The Ark Encounter in Kentucky is built on a foundation of trillions of fossils but when they built a new activity to allow visitors to find their own fossils they opted to give them assorted fossils from other places in the world. This was a missed educational opportunity.
When I wrote about my visit to the Ark Encounter (My Trip to the Ark Encounter: Some Pictures and Reflections) and made some serious suggestions about possible improvements, I was going to suggest they add a “find your own fossils” activity for kids. But then I heard that this was already in the works so I didn’t say anything. I assumed this exhibit would highlight the fossils that are found right in the hills that the Ark replica is sitting on. Apparently I was wrong. Instead, they joined forces with an organization called Camp Infinity to construct a fossil sluice. Here is how the Ark Encounter markets the attraction:
“Purchase your bag of dirt for $10 (including tax) and head over to the panning sluice to see if your bag contains amber, horn coral, petrified wood, or shark tooth fossils.”
“This interactive activity will help teach your children how to think biblically about fossils, and they will learn that science confirms God’s Word from the very beginning. Each child takes home a card that gives a biblical explanation for fossils.”
It turns out that the “panning” involves pouring your dirt into a wooden box with a screen on the bottom. You then put this box into the running water of the sluice and sift out the dirt to find the fossils inside.
I’m sure that kids think this is great and many parents will think that it’s worth the $10 for the experience and for their kids to have some fossils. The Ark Encounter isn’t doing anything than any other business isn’t doing. But what a waste of a teaching opportunity. Camp Infinity which sponsors the fossil sluice described the attraction explains that:
…. The fossil sluice we were able to sponsor highlights the fact that we do hands-on science but from a biblical worldview.”
I suppose this literally fits the definition of a hands-on experience but it wouldn’t be considered an effective use of this educational technique. This is nothing more than one a “find your own crystals” kit where rocks have been embedded in plaster of paris and you are given a plastic tool to dig them out. Yes, that is hands-on but it hardly qualifies as a valuable scientific learning experience.
Furthermore I would submit that it does nothing but perpetuate misconceptions about the fossil record. The fossils in this bag of dirt include amber, sharks teeth, fossilized wood and a variety of marine shells. This collection gives the aspiring fossil-hunter the impression that if you were out looking in real rocks for fossils that you could stumble upon a similar eclectic set of fossils anywhere in the world. But this is not the norm for the fossil record. There is tremendous order with respect to where fossils are found and what other fossils they may be found with. AiG provides a card to those that purchase their bag of dirt that gives information about the fossils and I haven’t see the card myself. Maybe it has more than just the name of the fossil and a plug for Camp Infinity. Hopefully it at least says where the fossils really come from, but I doubt it includes details about the geological context for the actual fossils they found.
A better learning experience
Here is the opportunity I saw when I visited the Ark Encounter. Rather than purchasing, albeit very cheap, out-of-context fossils to sell to their patrons they could have given them a real fossil-collecting experience. They own billions and billions of fossils, why not use them.
I believe they should have dug a trench on the side of the hill where the Ark sits. This trench would have exposed hundreds of layers of limestone and shale rock full of fossils. They could have provided labels, just like the secular walk-through-time exhibits at some roadcuts do, that show the names of the rock layers and the fossils found in then. They could make a big board explaining how Noah’s Flood deposited these specific layers of of rock and the fossils in them. Unlike most of the fake items in the Ark replica this would be a chance for their audience to observe the real history of the Earth and be provided with the young-earth interpretation of it. Isn’t this what YECs always preach: that everyone has the same observational data but it’s just the interpretations that are different. Here was a golden opportunity to demonstrate this supposed principle.
Then visitors could go to an areas where the spoil – all the rock blasted out of the trench – would have been taken. This spoil would have millions of fossil shells and they could pay for a bag and small pick and go out and collect as many fossils from those rocks and even the rocks themselves. I have to believe that this would leave the visitors with a much stronger impression of what the fossil record really looks like and they would be taking a piece of the Ark Encounter land home with them. I have been to fossil parks (eg. Fossil Park in Toledo, OH) where visitors are free to collect fossils from the sediment and break them out of rocks and take them home with them. Kids really get into this type of thing because they know it is real when they can see the rock wall that provided the rocks they are collecting from.
Instead, the Ark Encounter patrons are going through a completely fake exercise. Yes, it does yield real fossils but that isn’t much different from being given a fossil for Christmas. If you didn’t collect if yourself the educational value of the fossil if very limited even if there is an interpretive card to go with it. I certainly wouldn’t call such a gift an interactive experience.
What a wasted opportunity for the public to have a real hands-on experience and be challenged to think about fossils in their original context.
As a remind of the type of fossils that can be found on the Ark Encounter property here are some of my pictures again of fossils that I observed while I was there.
My cover image for this post is a picture I took in 2013 of my two sons with a block of rock that contains dinosaur footprints near Moab, UT. Seeing fossils in context is a real hands-on experience with fossils.