While most students are taking notes and listening to lectures, Padilla-Wilson’s students are canvassing Marsh Creek, which flows behind the facility, conducting an archeological dig. They’re searching for evidence to help identify the type of people who live and have lived in the area. No item is too small. Everything has significance.
“The students are finding all kinds of things, from toys to shells,” Padilla-Wilson said. “There is no such thing as trash during these digs. Everything plays a part in telling the story of what life is like in this area. Even the food wrapper from McDonald’s helps give us clues about the people in the area. Wrappers illustrate the diet of the inhabitants, while toys help define what play means to this group of people.”
So although it might not take a genius to understand why there are empty soda bottles and snack wrappers near a college campus, 50 years from now these items would be significant indicators of life at the site.
That’s what Padilla-Wilson is trying to show her students. Rather than keeping her students cooped up, she’s letting them explore the field of anthropology with hands-on experience. The students learned the principles of an archeological dig during the first week of class, and then Padilla-Wilson took her class to the creek to see what they could find.
Using paintbrushes and garden spades, the students dig around, hoping to uncover objects that might shed light on the culture that lives in the area. They’re essentially studying themselves, but that doesn’t detract from the fun.
“The students have had such an enthusiastic response to this program,” Padilla-Wilson said. “They get really excited about coming out here and digging around in the dirt hoping to find some type of treasure. They get really competitive about it, too. They compete to see who can find the most unique thing. We find a lot of rocks and plants, dead bugs, but they’re also finding tennis balls and pieces of cloth. It’s up to them to figure out what all these things say about the people who live here.”
Students bag and tag each item they decide to keep as part of their investigation. Padilla-Wilson’s class will go out to collect artifacts several times during the semester, and ultimately write term papers about their investigations and announce their findings.
The community is also getting involved in the ongoing exercise. Padilla-Wilson said people who walk the Marsh Creek Trail stop to observe her class at work and sometimes even pitch in. Last week, Padilla-Wilson said a passerby was out bird watching and took a few minutes to help students identify species of birds based on its feathers.
“It’s so exciting when people stop by and ask questions,” Padilla-Wilson said. “The students really like interacting with the people who pass by in the mornings. They like sharing what they’re finding.”
Padilla-Wilson is conducting a similar exercise at the Pittsburg campus, where students conduct their field work near the lake behind the main campus.
Sophomore Arryn Crow of Antioch dug up leaves and feathers. She also found a Lego, a jump rope and a mouth guard. “Finding the mouth guard was really gross, but it says a lot about the area,” Crow said. “There are a lot of athletes here, so maybe someone was jogging around the lake and this fell out of their bag. Who knows?
“There are a lot of kids who walk around the lake with their parents, so that explains the toys we’re finding. And the feathers are from all the ducks and geese that live at the lake. It all comes together like a puzzle.”
Like her students, Padilla-Wilson began her college education at LMC. She took anthropology as part of the general education curriculum and fell in love with it. She spent years in the field, but returned to LMC five years ago as a part-time instructor.
Now a full-time faculty member, Padilla-Wilson is trying to inspire her students, introducing the archeological dig component to the class this semester to help students get a better understanding of what anthropology is all about.
Crow plans to transfer St. Mary’s College to complete her degree in anthropology just like Padilla-Wilson. Another one of Padilla-Wilson’s students, Noah Hirsch, a sophomore from Antioch, said he took one of her anthropology classes last spring and enjoyed the class so much that changed his major to pursue the social science.
“I was pre-med, but then I took the class, and I really liked this side of science,” Hirsch said. “Anthropology isn’t about finding out what things are made of. It’s more abstract. Like when you find something during a dig, you don’t want to just know what it is, but you want to know how it got there and why people used it. You want to know who used it. It’s like solving a mystery.”
Padilla-Wilson said based on the reaction of her students these first weeks of class, she’ll bring the archeological dig exercise back next semester. She also hopes the increase in student enrollment in her classes results in more class offerings for the anthropology department, as the college currently only offers three types of anthropology courses.