Teaching Paleontology at Night at the Museum through Digital Fabrication

For sure, one of the coolest things about working at the Museum is getting to be involved with the sleepovers, otherwise known as Night at the Museum. Sorry, it is not like the movie – the dioramas do not come alive – but the halls do, with little kids running around the museum, often in their pajamas, excitedly going from one fun activity to another. And this past Saturday I had the thrill of working my first one.

Capturing DInosaurs at Night at the Museum

The challenge, however, was teaching science through digital fabrication, something we have never done before in this context. On the heals of the successful completion of Capturing Dinosaurs, it seemed like the perfect fit. But how to translate a two week all-day program into a quick yet substantive twenty minute activity? For those taking on similar activities, I am creating this post to document the details.


Initially, I had hoped to get out the glue guns and provide participants an opportunity to combine, say, the hand bones of a dinosaur then roam the room (the Rotunda) and identify who was the source (the Allosaurus threatening the Barosaurus). The bones, of course, would be the ones modeled from specimens in our collections by the youth within the Capturing Dinosaurs program.


I loved the idea of kids getting to run around the museum with their own dinosaur claw. What I didn’t love, however, was the mess involved, and supervision required, to quickly use glue guns in a safe manner. So after removing the “puzzle” activity of connecting bones we decided to focus on the observation component (I had help from both Christine Kola, who co-developed and co-facilitated Capturing Dinos, and also a Maker Corp volunteer). We gave the kids their own almost-life-sized dinosaur finger (pictured above), complete with claw, and challenged them to answer the questions on the sheet below (on their own or with a parent).


For over two hours, scores of families came through, picked up the sample bone and their worksheet, and had a blast wandering the hall in search of their dinosaur.


Almost all were able to pick the right dinosaur, and most figured out it was a claw or came from the hand. Very few, however, could identify WHICH of the three fingers it came from – the outer, middle or center. But that was by design. The 3D print is not detailed enough to show how many phalanges are represented.

Phalanges are the segments of the finger – your thumb has two while the remainder of your fingers have three. Not so for the Allosaurus. The image below shows how each have fingers with 3, 4 or 5 phalanges. After explaining the concept of phalanges, I informed the young investigator that the 3D model in their hand had only three, then sent them back to figure out which finger they were holding. The “ah-ha” moment when learning about the hidden clue, the secret of the phalanges, was visible within both adults and children and a delight to see. allosaurus_maus_pes

With the additional information, most were able to make the correct identification. After drawing a picture of the finger in action, I took their worksheets and gave them a smaller version of the same bones for them to take home. Below are some of my favorite drawings:


It was a great challenge to distill the educational essence of the program – at least one aspect of it – into a 20-minute hands-on, mostly self-directed activity. They seemed to learn something about identifying fossils, how fingers are constructed, and how digital fabrication can teach science. While most were engaged with the bone activity, many began or ended their time simply watching the active printers producing new bones, as you can see below:


While fun was certainly had by all, these two girls returned again and again over the course of the evening, proudly posing with the 3D printed bones and they ones they were taking home.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Teaching Paleontology at Night at the Museum through Digital Fabrication

  1. Lynn Baum says:

    This is a great observation-based activity. It reminds of an activity that is somewhat opposite in its discovery goal. A number of years ago at the Museum of Science in Boston, (long before 3-d printing) we had an exhibit of fossil skeletons from China. We stationed a volunteer in the gallery with a disarticulated cat skeleton. Children could select a bone and then by observing the articulated skeletons, try to determine what kind of bone it was. Children often went back 2 and 3 times with different bones to try to figure them out. So, instead of giving them a bone that is known – ie, a finger and attach it to a particular animal, they had to figure out the bone by looking at a variety of animals.
    Lynn Baum

  2. Laura P. says:

    Hi Barry – Interesting lesson. Wish this type of teaching was around when I was in grade school. Glad to see a good time was had by all. Keep up the great work!

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