Experiential learning helps Science student unearth lifelong passion

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Manuel ArabFourth-year Earth and Environmental Sciences student Manuel Arab accredits a second-year mineralogy course, Earth 231, and hands-on field experience for awakening his curiosity in unravelling the mysteries of the Earth.

Combining a geology major with a minor in classical studies, Arab has created a one-of-a-kind degree that closes the gap between scientific discovery and historical significance.

I was immediately hooked by the idea of being able to explore the natural environment,” says Arab. “Experiential learning has really helped me figure out where my passion lies.

An archeological field course gave him the strong data gathering and analysis skills needed to participate in an expedition involving a group of internationally renowned researchers. This summer, Arab was the only undergraduate student selected to take part in a Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) dig led by Curator Jean Bernard Caron and Parks Canada to the Burgess Shale.

Manuel Arab at the Burgess Shale siteThe shale is a famous fossil bed known for its preservation of soft bodied animals dating back to the Cambrian Explosion, an era of remarkable species diversification. To this day, the shale remains the main source of information scientists have about the Cambrian marine species that lived 505 million years ago.

Arab helped the team extract key fossils from the shale. He used tools such as splitting chisels and geological hammers to split rocks into one centimeter thin layers that were then examined for fossils. His work helped the team collect a large variety of rare and valuable specimens that will greatly help further research into this time period.

With Paleontology, you never know what you’ll find. It’s amazing to think that some of these fossils have just been here for the past 500 million years waiting to be uncovered,” says Arab.

But this wasn’t his first expedition. Whether it’s collecting soil samples, excavating a desert ruin or digging for a fossil, Arab has been involved in it all.

Last year he took part in an archaeological excavation in Jordan with Professor Russell Adams to uncover artifacts from a Roman smelting site. Arab worked as the ‘jack of all trades’ helping out with various tasks on site and gaining first-hand experience about mineralogy and sedimentology. The copper and pottery that the team uncovered taught him about an ancient trade route between Egypt and Jordan and furthered his appreciation for history.

Outside of classes, his passion for teaching others about the past led him to a position as an Assistant Curator at the Earth Sciences Museum during the summer. Arab conducted museum tours with local school children to teach them about the history of dinosaurs, mineral formation and mining to help spark their interest in Earth Sciences.

Arab’s experience, along with some of his field gear from the Burgess Shale expedition, will be featured in a new display at the Earth Sciences Museum. The display, called the Laboratory of Life, will present elements of exploration from both new and old Burgess Shale sites as well as the specimens found at each location.

After graduation, Arab hopes to pursue his passion in classical geoarchaeology, and paleontology as a graduate student.

I’m really thankful for the support I received from the Museum community,” says Arab. “They made my experience at the ROM expedition worthwhile.

Earth Science Museum Curator and Undergraduate Coordinator Corina McDonald and alumnus Jim Reimer helped to make Arab’s experience to the Burgess Shale possible. A special thanks is also given to Jean Bernard Caron and the expedition team for an incredible opportunity.