Greg Pelligreen says nothing would spark the interest of an eighth-grader like a 30-foot-long dinosaur skeleton in the classroom.
That's why Pelligreen, a Lawrence resident who teaches earth science at Indian Trail Junior High in Olathe, is looking forward to a new teaching tool set to arrive in 2003 a triceratops skeleton.
"From the time you're a little kid, you know what a triceratops is," Pelligreen said. "It's part of everybody's imagination."
Craig Sundell, a Kansas University master's student in ecology and evolutionary biology, has been working to bring the 65 million-year-old dinosaur skeleton to Olathe since he found it two years ago in east-central Wyoming. He wants Olathe eighth-graders to help restore the skeleton before it is displayed at Olathe North High School, his alma mater.
Sundell said it would be the first time a public school district would own a dinosaur skeleton.
"We have a screaming need for more interest in science," Sundell said. "We're co-opting on what ('Jurassic Park' director Steven) Spielberg and others have put out there and saying, 'Here's a dinosaur, and you can really work hands-on with it.'"
Sundell, who has led KU dinosaur excavations in Wyoming for five years, was working in April 2000 to excavate a Tyrannosaurus rex on a rancher's property. While taking a break, Sundell noticed part of a bone sticking from the ground.
What he found could turn out to be one of the best-preserved triceratops specimens ever located. More than 1,000 triceratops skulls have been found, but only about 30 have been found with their skeletons, Sundell said. And no complete triceratops leg bones have ever been located possibly because scavengers dragged the meaty legs elsewhere to eat.
Though between 25 and 50 percent of Sundell's triceratops remains in the ground for excavation this summer the rest of the bones are in his basement and in a barn in Wyoming Sundell said this could be a landmark find.
"This specimen is incredibly promising," he said. "There's a possibility it could be one of the 10 best triceratopses known."
But preparing the dinosaur for exhibit will take thousands of hours of work. Rock and dirt must be removed from the fossils, and the broken parts must be glued together.
"There's no reason this couldn't be done with eighth-graders," Sundell said.
And that's exactly what he intends. The triceratops will be moved to storage at Olathe North High School, and pieces will be taken to junior highs for earth science students to clean and glue, under the supervision of Sundell and their teachers. The project would start in fall 2003, and might not be completed until the end of the 2004-2005 school year.
Sundell, 48, graduated in 1971 from Olathe High School (now Olathe North), and he's spoken to science classes about paleontology while completing graduate work at KU. His niece and nephew attend school in Olathe.
Sundell also chose the project in part to commemorate his 30th high school reunion. He's asking classmates to contribute money to the project.
Sundell is hoping to raise between $20,000 and $25,000 for the first year of the project. That would cover about $5,000 for the landowner's share of the dinosaur (Sundell is donating his half to the Olathe schools), excavation costs and some supplies for cleaning.
He'd like to secure about $100,000 in grant funds for the entire project.
Though the triceratops initially would be displayed at Olathe North High School, administrators have asked KU's Natural History Museum to consider housing it in the future, if Olathe North runs out of space.
Now, KU has only a triceratops skull. But until the museum expands money is included in the KU Endowment Association's capital campaign for an addition it has no room for the skeleton.
Spreading the program
Sundell said he's trying to establish a process for the project that could be repeated in other school districts.
"I would love to do something like this with students and teachers here in Lawrence as well," he said. "I think the possibility is there. I certainly know of more specimens out there."
Pelligreen, the Olathe teacher, is convinced any student would learn from the experience.
"I guess it's stereotypical saying working hands-on makes you learn better," he said. "But you do no doubt about it. We all know the things we enjoy the most are the things we learn the most."