Tahlequah, OK - Dig after dig, discovery after discovery, faces light up as students at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School pull out 3D printed racoon jaws and plaster fossils from mini simulated dig sites spread across their classroom floor.
“My favorite part of the day is watching students eagerly searching for fossils in their simulated dig activity,” said Celine Cortes, a Ph.D. student in the School of Biomedical Sciences’ Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleontology track at OSU Center for Health Sciences. “Being able to interact with them directly and seeing them connect concepts presented in the skull overviews with the fossils they found was the most rewarding part of the activity.”
After a quick paleontology lesson from Cortes and fellow OSU-CHS students Lianna Marilao, Jacob George and Forrest LaFleur, the kids grab their tools and get to work. After brushing off new discoveries, they have a chance to learn a little more about what they found and each child leaves with one of the 3D printed raccoon jaws.
Sparking interest at an early age hits home with Cortes.
“At least by middle school, I knew I was interested in STEM. Though I wasn’t sure of my path by the time of my high school graduation, I decided to enter college as a biology major,” she said.
From there, she made her way to paleontology at OSU-CHS in a track that trains doctoral students on how to teach human anatomy to graduate and medical students as well as conduct paleontological research.
Cortes was able to bring her expertise and this experience to the school in Tahlequah after receiving the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Education and Outreach Award. The lack of Native American representation in STEM led Cortes to approach the grant application with the sole intention of bringing paleontology outreach to American Indian students in Oklahoma.
Along with her academic department, Cortes collaborated with the OSU-CHS Outreach team to coordinate with the immersion school as an extension of the outreach work of the new OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation.
“Native Americans are severely underrepresented in paleontology and STEM as a whole in Oklahoma and across the nation. To have the support of an international professional society like SVP to do minority-focused STEM outreach was telling of their values,” she said. “As a Mexican American student and underrepresented minority in STEM myself, it means a great deal to me to have community support for events like our visit to the Cherokee Immersion School.”
According to Cortes, opportunities like the visit to the prekindergarten through eighth grade students at the Cherokee Immersion School are crucial for sparking early interest in STEM. The school was selected because all students are Native American.
“It's a chance to introduce young students to a new field of science and affirm what they already know," she said. "Early introduction can in some cases inspire a whole career, thus the more students we reach with STEM and paleontology outreach, the more likely we are to foster a lifelong interest. It also sets students up to seek out additional opportunities to foster their interests earlier in their educational trajectories, contributing to overall success.”
About Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences is a nationally recognized academic health center focused on teaching, research and patient care through its OSU Medicine clinics located throughout the Tulsa metro area. OSU Center for Health Sciences offers graduate and professional degrees through the College of Osteopathic Medicine, the School of Allied Health, the School of Health Care Administration, the School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Forensic Sciences, and the newest site, OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. OSU Medicine operates a network of clinics offering a multitude of specialty services including addiction medicine, cardiology, family medicine, internal medicine, pain management, pediatrics, psychiatry and women’s health. Learn more at medicine.okstate.edu.