~a month in the life of a lifelong learner~ favorite college professor

~June 23 to July 23, 2020~

Dinosaur Discoveries virtual camp

Since camp was during the day, we moved our noon video call to 6 pm for camp week. He was animated! I wasn’t sure if it was the time of day or due to camp, but he was ON FIRE in his nerdy mind. I got on the call on the first night to him frantically spinning his cube into an alternating colors pattern and he held up the blue-and-green side to the camera and said, “this is like a nerve check for me because I have to do the opposite of what I’ve trained myself to do,” and then babbled for the whole hour about phylogenies and homologies.

That day they made a tik tok, a google slideshow, did an interactive (video game) learning module, read and discussed a scientific publication. They talked about how paleontology, biology and geology relate to each other. They used starburst candy to illustrate the rock cycle (melted by microwave onto cardboard: igneous.) Two of his buddies from camp last year were in attendance, and he added seven new teens and two new instructors to his paleontology community.

The theme for day two was “geologic context of the Mesozoic,” because isn’t that what we all think of in our summer camp memories? They did a Pangaea puzzle, read about and discussed some contemporary dino fossil discoveries, met with a real paleontologist, sifted a bag of sand to find a whole bunch of fossils (24 sea snails, 17 amber pieces, no trilobites, 3 squids, gastropods, ray teeth, shark teeth – some of them not yet counted).

Day 3: biologic context of the Mesozoic. Mass extinctions, why birds are the only living dinosaurs, why Triassic animals were just the weirdest, a handy paleontology database. This was a dress-up day and Quinn chose to wear his “brambleproof” long-sleeved shirt, his Indiana Jones hat, and a rock pick. He worked on his dino diorama, which they made in the box that the camp supplies were shipped in.

Day 4: Reading the fossil record! Quinn finished up counting his sifted fossils and had 32 pieces of amber, 25 Sahara gastropods and 3 fragments (so at least 28 individuals), and he mentioned both Devonian squid and a Devonian fish called Dunkleosteus, but I’m not sure if they were included among his fossils. His knowledge on this subject has far exceeded mine and I can no longer keep up! He discovered he did have half of a Trilobite. On this day he was set the task of writing a scientific report of one of his fossil finds, and he came up with this:

“A new genus named a Trilobita was discovered to have lived about 520 million years ago and though not all measurements are available the specimen is certainly unique. The front half of this almost crab-like creature has been preserved in its 3-D structure representing a very small creature living in the Upper Cambrian Lodore formation.”

“I made up the part about the formation that it was found in, and I approximated on the million of years ago. Also I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing Trilobita correctly. Trilobita?” (Think: kilometer/kilometer.)

Quinn has a theory on Trilobites; that they were the first sentient organisms, and that they traveled in groups. I let him talk that night and recorded some audio after he introduced his Trilobite theory. These are just some segments I gleaned from a twenty minute treatise:

“To me it looked like in our fossil record, all of the things in that time period look practically the same almost, like really really similar, so it makes me think there was one kind of first species that evolved and then that evolved into a whole myriad of other things that evolved into a multitude of different things. Each species branching as it goes. To me the length of a species is determined by when it branched off the thing behind it to when it branched into multiple different things itself. That’s how I think of how long a species lived… when did it come into being from the thing that branched to BE it? That’s the start of it. and then the end is when it branched into multiple things itself. And everything kind of looks really similar that we have from back then. So it kind of looks like everything is one thing. And then that thing splits into several similar things. I mean a bird doesn’t look anything like a whale. But if you trace the two back far enough, then like a chickadee and a humpback whale, were once the same species. It might be somewhere back in the Mesozoic or before the Mesozoic, it might have been different things already when the dinosaurs were alive but if you trace them back far enough, everything has a common ancestor with everything else. So my thing is I’m thinking of like the ultimate common ancestor. I think of a trilobite.”

“Like someone looks at a rock on Beverly beach and is like, “there’s a clam shell imprint here,” but you can only see this little imprint for a bacteria if you’re looking at it micro microscopic. Attach several microscopes to your eye and walk around Beverly beach.”

“Soft parts still fossilize is my thing. If you think about it, it’s not the meteor strike that wiped everything out. It incinerates everything in one small area. Back then we happen to know that there was pretty much one continent with several large islands around it, maybe? And even when that was the case, that all the water that had life in it, was all one thing. You can swim from any point in it to any other point that has life in it. and so the biodiversity wouldn’t have been the greatest…”

“A meteor hits. let’s just say at the time trilobites are alive a meteor hits and we don’t know about it- it doesn’t deposit what it usually does or whatever. Let’s say that’s what wiped out the species then except for what evolved into what we have today… If there were bacteria I think they would have fossilized, because in the water, their soft forms would slip between molecules… If you’re willing to actually be really careful and chip them out of the rock, I think that you would have ended up with (and this is all under a microscope that’s under a microscope that under possibly another microscope.)”

“Even so I think that then that would have been like I don’t know like thinking… I think that that would have been like … I think that that would have fossilized” (I’m including this verbatim to illustrate his words trying to keep up with his brain.)

“If a meteor had struck, pretty much the whole earth is covered in possibly a mile thick cloud of ash just hovering above the earth or like encasing the earth. If you think about the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, the story goes: meteor hits earth. Ash cloud for several million years, meaning all the plants couldn’t get sun because of the ash cloud so all the plants died meaning all the herbivores died meaning all the carnivores died. Mammals survived because back then we were scavengers right? We were able to eat survive in pretty much any climate. So we were able to just eat dead stuff which there would be plenty of, so we survived.”

“The producers are subsisting off of sun, like just subsisting off of some non-living thing, like eating rocks, or filtering sand through itself, photosynthesis, like it’s always there. And if you use it, it’s not like you use it and some of it goes away. You’re done using it, and you get the energy from it, but it still has just as much energy on itself to give as when you picked it up and used it to give yourself energy. So what the meteors do when they hit is they take away that thing in some way or another. So meteors take away the producers source of energy.”

Day 5: Dinosaurs in pop culture and media! They met with another real life paleontologist, this time one who works on prehistoric penguins, and specifically the plumage – the colors of fossil feathers! Fossils can tell us about the evolution of the shape and color of penguin feathers! And other dinosaur plumage – they learned about a Jurassic bird that had iridescent feathers. The camp kit included (modern) feathers that they had looked at in preparation for this segment. Maybe not all the mamas have gathered piles of feathers for their kids.

This day’s topic on pop culture and media and dinosaurs (and misconceptions about them) was fascinating for Quinn. There were lots of links and resources provided, which were fun things like Jurassic Park and Disney’s Dinosaur.

Here is our conversation about the 1914 animation of Gertie the dinosaur:

“A sauropod eats a boulder and the top of the tree, sees a sea serpent in the lake next to them, starts dancing, eats the other half of the tree, tosses a mammoth into said lake, the mammoth swims back over and blasts the sauropod with water, and then swims away, a mammoth can swim, then the sauropod picks up a boulder and hits the mammoth, and then the sauropod takes a drink and drains the whole lake…”

“When were mammoths and when were sauropods?” His scientist/writer mom replied, modeling her grasp of both science and grammar.

“Sauropods were in the Jurassic period. Mammoths weren’t around until after the Cretaceous.”

“Are you saying it would be anachronistic for a sauropod to toss a mammoth in a lake then? And throw boulders at it?”

“I’m saying that a sauropod wouldn’t have lived at the same time as a mammoth. I’m saying that sauropods can’t toss mammoths by the tail…”

“Even if they didn’t have to time travel in order to do it?”

“If they didn’t have to time travel in order to do it, and they were capable of doing that time travel, and they could actually get a mammoth, they still physically could not pick up a mammoth by the tail and throw it five miles into a lake, and then accurately hit it at that range with a boulder.

“Are you sure? Aren’t you being kind of a party pooper?”


The two camp instructors and both guest visitors were women. I love that this camp group makes a strong effort towards inclusion and is working hard for fair representation for all in a science that has historically been exclusive to white men. I like that my white man-to-be is surrounded by all other types of people in these camps.

Q and I watched an episode of PBS prehistoric road trip together that night.

Day 6 was the final day of Dino camp, and they presented their Dioramas and played games.

On his diorama presentation, Quinn was complimented that he must have done a lot of research because of how his time period aligned with the species of dinosaurs and plant life represented. Here is his spiel:

“This is my museum diorama of the K-Pg extinction which is extremely late cretaceous. So the meteor is still in the sky yet it has already struck, so all of the grass has been burned off, and the rocks are bleached because of the immense heat. there is a river running through here, and there is a velociraptor pack here attacking this herd of triceratops, and all that’s left of these trees are small shrubs, which the triceratops herd is taking cover in trying to save themselves, however the raptor pack has expertly sent in an ambusher from behind. there are also a pair of tyrannosaurs attacking these two ankylosaurs, because big predators like tyrannosaurs assuming they were predators and not scavengers, would probably hunt in pairs or trios rather than full packs. there’s a quetzalcoatlus up in the sky looking for food, and there’s a volcano that’s erupting.”

He told me that night:

“For our final meeting they gave us like traditional class clown, most likely to become a rock star awards. Except they were specific to us regardless of the traditional ones. Frizzie got most likely to lead a paleontology expedition while wearing fancy clothing. Lead got most likely to draw the most scientifically accurate drawing of a T. rex. I got most likely to become everybody’s favorite college professor which I think is extremely accurate.”



(slightly modified by mama)



In which I realize why this post incubated a while…

I revisited my educational priorities for Quinn during this month. This was motivated by looking ahead to the 2020-2021 school year and grappling with which path to choose: hybrid online/in person public school, fully online Edmentum public school, or fully homeschool. Because I am writing this as we approach the end of 8th grade, I know what was chosen and how the story turned out to not be about what I would choose at all. It’s weird to have been thinking about things like scaffolding removal and then realize – oh we’re done with scaffolding. Now he’s taking charge of his own path. He chose Edmentum, and has handled his schooling. It turns out the scaffolding was even more temporary than I realized, and I was slow to take out the final pieces despite my awareness that removal was the goal.

Since I’m writing this later, I have control over leaving out the awkward and tense discussions of pros and cons, of offers on my part to advocate, which he kept gently but firmly turning down. I can see now that he was telling me he’s got this. If we had homeschooled, it would have been something he was doing to please me. (I cannot ensure that he did not choose his path out of wanting to please his father but that is out of my control. )Yes, I know it would have been odd to homeschool remotely – him at his dad’s but with me facilitating learning. But that would have worked, in fact I’m confident we would have slam dunked it, if it had been what he wanted and needed. It’s just that it wasn’t. It’s just that it was hard for me to hear that at first.

When I wrote the priorities, consent took up more of the bandwidth than it had in the past, though I could see it was there all along when I wrote the original mamafesto when he was six. It just wasn’t named quite as directly – it was emergent curriculum, choice, opting in. Looking through a 2020 teen parenting lens, consent rose to the surface. As I rewrote, I was thinking about how he needed to have autonomy in body and mind in the learning context. Keep those outside influences at bay and let him decide for himself, follow his own compass. But I was still a little bit holding onto some need for control over his learning in that way we have as parents of operating from a blind spot. The cliché about practicing what we preach. The cliché about 2020 and hindsight. Again.

So I’m leaving the awkward, tense conversations in my private journal, with this mile marker placed here from my somewhat expanded perspective of months. A reminder, an honest reckoning with yet another thing that was tough about the past year.


Quotable Quotes of Q:

“Flight was not why things evolved feathers… feathers were why things evolved flight.”

“When overwhelmed thinking about covid, I distract myself. Like, I think about how to write pi in binary.”

“An Illithids mindflayer is like a dementor possessing Davy Jones, but purple.”


We spent time in Rohan this month, and by the time we ended the month were reading the Appendices.

Q read the Monkey Wrench Gang this month.

We discussed the pronunciation of pronunciation.

One evening I just sat for a while, listening to the sound of popcorn popping upstairs, and the pages of Calvin and Hobbes turning on the other end of the video call.


“Volume of a warbler” and “how many warblers on earth?” Oh, the things you google. These were inquiries during Quinn’s quest to remix Vi Hart’s binary tree of birds – her turducken-en-ducken-en…. but with 13 birds nested inside each other bird, in a long list of types of birds.

Which brought him to the question, “How many birds in the world?” So he could compare to how many in this thirteen-to the eighteen factorial power bird stuffing scheme. The 200 billion birds in the world seems like a big number, however, >121 quintillion is way bigger!

He took this ridiculously high numbers of birds even higher and google calculator eventually returned the result, “Infinity,” and he was laughing so hard at breaking google again.

Honorable mention to, “how many square feet is New York City?” and an ensuing discussion of area codes.


He was visited by a grouse in the pile of firewood he has been using a splitting maul to help create. He also used the hatchet to strip small branches off limbs, and off one cedar sapling they used to make a railing. He helped replace deck boards and build a deck addition. The seeds from Sam’s garden box were beginning to sprout – he described the sunflowers “busting out” of their seeds, and the pea “vines” that were starting to lengthen and reach out curling tendrils. He saw the comet on a few different nights, explaining to me the best time to see it at sunset and how the remaining light on one side of the sky made it shine brighter against its darker corner of the sky.



More dinos

This is Q’s giddy anticipation the night he unveiled his plans for what we would do after we finished reading the appendices.

He recreated the dinosaur game he made up on graph paper where I had to build my own Jurassic park role-play style, in a google sheets version for us to play together remotely!

Another memorable quote for the month came a few days later, “oh my god, oh my god, I’m so excited about this dinosaur game.” And we did start in before the end of this month, by the end of which I had collected three different ceratopsians and some stegosauruses.

Oh, the dinos you’ll know!


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