High school students, teachers work with archeologists in Zion park | RecordCourier.com
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High school students, teachers work with archeologists in Zion park

Merrie Leininger, Record-Courier staff writer

Two teachers and four Douglas High School students had a learning experience this summer they never would have gotten in the classroom.

Social studies teachers Hal Starratt and Karen Heine took seniors Bonnie Lee and Andy Johnson and juniors Cicely Williams and Chad Cooper to the Desert Research Institute’s archeological dig in the Zion National Park in June.

For three weeks, the team lived and worked with 30 people at the site where a village was erected between 800 A.D. and 1200 A.D. by the ancient Anasazi people along the Virgin River. They slept in tents and made their meals in a mess tent, but lived without showers or bathrooms.

They worked in temperatures that reached over 100 degrees many days, digging and mapping in a very delicate process. Some days, however, they were climbing, bushwhacking and digging out great mounds of earth.

“I think we will all look at rocks differently,” Heine said.

The work was hard, and it’s not over yet. The group now has to compile their results and present what they found at an academic conference of the Nevada Science Teachers Association in Las Vegas next January.

Starratt, who is working toward his Ph.D. in archeology at the University of Nevada, Reno, found out about the Nevada Science Teacher Enhancement Project, which strives to pair high school classroom teachers with scientists in the field, from the former DHS principal, Bev Jeans.

Then the teachers needed to find the two students they were allowed to take. The teachers didn’t want this to just be a field trip, so the students were required to submit a paper describing why they wanted to be a part of it.

But only two students seemed like too few with the number of interested applicants they had, so they called the program to beg for more room – and received it. The school district also gave them a break by allowing everyone to take off the last week of school and providing a van and gas money for the trip. Chad Cooper was invited to apply because he was one of Starratt’s best history students.

“So it was sort of an intellectual pursuit for him, but he got a chance to put all his skills to use – like drawing – he became really good at mapping,” Starratt said.

“I learned a lot about how to be an archeologist. I learned about the technology of excavations and the lab work – all the things are are needed to do an excavation. Before, I thought you just go up there and start digging. Now I know what it takes and all the cooperation you need,” Chad said.

Starratt described their typical day as getting up at 5 a.m. and being on the site near Springdale, Utah, by 6 a.m. The site was on top of a hill, so the Anasazi, and the budding archeologists, had a pretty good view of the river valley. The students would work at uncovering the small adobe structures called cists the Anasazi used to store corn. They also excavated homes, including hearths and a living room floor. There was no shade on the hill, so after lunch, the group would only work a couple of more hours before they retired to sit in the river or go to town for showers.

After dinner, the group would get to work again, bagging and identifying the items found that day. The artifacts found will stay with the national park for what will one day become a museum. On days off, the group took trips to a Shakespeare festival in Cedar City, Utah, and to the Grand Canyon. They also visited other sites and scouted for what might be future digs.

The students uncovered pottery shards and went to work determining how the Anasazi made the pots and with what material, climbing cliffs and driving miles to collect clay and oliven samples. Oliven is a greenish substance that is mixed with clay to hold it together. It is unique to an area about 60 miles south of their site.

“We are going to remake the pottery using the materials we found locally and fire it and determine what percentage of olivine was in their pottery,” Heine said.

They will put their findings into a paper.

“That’s how teaching has an effect – it’s got to be an on-going project. We’re not done,” Starratt said.

Heine said they are also hoping to get the paper published with the help of an archeologist whose speciality is pottery.

Other similar teacher-student group projects will be compared, and the winning group gets a $1,000 award to be used by its school.

But, money or no money, the group agrees it was a learning experience for all.

“I learned a lot. I didn’t realize how delicate a process it was. It was very exciting the first time we found a big shard, everyone else came over and looked and congratulated us,” Heine said. “Things like this affect kids down the road. If I had the opportunity to do something like this when I was a kid, I might have ended up doing this for a living.”

“Whether it pans out or not, it doesn’t matter, but we planted the seeds, that’s all we expected to do,” Starratt said.