SciTech Now Episode 533

In this episode of SciTech Now, the ancient secrets of dino poop, reinventing high school, and transmitting body signals. 


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Coming up... The ancient secrets of dino poop...

These little, magic packages can provide really special perspectives on ancient life.

Reinventing high school...

Our 21st-century learning should not be inside the classroom walls.

We are taking risk for a change.

Transmitting body signals...

We can record directly from the body to get the muscle activity, then external to the body we can kind of record the forces that her muscles are generating.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago.

However, paleontologists at the University of Colorado Boulder are learning more about them by digging into their poop.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

There doesn't seem to be much to find out on the prairie near Choteau, Montana.

But for paleontologists like Cory Coverdell, this is hallowed ground.

So, this area's famous for its spectacular preservation of baby dinosaurs, eggs, and those sorts of things.

We are very well-known among paleontologists, and there are a lot of people who have come and studied here.

In fact, the discovery that dinosaurs cared for their young was made in these hills.

The very first baby dinosaurs found in a nest anywhere in the world were discovered here.

And so researchers continue to search outcroppings in the hope of making a big discovery.

They're looking for skeletons, for baby bones especially.

But some scientists are seeking treasure of a different variety... fossilized poop.

These little, magic packages can provide really special perspectives on ancient life.

My name is Karen Chin, and I study ancient ecosystems, and to do that I often look at fossilized feces.

Technically known as a coprolite.

So, skeletal fossils, they don't always tell you too much about the behavior of animals, whereas if you look at fossil feces, they are a byproduct of feeding activity of an animal.

But in addition to diet, they can also tell you about what organisms might have been living along with the animal that defecated, and coprolites can also tell you about the conditions under which they were preserved.

As such they give us a totally different perspective on an ancient environment than we get from the bones.

Sadly, these fecal fortunes are far more rare than skeletal bones.

It's a little bit paradoxical that an animal only died once in its lifetime, but it defecated gazillions of times.

But even so coprolites from terrestrial animals are much rarer than their skeletal fossils.

Their scarcity has a lot to do with how fossils are formed.

Most fossils are preserved when they are buried rapidly.

That is often a flood event or some landslide.

But in addition to that you have to have some mineralizing agent.

Like phosphorus or calcium from the bones and tissues of a carnivorous dinosaur's prey.

But if you take dung from herbivorous animals, in order to preserve those, you actually need an external source of a mineral.

Paradoxically, that comes from the bacteria that are feeding on fossil dung.

Their metabolic activities can cause minerals to precipitate out.

In either case the resulting coprolites can be incredibly difficult to identify.

Fossil feces can have many different colors.

Can be pancake, they can be bulbous, they can be sausage-shaped, and we have to look at several different techniques to try and determine if it is fossil feces or just a pretty rock.

Once she's fairly certain she's got the real deal, Dr. Chin can begin to investigate its origins.

You don't know who the 'poopetrator' was, right?

I will first see if I can see anything recognizable on the surface, such as dietary residues or burrows from an organism that burrowed in after it was deposited.

I may make a thin section of it.

And I cut out a little piece, and then I grind that down so you can see through it.

Again, it's almost like you're in the field.

You're, like, searching around the slide.

Oh, what is that?

Clues that say these are plant cells.

These are animal cells.

This is a piece of bone.

It's a piece of shell.

Dr. Chin and her colleagues can then start to get into the nitty-gritty.

I might do a chemical analysis of it to see what kind of mineralogy it had.

You can look at organic geochemical analyses or isotopic analyses.

This is kind of a new field in studying coprolites.

And with new techniques can come new insights.

One of my colleagues, James Super, analyzed some coprolites from the Arctic.

Inside, he found compounds that give us clues about how warm it was 78 million years ago above the Arctic Circle.

But of all the coprolites Dr. Chin has examined, none have provided more insights than those from western Montana's Two Medicine formation.

I have spent many years studying these coprolites, and one thing that they revealed early on was the presence of very distinctive burrows that indicate the activity of dung beetles.

As well as the occasional snail shell.

More importantly...

They were filled with tiny pieces of conifer wood.

Dr. Chin mulled over those wood fibers until she realized that the dinosaur that ate them wasn't just munching on a pine tree.

The wood had actually been rotted before the dinosaurs ingested it.

We don't have modern mega-herbivores like elephants making a practice of feeding on rotting wood.

So that was a real surprise.

But Dr. Chin had a hunch that maybe these duck-billed dinosaurs had been snacking on something else entirely.

Invertebrates frequent rotting wood.

So if those dinosaurs needed a good source of protein, they'd go to a rotten log, and that's a great way to find proteinaceous invertebrates.

Her hypothesis was backed up when colleagues at the Denver Museum of Natural History and Science made their own fecal find.

They found coprolites in the Kaiparowits Formation, which is the same age as at Two Medicine.

They also have rotted wood inside.

They also have evidence of dung beetles inside.

But, in addition, they have actually pieces of broken-up crustaceans.

They were clearly broken up so they were ingested.

Put together, these plain, lumpy rocks reveal a whole ecosystem.

We have hadrosaurs.

We have conifers.

We have white-rot fungi, and we have dung beetles and snails all in this one ecosystem, and we have fossil evidence of how these guys interacted.

We can't get that from simple body fossils.

Out on the prairie of western Montana, precious coprolites are waiting to be dug up.

You probably won't see them displayed in a museum like fossil bones, but they're sure to provide us a spectacular glimpse into the ancient past.

Here to discuss his story on fossilized dinosaur poop is 'Science Friday' video producer Luke Groskin.

There is a very official and fancy word for it.

We could start using that so I don't say the word 'poop' over and over.


They're called 'coprolites.'

Okay, and what are they?

They are poop.

They're fossilized?

They're fossilized.

They're rocks.

So basically the organic matter, the nasty, gross stuff, has been mineralized.

So you're basically dealing with these big, chunky rocks.

They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, depending on where they were fossilized, how they were fossilized, who created them.

And so, you know, you get things that are like these giant, mountainous kind of big, black rocks filled with all sorts of what looked like plant matter, or you get these small, little kind of white pellet-like shapes.

I saw ones that that were blue that look like these bright, turquoise kind of blue edging on the sides.

It all depends on how they were created.

Is it rare?

Are they rare?

They're extremely rare, especially for plant-eating dinosaurs.

But they create waste.

They create poop multiple times a day.



There's far more waste that they've generated than their actual skeletons and bodies.

And yet we go out and discover their skeletons and bodies.

So, why is this harder to find?

Why is this more rare?

So they're soft and squishy, so they get flattened and misshapen, and they degrade.

There has to be a very specific set of conditions that preserves them so...

Not everything turns into a fossil.

Exactly. Exactly.

And that's especially true for soft material, soft tissues and poop.

So, when the dinosaur pooped in water that's the best place for for it to actually be preserved.

When they poop in water and they get covered up really quickly with mud, that's a really great way to create a kind of casing there.

And so the metabolic action that's going on within the poop from the bacteria and from the minerals inside the water can create a fossilization.

In the case of a meat-eating dinosaur, it's poop that's filled with bones, lots and lots of calcium, and that creates a lot of the rock, the fossilized material inside of it.

There are marine creatures where the feces is a lot more common.

Actually, for paleontologists it's a lot easier to find marine coprolites versus terrestrial coprolites.

What have they learned looking in this?

This is hard to believe that there's somebody who just literally this is their day job, but what do these scientists find?

So, you can learn way more from their poop about the ecology, the world that these animals lived in versus just the bones themselves.

The bones will give you an idea of how an animal walked, how it chomped on another animal, but it won't tell you exactly what that other animal was, or it won't tell you what the environment was like at that time.

So, just one single coprolite, especially the one that Dr. Karen Chin has studied -- from looking at one specific coprolite, she was able to determine the entire ecosystem, an entire trophic level of creature eating another creature eating another creature.

And what did all those -- you put all those creatures together, well, clearly they were living in this kind of marine estuary environment because only those creatures only live in those sorts of environments.

And by looking at the very specific geochemical properties of that coprolite, you can determine how quickly that coprolite was buried.

Okay, so was that a flooding event, or was that a gradual fossilization?

You can tell how warm it was.

You can tell the acidity at which it was fossilized.

You can tell a lot about the environment and the climate.

So, there's almost like a little time capsule.


I mean, you're learning more about that life then from the inside of stomach than you are from the skin and the bones.

Yeah, absolutely.

And you wouldn't expect that from poop.

I mean, the big dinosaur fossils that you see in the museum, they get a lot of glory, and they're gorgeous to look at.

But, you know, if you want to really paint the picture of where that T-Rex was wandering around and what life was like actually back in the Cretaceous, you've got to look at the poop.

Alright, Luke Groskin, thanks so much.

Thank you.

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A Houston, Texas, high school is working to become a super-school, thanks to a $10 million grant.

Here's a story on how one high school is rethinking the typical academic experience.

This school was always called a dropout school.

We had 19- and 20-year-old kids in ninth grade, and they were naturally dropping out.

And I had known that we needed to change the way we work in our high schools.

[ Bell rings ]

Our 21st-century learning should not be inside the classroom walls.

We are taking risk for a change.

If we are able to truly implement it, then we will transform this high school.

We heard that Steven Jobs' widow was going to try to reinvent high schools.

We had put together a great proposal, but we had no idea that we would get it.

What are you guys trying here at this high school?

We have three different pathways here.

One of them is the alternative forms of energy.

Environmental communications... And then the last one is place-based.

And that's people connecting with people and people connecting with nature.

We were looking for what could these kids really get interested in that would encourage them to want to come to school and would spill over into all the academic areas.

We're trying to teach them to make wise decisions, and then we produce students, collaborators, problem-solvers, innovators who will be highly productive in the 21st century.

It's almost like a trial period.

You never know what you're going to like until you try.

It's like a stepping-stone to see what we want to do.

We have actually incorporated 'genius hour.'

According to the genius hour, our students get two hours a week to choose what they want to do.

So, a group of students came to me because they want to see the technicalities behind launching rocket.

Now they are the active learners.

We plant in guilds.

Like, let's say you're really awesome at skateboarding, and I'm really good at taking video, right?

So, we pair up together, and we make an awesome team and we form a guild.

We plant things together so they can help each other.

What is this class?

This class is agriculture.

Today we're working on the garden.

We moved strawberries from the school's garden to over here to the orchard.

What is that in your hand?

These are onions.

Why are you holding onions?

We were planting them, and it just makes me feel comfortable.

We're called the media team, and we produce movies and films and documentaries.

Why did you choose this pathway?

It felt like the pathway where I could be myself and express myself.

Coming from a middle school where you're treated like a child, and then you come here and you're given all these options.

It was pretty overwhelming.

It was hard to believe you could do it sometimes, to see, 'Oh, am I worth this?'

But eventually they help you -- they help you believe in yourself.

So here, what is happening exactly is since they are choosing, since they are passionate about, since they want to do it, they are taking ownership of it.

They are free.

When you are free, you think outside the box.


My younger son, we actually came into this room years ago, and he was probably 4, and I put on my helmet on him and put my harness, and it's dragging on the floor.

He looks at me and goes, 'Look, Daddy. I'm a test pilot.'

Put this side in first.

I'm Nils Larson.

I'm the chief test pilot here at NASA Armstrong.

It really came when I was probably a junior in high school, maybe a sophomore, and one of my teachers handed me a book, and the book was 'The Right Stuff.'

I knew I kind of wanted to be an engineer or a scientist, and I read that and I went, 'Wow, this would be cool.

You can be both an engineer/scientist, and you can be a pilot.

Best of both worlds -- how cool will this be?

3, 2, 1...

Copy, Mark.

The test pilot answer is, 'My favorite is whatever I'm flying today.'

So, I just got out of the F-18.

So that's my favorite right now.

[ Chuckles ]

Well, the role of the test pilot is to pull it all together in the air.

Our mission here, our objectives are testing science and technology through flight in flight.

Let's see, flight objectives.

Basically, the biggest thing is to try and get this instrumentation worked out, you know, be able to compare it to the airplane and to what's being recorded on my chest.

Mission security, mission rules, go/no go -- we talked about the 40,000 foot, probably the biggest one.

So, we'll go to 39,999 feet.

[ Laughter ]

Keep me on my toes.

Yeah, exactly.


You got your helmet?

Okay, I can give you the rundown real quick, and then we can go out there and do what we got to do.

Well, what we do is our initial concern is to give the pilot a safe and reliable aircraft for his mission.

Once we've achieved that, then our next concern becomes the science and the research folks that are going to associated with the airplane.

So if they've attached an experiment or they're looking for specific data, we work with them to make sure that their equipment is working the way it should be and that it gets them the data that they're looking for.

You know, for us here, we work a lot more with the project we're doing.

You know, sometimes we call it 'weird things with airplanes,' so rarely are we going to point 'A' to point 'B' or if we are going point 'A' to point 'B,' we're going up and down and up and down and up and down the whole time when we're going there.

And our job is to try and get the people the data.

Fan on the speed brake.

Feel its effect on pitch.


That was a good one.

You look and, you know, you still -- even though you're sitting in the same desk -- Neil Armstrong worked here.

We named the place after him.

You know, my desk used to be right where he sat.

You know, Joe Walker, I sit where his desk used to be.

That's where I sit now, and you still don't feel like you're worthy to be sitting where they were.

I'll say one thing.

These pilots are about the best test pilots probably in the world.

They're very busy.

They're either flying all across the world, in sims, meetings, tech briefs.

They make things happen at NASA and for the United States and the world.

They're the first people flying maybe a wing that was modified or some modification to an aircraft.

We're not done with flight.

There's a lot of research yet to be done in flight.

There's a lot of gains yet to be accomplished in flight, and to get our job done, we need test pilots like Nils Larson, like the people he works with and trains.

Still a little bit of side-to-side motion on the stick, little bit of pump... It's early morning, and I'm watching a sunrise over the lake bed.

And it's a beautiful sunrise, and it suddenly occurs to me, 'Oh, my God, I made it.'

You know?

I'm doing what it was that I decided when I was 16 that I wanted to go do.

I always tell people that it's worth it because it wasn't like I was just nose in a book, you know, for 17 years.

I had a lot of fun in those 17 years getting up to that flight, and then I've had a lot more flights like that since.

it's totally been worth it.

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Great Lakes Neurotechnologies in Cleveland, Ohio, is creating a wearable biomedical device that monitors different signals that the body generates.

This segment is part of 'American Graduate: Getting to Work,' a public-media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Biomedical engineering as a discipline is anywhere where engineering -- so the people that build and develop things -- intersects with, like, medicine and human health.

My name is Chris Pulliam.

I work here at Great Lakes Neurotechnologies, and I am the product manager here.

I think our specialty is developing devices for monitoring different signals that the body generates.

So when my muscles contract there's a little electrical signal that's generated.

When I move my eyes around, you know, there's an electrical signal that we could record.

When I'm thinking, there are certain areas of the brain that generate an electrical signal.

Our hearts generate electrical signals.

So we have a product that's called the BioRadio.

What it does is it can be configured to record lots of different combinations of these electrical signals, and you can use it to kind of understand, you know, different activities that the body is going through.

So, what we have set up here is we've configured it to record the muscle activity from the flexor muscles in the forearm.

Those the muscles that come on when you make a fist, and then this is a force sensor that's going to measure how strong Natalie's grip is.

So, we can kind of record directly from the body to get the muscle activity, then external to the body we can kind of record the forces that her muscles are generating.

And all of this information is captured by the BioRadio and then sent to a computer.

So, what we have here on the top trace is the muscle activity from Natalie's forearm, and then on the bottom we have the force that she's exerting when she squeezes that hand sensor.

So, you can see the signal is smaller when she's relaxed, and then it gets bigger when she contracts her muscles.

My job, you know, fortunately and unfortunately is very computer-based.

So I do a lot of analyzing data in a computer here at our company.

Now we're doing a lot of mobile-app development, so, you know, we kind of learn a little bit about how to build an app.

The Kinesia 360, as an example, is our new mobile application that can be used to remotely monitor individuals that have Parkinson's disease.

The patient would actually just put sensors on at the beginning of the day.

They go about their day, and then we get all that information at the end of the day and kind of try to identify when symptoms are happening.

Inside of these Velcro bands is a small, wireless motion sensor, and it has -- on the inside it has a Bluetooth radio, and that's what allows it to communicate with the smartphone.

And these are really similar to what's in our smartphones.

So, a lot of our smartphones have sensors so that when you rotate the screen the orientation of the screen changes.

So, those same types of sensors are in here, and we just use those to kind of quantify how someone's moving during the day.

Engineering is very math-heavy.

So, math and statistics that I learned in high school, like, those are things that I still use today.

But oddly enough I think kind of something that people don't think about when they think about engineers is the ability to communicate.

So, I took a creative-writing course in high school that really kind of taught me how do you formulate a really persuasive argument in a written format?

And a lot of what I do, especially since I tend to work in research, I have to take kind of things I learned and then kind of put them into a paper that's understandable by someone that didn't do all the work.

In our company, we're really small, but we developed really quickly.

So, you can see something go from an idea in your head to an actual product in the span of a year.

Next thing you know, you have something that you can give to a patient and, you know, that product might have an impact on their healthcare.

So, that is really, really rewarding.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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