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A wall of knowledge

When finished, it will be an ambitious 12 feet of electronic science called the Fossil Wall.

The project in Greg Biance's Inverness Middle School classroom is the construction of a talking information wall that lights up and becomes animated at the touch of a button.

A group of interested students has been meeting every Wednesday since the end of October, carving Tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyl heads, which will be moved by pneumatics. The wall will cover a computer motherboard, Biance said, with six channels telling the heads to move, along with a three-minute script.

The project is part of Biance's paleontology unit and is funded partly by two grants, an Okey Ryan memorial minigrant from the Citrus County Education Foundation and one from the Inverness Middle School Advisory Enhancement Council. Other funding is coming from Biance and his wife, Kim. More is needed.

A lot of the preparation has been done by the small group of students who come in after school. Blair Cooper, Tiffany Richards and Taylor Cain have been working on the pterodactyl, a flying reptile from the Mesozoic Era (225- to 65-million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the earth). Derek Kelsey, Melodie Moff and Amanda Shaffer are the Tyrannosaurus artists and Austin Connors and Robert Diestler have been constructing the wall.

Now, at the beginning of a new nine-week period, they are joined by all of Biance's students studying paleontology. In a four-day lab they will create out of plaster of Paris the fossils they have been researching. The best will go on the wall.

Biance is getting top-level assistance with the animatronics from Gregg Bear, a museum exhibit engineer who has settled in Citrus County. Bear designs and repairs traveling exhibits for museums, including the Smithsonian.

The two met accidentally and started talking. Biance's wall came up and Bear has been offering assistance since. He has been donating or lending the necessary valves and air cylinders and has sought help from friends.

Biance and Bear would like to see the wall displayed at the Citrus County Historical Courthouse Museum and to see units like it built in other schools, locally and nationally.

"If we can get this thing working and working nice," Bear said, he might even interest the Smithsonian in it as a temporary display. "Museums love traveling exhibits," Bear said.

As a professional, Bear sees the advantage of early experience for students interested in museum exhibit design. Most students probably don't realize the career exists.

When finished, the wall will have two heads, which will discuss the fossils. Fiber optics will light up the fossil that Tyrannosaurus or pterodactyl is explaining.

Biance assigned his students scientific papers weeks ago on fossils of their choice. It was, he told his students, a chance to apply their language arts skills to science. His plan all along has been to teach the paleontology unit from many directions.

When presenting a unit with a project, such as this, "students see the relevance of every aspect as it applies to them and the world," Biance said.

"Teaching the variety of disciplines and integrating their use gives great meaning to the learner. It becomes a significant learning process when the mental and physical worlds meet. The varied approach to solving any problem is essential to the absorption of knowledge."

Biance and his students have put a tremendous amount of time and effort into this project, hoping it will become an example to other students. Why would Biance take on such an enormous load with all its extra work?

"Because when I get an idea, I've got to see it happen," he said. "I think it's really going to be good."

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