Weekly Feature

2017-07-20 / Lifestyles

Penn Dixie extends hours for Fossil Fridays


From left to right: Brianna, Devin and Jennifer Witt, exploring the Penn Dixie dig site during the season’s second Fossil Friday event on July 7. From left to right: Brianna, Devin and Jennifer Witt, exploring the Penn Dixie dig site during the season’s second Fossil Friday event on July 7. The Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve will hold extended hours at its collection site in Blasdell as part of the Fossil Fridays program, running once monthly now through September.

Debuting in June, Fossil Fridays joins astronomy classes as the second evening program offered at Penn Dixie, according to executive director Phil Stokes.

In his second year at Penn Dixie, Stokes, who assumed his position in November 2015, brings his experience as a doctoral candidate, instructor and academic adviser in the geology department at the University of Arizona.

“[Fossil Fridays] is maybe something that’s entirely new for us,” Stokes said. “In the past, we had some evening astronomy classes that were popular, but only members could stay after 5 p.m.”

Penn Dixie educator Jay Wollin, using an eight inch dobsonian telescope during Fossil Friday on Friday, July 7. Penn Dixie educator Jay Wollin, using an eight inch dobsonian telescope during Fossil Friday on Friday, July 7. When nonmembers began calling and requesting extended hours, Stokes decided that Penn Dixie “wanted to have that opportunity for them,” and thus established Fossil Fridays.

This season, the Penn Dixie staff and volunteers have already hosted two Fossil Fridays, on June 16 and July 7. At the June 16 event — deemed a “test run” by Stokes and director of education Holly Schreiber — approximately 12 families and individuals participated. The evening astronomy program, however, typically draws about 100 people, according to Stokes, who anticipates more visitors now that school has ended.

“What makes Penn Dixie so special is that we are a fossil park where you can find your own fossils and take them home,” Schreiber said, describing the attraction of Fossil Fridays. “Our number one draw is we have this great fossil-collecting locale.”

To facilitate the expansion of its educational programming, Penn Dixie received a Ronald McDonald House Charities grant, which allowed it to purchase new astronomy equipment. With its own equipment, the Penn Dixie staff will not have to rely as heavily on individual astronomers to provide their own telescopes, thereby granting the programs more independence.

While the evening astronomy program will remain distinct from Fossil Fridays, Fossil Friday participants can use the telescopes — purchased with Ronald McDonald House grant money — to view sunspots.

During Fossil Fridays, the focus will primarily remain on fossil collection and identification, according to Stokes. To welcome first-time visitors, Penn Dixie personnel will highlight the site’s most fossil-dense areas, where participants will have the greatest chance of uncovering something.

“Fossil Fridays are geared toward fossils,” Stokes said. “Our visitors will find a little bit of everything here.”

As part of a larger initiative to increase accessibility, Fossil Fridays has largely singled out children and families as the target demographic. Before digging, newcomers can receive a standard tour, in which guides indicate what to seek. Once they begin exploring, visitors can roam freely, until the park closes at approximately 9 p.m.

“This is a nice way for families to spend some time together during the summer,” Schreiber said. “[Fossil collecting] provides an opportunity for learning without realizing.”

Although these educational ventures typically have a tailored and targeted approach, Fossil Fridays operates at a beginners level. In fact, the events commence with examples of fossils that participants can find and a discussion about Western New York’s geological history; thus, the program presents a perfect opportunity for introducing children to a new branch of science.

“Our board members are always — with children — clear that Penn Dixie is a great place to bring kids to learn and wear them out,” Stokes said.

Since arriving at Penn Dixie, Stokes has witnessed an evolution in both the program offerings and the people who facilitate them. As part of this transformation, the park has begun transitioning to a more professional-based, paid staff, which enables a more streamlined, uniform experience for visitors.

To entice and engage a younger audience, Stokes has pioneered the Fossil Hunters Club Card, a feature of Fossil Fridays. Comparing fossils to Pokemon, Stokes has created a punch card, as seen at some restaurants, that allows visitors to collect — or “catch” — eight fossils and redeem a poster.

“Kids really just want to collect [the fossils] and learn as much as possible,” Stokes said. The remaining Fossil Fridays will take place at 5 p.m. Aug. 4 and Sept. 1, at the Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve, 4050 North St., Blasdell.

The evenings are free for members. Others pay $5 for admission to the park. No registration is necessary.

For more information, contact the park at www.penndixie.org or at 627-4560.

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