develop their passion?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah. So I think there's a really wide range of skills that you need to be a paleontologist. So you need good analytical skills. You need to be able to work with numbers and write papers about the different things that you find. There's a lot of work in actually just developing those numerical and written language skills.

Joachim Cohen:

Very cool. It sounds a bit STEM-y too. So if you're actually doing a lot of numerical work, using drones to create maps, those STEM skills, they infiltrate everything, don't they?

Linda Lazenby:

Absolutely. And I think for me, the museums of today are so different to museums in years gone by. Are there new ways in which students teachers can visit and engage with the museum?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah. There's a wide variety of ways that people can engage with the museum now. So we're gradually more and more releasing digital content. And so we've actually been producing this SITU video where people can take a 3D tour of the museum. So that's a really exciting opportunity for people to come and look throughout our collections and see the different exhibitions without needing to be there on site.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Don’t be shy Matt we know you’re taking a starring role in this behind-the-scenes tour. Can you give us a little bit more information on how people can go behind the scenes and how students and teachers can really get emersed in the museum.

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So this video allows people to explore the museum to check out different things throughout the spaces. And so you can navigate around and click on links to follow to 2D videos where myself and our invertebrate paleontologist at the museum take you through all of the different objects and different things that we learned from the objects at the museum.

Joachim Cohen:

Is there anyone else... I confess. Vertebrate versus invertebrate paleontologist. Can you tell us, what's the difference?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

They're the two major fields of paleontology. So I'm a vertebrate paleontologist, and that means that I specialize on animals with backbones. So things like dinosaurs or fossil mammals, so saber-toothed cats would be a type of vertebrate. But then Patrick Smith, our inveterate paleontologist, he focuses on other animals. So his specialty area is trilobites. So trilobites are these prehistoric creatures that crawled around on the ocean floor. He describes them a bit as like deep sea cockroaches that went extinct.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yeah, he can have those guys.

Linda Lazenby:

In terms of the virtual tour is one element for the museum's digital cabinet and what's coming up next. What else do you have in store to create this digital museum?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So we're gradually releasing blogs and information on our website. We've got staff at the museum 3D scanning objects as well. So using handheld structured light scanners to capture not just the shape of the fossils in our collection, but also the color on their surfaces as well. And that allows both the public to come in and view objects in 3D, but also other scientists from around the world to study these objects without having to fly to Australia.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Matt, what kind of vertebrates do you study?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

I study a wide range of vertebrates, but I guess one of my specialty areas or one of the animal groups that I study the most are fossil whales. So I'm really interested in excavating skeletons of these fossil whales and understanding their evolutionary history.

Yvette Poshoglian:

What have some of your findings been?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

I've excavated fossils all over the USA and Australia. And so we've described some new species of dolphin and whale, and they helped clarify that picture of how whales came to be in the ocean today. So they're mammals, they evolve from terrestrial ancestors. And the fossil record really gives us a clear picture of how those hoofed ancestors of whales gradually evolved to become more aquatic and to occupy the niches in the ocean than they do today.

Linda Lazenby:

Now, before we started recording, Matt, you were telling us today is a very special day. There's a research paper that you've just completed that has been released. Can you tell us more about that?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah, so I'm very happy that this paper is coming out today. So I've been working on it for a couple of years. And it's a study of the evolution of brain size in whales and dolphins. So whales and dolphins have some of the largest brains in the animal kingdom. So we really were interested in how they evolved those large brains and why they evolved those large brains. One of the previous ideas is that whales evolve large brains because some of them need to echolocate. So they need to process some sensory information from the environment.

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

But this study that we've completed today actually shows that that's probably not the cause of brain size evolution in the group. So what we found is that early ancestors that didn't echolocate actually had equally large sized brains. And so that tells us that there's probably other factors at play. Maybe it's how social they are. So animals in big social groups often evolve large brains. Or maybe it's do with how they're feeding in the environment. So maybe they need to have those large brains to be able to problem solve and chase down certain prey.

Joachim Cohen:

Wow. It sounds unbelievable. And so there's a lot more research that you could be doing as a next step. Are you able to tell us what's next on your agenda, Matt?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah. So the next big project for me is a site description. So it's very rare for paleontologists to find a new fossil site. So most of the time we find fossils, it's from existing locations, so places where we found fossils before. But we have a brand new fossil site. It's really top secret so I can't discuss it.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Where is it? Where is it, Matt?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

I can't discuss where it is, but we're finding these amazing fossils at this new fossil site in. So that's my next really big paper.

Joachim Cohen:

How exciting. It sounds like you're going to be out in the field, collecting these fossils and analysing them and producing some amazing insights for all of us to be able to be on the edge of our seat about.

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Yeah. Yeah. So we were looking at these fossil site. And I guess every new fossil site we have and every fossil that we find helps us put together that picture of how Australia has changed over time and how the animals that have lived in Australia have changed over time. Fossils are kind of, it's one of those things where we don't have a complete picture. So every time we find a fossil site, it's really this tiny window into the past to try and understand these ancient ecosystems that we really don't know that much about.

Joachim Cohen:

Yeah, Matt, I was interested in the fact that you told us that the researchers on your amazing paper are from all over the world. Do you have like a digital repository of fossils?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

We do. So we have the collection of fossils, the physical collection of fossils at the museum, but we're also gradually developing an online digital repository. So we CT scan these fossils, we 3D scan them and they provide this catalog of all the things that we found online.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Do you think that's what kids will be looking at in the future?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Look, I think the real specimens are the ones that you see in person and never going to go away and they're always going to be important. But I think these digital copies of them really give us an opportunity to do a lot more. So it allows people to study more things. It allows people that would otherwise not get to study them to be able to see them. So I think it's great for increasing the value of the collections.

Joachim Cohen:

It's amazing, isn't it? I remember you're getting me thinking about my time back as a history teacher, and the inevitable search for primary sources. And these are real primary sources of evidence that you've got that students will be to interact with, which is so exciting for teachers out there to think about getting access to these kinds of digital resources. And they're open and accessible?

Jacob Druce:

Yeah. They are. So we're gradually releasing more and more content that the people can access online through our website at the Australian Museum. They provide a way for you to actually just start looking at the real thing. So it's one thing to read about fossils, but it's another thing to be able to see them.

Joachim Cohen:

Wow. I'm thinking virtual reality. What do you reckon? Being able to touch and play. But look, we don't know. I think we might have an idea of what you're going to do for our next question, Matt, because every single guest that comes onto our podcast has to answer this question. It's called rocket ship robots. Now, you might've heard of a podcast over in the UK called Desert Island discs. And what they do is ask every single guest to choose the CD, the disk that they will take with them to a desert island. But we're a technology podcast, so we're going to outer space in our robot. What piece of technology would you take with you?

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

So look, it would probably be something to go exploring. So I've always been passionate and always enjoyed going and finding new things. So I think it would be something like a drone. I don't know if a drone would work in space, but maybe something that I could fly around to other planets and get to check stuff out that we've never seen before.

Linda Lazenby:

Fascinating. No one has said drone yet.

Joachim Cohen:

I just love that. That has been the best, the best rocket ship robots ever.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yeah, that was really good.

Joachim Cohen:

Look, thank you so much, Matthew. You have really opened our eyes to how much of a historical role that a paleontologist has to play and how it's been super charged with the advent of technology. That's for sure. So I hope everyone out there goes and visits the Australian Museum online. Thank you so much, Dr. Matthew.

Dr. Matthew McCurry:

Thank you.

Joachim Cohen:

Now we're going to chat to someone who's normally behind the scenes in our podcasts, it's our podcast producer, Jacob Druce. Because he was pivotal in developing this virtual museum experience, the collaboration with the Australian Museum. Linda, I think you've got some questions to ask Jacob.

Linda Lazenby:

I'm just keen to know Jacob, can you tell us a little bit about the technology that you used to develop the experience for the museum?

Jacob Druce:

I can, Linda. And thanks for having me, guys. It's good to be on this side, something different. So the main technology we used for this experience was SITU, so that's an online server based editing software, or basically 360 degree footage. The other kind of big bit of kit we used as well was something I've deemed the death star. It's actually the Insta Pro. So essentially it's a camera. You got five lenses on there and/or take individual photos, you stich all those photos. And putting it very quickly and simply for you guys, it'll make it like a globe. You get a full 360 top down view. And then once you get those images, you can chuck them into SITU and away you go.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Jacob, you're making professional resources for teachers and students with the museum. Is this something that they could be doing themselves in school?

Jacob Druce:

It actually is that, and that's where it all came from essentially, which is what's really exciting. So part of the work that Linda does with STEM.T4L is they have these amazing kits. And so one of the kits is the VR kit. And so within the VR kit, you get these amazing Theta VR cameras, which allows you to take some basic 360 degree photography. You get some VR headsets and you also get an account to SITU that your teacher will control. So you being the teacher, you have the full control.

Yvette Poshoglian:

And SITU being the 3D world that you work in, or?

Jacob Druce:

Yeah. So SITU is an online server based editing software. I don't know if it's software, Joe. That wouldn't be the right definition. But it's an online based server.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Platform?

Jacob Druce:

And within that, you can upload your footage and then you can edit your footage within SITU from there. And then SITU does all the hard work for you. So you don't have to embed. You can just send people links. And that's all hosted within situ.

Joachim Cohen:

This is so exciting. So students can go and create their own virtual 360 degree experiences of their local spaces, just like you did at the museum?

Jacob Druce:

And that's exactly what we want them to do, Joe. So we've done a little, another little project with the museum called Student Filmmaker. And so what we're trying to do is really trying to promote the kids to get out there and review their museums and review other issues of cultural significance and community around them. And use these amazing new technologies to express a story in a new, exciting way to hopefully hook the kids in.

Joachim Cohen:

How exciting, amazing opportunities. And we'll put all the links to those in the show notes.

Linda Lazenby:

Thanks Jacob.

Jacob Druce:

Thanks for having me, guys.

Joachim Cohen:

So Linda and Yvette, are you inspired to be a modern day Indiana Jones?

Linda Lazenby:

I don't know if I am, Joe. But I did find it inspiring to have someone like Matt being in a position to talk to students and teachers about what his career looks like, what pathway has he gone down. I do think that's something that we need to capture much more of. I often say you can't be what you can't see, and knowing that that's an option for kids is fantastic. So really exciting, but probably not inspired for me to take on such a role.

Yvette Poshoglian:

I think it was great that Matt explained to us some of the skills, as you said, behind what he does and bringing it to life. So even that data analysis, whether it's understanding where he's digging in to the ground and what he's pulling out, I think it's really brought it home to me because I think lots of kids think about that kind of career path, but actually understanding that skillset that you do need. And obviously the imagination is just one part of it because you've got to get your trail, you got to get your little trowel and get out there in the field. So I think actually just talking to him was fascinating.

Linda Lazenby:

So Joe, are you inspired to be I'm a modern day, Indiana Jones?

Joachim Cohen:

I tell you what. I'm really inspired in this amazing technological world where we focus so much on the future. To be glad that people are still looking back at the past to find out what happened and why it happened. And digital technologies is only empowering that process further. So I'm totally walking away inspired. I don't think I've got the patience to be paleontologist but I can't wait to read more of what Matt's up to.

Yvette Poshoglian:

I was imagining him pulling out a virtual drawer of virtual objects. Was anyone else thinking that?

Linda Lazenby:

I got a little bit nervous when he said he goes and looks after the fossils. And there are 165,000. Again, that cabinet, where do you start looking after them?

Joachim Cohen:

How exciting though? I think we might've just stumbled upon the next innovation for the technology for learning, team. What do you think? A virtual museum in a box?

Joachim Cohen:

Now It's time to explore. Yes, you will all have to check out the show notes and start to engage with the museum's great 3D experience, toot sweet. But what about other virtual experiences out there? Where else can we visit? What else can we learn from our classroom? And is there a way students could be producers and put their local museum or space on the virtual map? Linda, what have you found?

Linda Lazenby:

Well, I stumbled across a great incursion for students from the natural history museum in the USA. And they have great webinars, Fossil Friday, with different paleontologists. So all different sorts of topics that you could zoom into. Hopefully they'll have a recording because of the time difference, which I didn't look into. But we can put it in the notes maybe. But a great opportunity for learning

Joachim Cohen:

I'm sure there's recordings available to them. That's for sure. How about you, Yvette?

Yvette Poshoglian:

Well, I've been really interested in some of the collections at the Macleay Museum, which was at Sydney University. And it's now the Chau Chak Wing Museum. And they have a really great podcast called Object Matters, and they look at a particular object, just as Matt was talking about. And they actually explore it, its whole story through time. So that's a lovely one that I love. And then I would also recommend what Jacob was touching on a bit earlier. Some of our in house resources available for teachers, whether it's a STEM kit that you've got, or whether you're checking out the new student filmmaker resources, which are all available on the tee for our website. And Joe?

Joachim Cohen:

You made me think a bit when you were talking about that just then, Yvette. When you were saying, number one, you're going exploring, but then students could be creatives. Because they're creating artifacts. The artifacts of the future will be digital, won't they? Made me think a bit like that. But nevertheless, where I'll be jumping is to the Louvre. So we all want to be traveling at the moment, but we can't. And I was excited to learn that the Louvre's exhibits have all been put online. The collections, you can search the entire thing.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Oh my gosh. Have you ever tried to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre? You cannot see it because there's so many people in the room. This way, people are actually going to see.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh my gosh, absolutely. There we go. Take peak and inspire your students. Show them these amazing primary sources of information. Too exciting.

Joachim Cohen:

So, whilst our avid listeners will know, we love to give you a voice. And so to close this out, there is a little gem of techno wizardry wisdom. And we are lucky enough to have our very own Jacob Druce, videographer podcast producer, video producer and graphic designer, sharing a top tip of techno wizardry wisdom to get you and your students creating.

Jacob Druce:

Hello there and welcome to my top tech tip for today's episode. And today we're going to be working through some basic microphone techniques to get that audio of your setting clean, crisp, and ready for your next project. So the first thing we're going to touch on is positioning. Now, not every microphone is the same, but a general rule that we can use to help us figure this out is to use a shocker. Now you're not quite sure what a shocker is? I want you to make a fist, pop out a thumb, pop out a pinky, pop that thumb to your lips and you see where that pinky is sitting? That's where we want our microphone. Now you might need to tinker with it just a little bit, depending on your microphone, but generally that's a pretty good place to start.

Jacob Druce:

So now we've got that sorted. The second thing we want to talk about is consistency. Now we really want to work on being consistent and that's consistency between how far away we are from the microphone and also our voice levels. If we start talking too far away from the microphone, or we start talking a little bit too close, you can start to hear the difference, can't you? And if we start speaking really loudly and then we're speaking really softly, and then we're not quite sure, things aren't sounding as good, are they? So we want to work on our consistency. Work on our distance from the microphone and consistency with our voice levels.

Jacob Druce:

So the last thing I want to touch on is about taking your time, about having fun and about trying to keep it conversational. You don't want to be working too fast. Don't try to work through everything too quickly. You're just figuring out what you're trying to say and you're just rushing. No, we don't want to do that. We just want to take our time. We want to take it easy. We want to have a conversation when we're on the microphone. It makes us sound more natural. It gives us better quality. And then all in all, it gives us a better product.

Jacob Druce:

So I hope a couple of those tips help you guys out there in podcast land. And don't forget, jump onto the student podcaster for all of this and more tips that you can find to help your students make an amazing podcast.

Joachim Cohen:

So Yvette and Linda, I never thought museums and tech would be such supreme partners. This podcast has been produced by the masterful Jacob Druce, with the assistance and supreme coordination of all the awesome members of the Technology 4 Learning team.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Just a little note, please be aware that all views expressed by the podcast presenters, that's us, are our personal opinions and not representative of the New South Wales Department Of Education. Discussions aren't endorsements of third party products, services, or events. And please note that as much as we sound like it, we are not experts in legalese, tech speak or anything in between. We're just passionate people keen to boost technology for learning in the classroom and to help build the skills in your students and for you to solve the problems of tomorrow. Do your due diligence, read further. And if we've got something wrong, let us know. We too are always learning and always improving.

Joachim Cohen:

Before we go, please make sure you send us through your comments, your word of techno wizardry wisdom and your thoughts for new guests and segments. And if you liked the podcast, give us a rating so more and more educators find us and be inspired to get a little techie in the classroom. Stay compassionate, stay curious. Don't stop thinking outside the box, everyone. Thanks for joining us.