CNCC paleontology program expands offerings at Craig campus |

CNCC paleontology program expands offerings at Craig campus

Colorado Northwestern Community College staff and students motion to Blue the raptor, part of the paleontology display on the Craig campus. From left, faculty Daniel Snyder, students Gabriel Nevola and Alvaro Garza, faculty Liz Johnson, student Mike Holloway, paleontologist and gateway coordinator Tyler Bridges, student Sue Mock, and CNCC Vice President of Instruction Keith Peterson.
Barry Steadman/For Craig Press

Dinosaur enthusiasts now have an official plan of study to pursue at Colorado Northwestern Community College. The current fall semester has marked the first term in which CNCC has offered an associate’s of science degree with a paleontology plan of study, and the program has already started attracting students from all over the country.

“I found a random flier online about the two week digging excursion,” said CNCC Paleontology student Gabriel Nevola. “This is my second year of college and my first year here; I came here from New York strictly for paleo.”

Another paleontology student, Alvaro Garza, came from Austin, Texas for the program, and has been studying paleontology at CNCC since 2017.

“Thanks to an online friend who was already at CNCC, I heard about the summer dig class and came to attend. Once I was here, I fell in love with the program; so, I signed up, packed up all my stuff, and moved away to attend CNCC,” Garza said.

CNCC was established as a Federal Fossil Repository by the BLM in 2015, and since then, CNCC has offered the opportunity for students to embark on annual summer digs where they learn how to identify fossils, learn field techniques, and in the fall and spring terms, learn lab techniques. 

“This is the first time we are offering paleontology field techniques in the fall — we usually offer it only in the summer,” said Liz Johnson, the fossil repository curator and CNCC paleontologist.

The plan of study is intended to provide students with the opportunity to not only get to learn about paleontology first-hand, but to also get their general education requirements completed with classes that will aid them and give them a competitive edge when transferring to a four-year university.

“You don’t get to touch bones at a four-year university — that’s reserved for the graduate students,” Johnson said. “I remember one time I found a bone on the field, and you know, as an undergrad, you pretty much get kicked off by the graduate students when you find something amazing; you’re basically there for grunt work.”

CNCC is the only community college in the country that has received Federal Fossil Repository status.

“It is utterly unique for a community college to have this program,” said CNCC Vice President of Instruction Keith Peterson.

Student will also have the opportunity to apply for a paleo internship in the spring that will entail helping compile field reports, conducting research, and setting up labs.

“When I submit those reports to the BLM, that students name will be on those documents” Johnson said.

Johnson also emphasized the vast career opportunities available for those who pursue a degree in paleontology.

“Paleontology is like the gateway science to all other sciences,” she said. “You can still have an interest in paleontology and get your degree, but yet that means you can become a geologist; you can become a chemist; you can become a biologist – you are the most interdisciplinary breed that is a scientist.”

Peterson discussed some of the next steps for the program with plans of turning the first floor, eastern hallway of the main academic build in Craig into a miniature fossil exhibit. Peterson envisions plastered fossil displays, and student made exhibits that are accompanied by informative digital display boards.

“One of the things we’re prioritizing this year is making paleo more accessible to the community,” he said. “We want anyone to walk down the hallway and be a part of and witness what we’re doing here.”

The new plan of study is accompanied by the hiring of Daniel Snyder as a new paleontologist science faculty. This means CNCC is able to offer more science courses on the Craig campus, allowing Johnson to focus more on the paleontology program with a goal of getting 12 new students enrolled in the program every year.

“We’re pretty fully committed now,” Peterson said about the paleontology program. “It’s really been under the leadership of remarkable female scientists.”

With his time studying paleontology at CNCC under his belt, Garza wants readers to know this about the program.

“Paleontology hasn’t always been the most accessible field for people to get into; however, through this program, both future paleontologist and the general public get to learn about the ancient past without going into major debt,” he said.

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