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South Coast Museum Offers Unique Science Program That Involves Trading Objects Found In Nature

You may come across shells, rocks or even fossils on a nature walk without paying much attention to them. But, there’s a unique program on the South Coast that involves collecting these natural objects, learning more about them and trading them in for other items found in nature.

Children and adults alike are becoming citizen scientists at a museum in Santa Barbara.

Seven-year-old Veronica Todoroff turns in her sand dollar to Sabina Thomas, who’s a naturalist, which is a scientist who studies animals and plants as they live in nature.

Inside the Curiosity Lab at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Todoroff learns more about the natural objects she collectd, like a sand dollar.

“It’s just a skeleton that you find on the beach,” she says.

Todoroff is taking part in an innovative science education program called Nature Exchange.

“It’s just fun going out in nature with all the things you can find,” she says.

This is how it works: She and other nature enthusiasts of all ages bring in natural objects like rocks, minerals, shells, pine cones and fossils. The collectors’ must follow wildlife regulations. For example, no feathers, no nests and no items from federal lands.  The collector gets points based on the object and what they know about it. Those points can then be spent on natural items of their choice.

The museum's director of education, Justin Canty, says he partnered with a Canada-based science center called Science North to bring in this program.

“It’s really allowing the naturalist a platform to have deeper discussions about the natural world and what it means to collect and to research and why it’s important to be good stewards for our world.”

It’s a learning process.

Todoroff presents Thomas with another item. It appears to be a worm imprint on a rock, but it requires more research.

“I can’t see a fossil itself, but this is an interesting imprint. Why don’t you put it in the magnification over there and see what you can find out?” Thomas asks.

So, she places the item under this microscope that projects onto a large screen.

“I can see some more little dots in it. More of this imprint right here,” she says.

And it’s making these discoveries that gets Todoroff excited.

“There’s fun things about these cool items. So, that’s why I like figuring out the things that I never knew about,” she says.

It's inspiring to the museum’s lead naturalist, Christine Melvin.

“I get to see the next generation of scientists. They’re brilliant. They’re inquisitive and curious. It gives me a lot of hope,” she says.

After Todoroff shares her knowledge about the items she collected, she turns them in to get points that she can spend on a host of natural objects -- things like a fossil fish, abalone shells and a four-leaf clover. She chooses one of the most expensive items – a megaladon tooth from an extinct species of shark.

“I was super happy. I was practically shaking,” she says.

Todoroff’s mother, Christine Bolli, says it has been a great experience.

“It’s a good family activity. We all had a lot of fun. She’s very interested in the sciences, so for her it’s particularly up her alley,” she says.

Thomas says the goal of Nature Exchange is simple.

“Get all human beings interested in their natural environment. Finding out that ultimately that we are all part of it. And striving to preserve it,” she says.

The program runs through the end of the year.