- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Budding geologists can study how a stream flows, how rocks are formed and how a seismograph measures earthquakes at the United States Geological Survey Visitors Center in Reston.

The USGS is the nation's largest civilian mapping agency. Its scientists provide scientific information used to monitor the nation's water, biological, energy and mineral resources.

The huge campus is mainly devoted to USGS work, but its first-floor visitors center is open to the public for self-guided or scheduled tours. The visitors center and its activities will primarily appeal to school-age children in about third grade or above.

Scheduling a tour in advance is the way to get the most out of a visit to the USGS, says Beth Stettner, USGS outreach coordinator. Scouts and school groups often visit in conjunction with a specific topic they are studying, such as earthquakes, amphibians or volcanoes and the USGS docents are able to tailor the program to the group.

Tours begin with a short video on the selected topic, then the tour moves into the hands-on room, where visitors work in small groups.

Highlights of the hands-on room include the map-making station, where students sit at light tables and trace objects to see for themselves how painstaking the process of cartography was before today's advanced technology.

"This gives kids an idea of how maps used to be made," says Ms. Stettner.

Another favorite in the hands-on room is the simulated stream. Visitors don high boots and stand in a shallow, hot tub-size "stream."

"This shows them what a hydrologist does in the field," says Ms. Stettner. "We explain that people who live near rivers and streams need this information so they can predict the water levels."

Other activities include stations to identify rocks and minerals with magnifying glasses and to make fossil rubbings. There is an exhibit that explains to visitors how rocks and minerals are used in the production of materials, such as talc in powder and mica in eye shadow.

The center tries to cover all four areas of the agency mapping, water, geology and biology Ms. Stettner says. The biology part is a frog exhibit, with real tadpoles and frogs inhabiting glass cages. In addition to a segment on the life cycle of the frogs, the display includes some malformed frogs. This shows students the effect the environment can have on nature, Ms. Stettner says.

Outside the hands-on room, a tour includes a stop at the printing plant. The USGS has three color presses that produce thousands of maps in an hour. Many of the USGS items are for sale in the sales and science center at the headquarters. Visitors can view or purchase thousands of items, from an aerial map of their home county to a topographical map of the Grand Canyon.

Dinosaur lovers will enjoy the footprints of a kayentapus minor, located in the lobby of the USGS. The footprints were found in the Culpeper Quarry in Virginia in 1969 and are believed to be 298 million years old, Ms. Stettner says. There also is a life-size painting of what scientists believed kayentapus looked like.

There is a Tyrannosaurus rex footprint cast at the USGS. It was found on the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in 1983 by Charles Pillmore, a research geologist with the USGS in Denver. The footprint is believed to be 67 million years old.

"It was identified later as a footprint made by the giant T-rex," Ms. Stettner says. "It presently is recognized as the only known well-preserved fossilized track made by this creature."

Finally, the seismograph display not only shows visitors what the instrument looks like, it shows a log of daily worldwide earthquakes. This helps explain that in certain areas of the world, there is daily albeit minor earthquake activity, Ms. Stettner says.

Outside the building, there is ample chance to enjoy nature at the USGS. There are two paths, one through a woodland and the other through a rock garden, that take visitors past many native species. Maps are available in the visitors center, and participants can use the maps to help identify the tree and mineral specimens along the way.

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