Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Becky Barnes's blog

Online Paleontology Chats

*static* Good morning, everyone. We're reporting from our home office during this time of uncertainty! This is about as behind-the-scenes as we can get right now. Each day while schools are closed, paleontology is putting together a livestream question-and-answer session for kids and families stuck at home.

What does this include? First, we pick a topic that we think is cool, and that we believe will be entertaining for kids at home. Our first three topics were mosasaurs (sea monsters), coprolites (fossil poo), and ammonites (ancient shelled squid relatives). From the responses we've had thus far, it's going over well!

Second, we do a personal refresher course on the topic—any new articles published, myths debunked, unusual facts, modern examples— to bring it together and make sure our information is as up-to-date as possible.

Third, we set up a streaming service (we're using Zoom) on a laptop, add in a webcam, and find a cool backdrop. I like to use the shelves in my office, because they're filled with odds and ends skulls, fossils, bones, toys, etc. With each session, I add or remove objects from the shelves. This gives a little something extra for kids to look for, and they spot the differences FAST.

Finally, we do the presentation! We're recording each session so it can be spliced later and added online, thus removing any potential extra voices, long pauses (thankfully few and far between), or when a young viewer decides they're bored and screen-shares Minecraft with us (oops!).

Screenshot of editing software

Editing the "ammonite" chat. You can see all the splices at the bottom where we take out long pauses or other undesirable segments to make the final video more streamlined and understandable.

We'll keep coming up with chats and streaming for as long as we can. All the paleo staff have kids at home too, so we understand the need to keep our “littles” educated and entertained. Our hopes are that these brief periods of science will help fill that niche.

This is Becky, signing off. Stay safe, wash your hands, and take care! *static*


To watch the chats live, go to our events page and click on tomorrow's event. There is a link in the description to the live feed. You need to sign up for a free Zoom account if you don't have one.

How I Became the Human Gyroscope

If you ever catch me walking up and down the halls while shaking, twisting, turning, or just generally moving around an object in my hands — congratulations, you’ve met paleontology’s human gyroscope! Paleontology doesn’t own an actual gyroscope — a spinning device that can be rotated many different directions — so we resort to human hands instead. What would this be used for?

When making a casting, a gyroscope can be used to save material by making that casting hollow. Rather than filling up a mold with plastic (a waste of expensive materials), just the outer wall of the mold can be coated. This also gives us the added bonus of being able to measure out weights (steel pellets) to add to the plastic to achieve the weight of the original object. If weights are added, then it is extremely important to keep that gyroscopic motion going, or else you end up with a weeble-wobble object that’s heavy on one end (because all the weight sinks down while the plastic hardens).

Becky holdling two small bottles and smiling at the camera

Becky mixing glue. Mixing mixing mixing!

Here I am mixing up a batch of glue (butvar-76 plastic dissolved in acetone). You can see the fume hood (window) behind me to make sure all the potential chemical fumes go far, far away. Mixing up a thin version (consolidant) is easy — just pour into our magnetic mixer and away we go! Mixing glue, however, is tricky, and aerobic. You have to KEEP MOVING the bottles for a good hour, or else the not-quite-dissolved plastic sinks down to the bottom of the bottle and sits as an immoveable clump. Then, the next time someone tries to squeeze glue from the jug, they get a squirt of very liquid acetone — while all the glue stays in the bottle.

Some of our behind-the-scenes work is glamorous. Fossils! Prep work! Artwork! Other times, my work is just the necessary tasks that have to happen to make sure those glamorous projects keep going.