Kids searching for fossils using SharkFinder kits at Scientific American’s booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Credit: Jason Osborne

Jason Osborne was trying to grab a quick lunch away from the crowds when his wife called his cellphone. “Jason, you’ve got to come see this boy at the booth. He’s amazing!”

When Osborne, who cofounded the nonprofit citizen-science group Paleo Quest with Aaron A. Alford, made his way back to Scientific American‘s booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., he was impressed by the focus of the seven-year-old home-schooled boy, who was staring intently into one of the six Zeiss Stemi DV4 stereo microscopes on loan for use with SharkFinder kits. The kits each contain a fossil-bearing matrix from the Atlantic coastal plain. The boy asked Osborne a series of thoughtful questions. He pointed out a suspected fossil bone, noting (correctly) that he thought it was a bone because it had “little holes” in it.

“I watched him work,” says Osborne, who is also neurobiological instrument and systems designer at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and host researcher at JASON Learning, an educational affiliate of National Geographic and the Sea Research Foundation, and thought, “We have to do something for this kid.”

Bretton Kent, director of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, Entomology Department, and head of the lab that publishes on SharkFinder samples, agreed. On the spot, he invited the boy to be a research associate at the university over the summer to comb through fossil-bearing samples.

Yes, kids were doing some real science at the Scientific American booth. In addition to finding fossil teeth from ancient sharks, skates and rays, they also reviewed scientific journal articles with Noah Gray, an editor at Nature; Robert Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley; Frederick Fenter of the journal Frontiers for Young Minds, and Kamila Markram, the cofounder of the Frontiers journals. (Nature, Frontiers for Young Minds and Frontiers are sister publications of Scientific American.) And the youngsters and their families also did some of Scientific American‘s own Bring Science Home activities.

Jason Osborne and Aaron Alford of Paleo Quest and some fossils from the mid-Atlantic region. Credit: Sherri Osborne

“Every scientist that I know can point to a handful of people that inspired them to enter a STEM career track by helping them make an emotional connection to science and discovery,” says Alford, who is a psychiatric epidemiologist and evaluator for the Battelle Memorial Institute in Arlington, Va., and also a host researcher and STEM methodologist at JASON Learning. I know I join the rest of the Scientific American team when I say I hope that kind of inspiring connection happened for the many bright-eyed little ones who joined us at the festival.

More than 690 students, aged 2-1/2 to 14, discovered fossils with SharkFinder at the X-STEM Symposium and the weekend Festival. The scientist volunteers gave away more than a quarter of a ton of fossil shells and marine-mammal bone to visitors during the event as well.

Kids who made scientifically important finds–an estimated 50 to 100 participants–will have their names included in resulting publications as the discoverers, say Alford and Osborne.

“We love these kids!” said Alford. “They are like Jason and me in so many ways. They have a passion and drive that keeps them focused and happy in their focus on science long after most people lose interest. Their sense of wonder is hyper developed! How cool is that? (For more on the fossil exploits of Alford and Osborne, check out the Google Hangout On Air from a swamp that we did last year as part of a series for the Google Science Fair and the Scientific American Science in Action award.)

“I almost tear up when the kids look up at me” when they’ve made a discovery, adds Osborne. “They’re almost a little scared but they’re excited.” Just like a scientist.

(You also can see a four-minute video of Osborne and Aaron with me from a USA Science & Engineering Festival Google Hangout On Air from the show floor, along with festival cofounders Larry Bock and Ray O. Johnson, of Lockheed Martin, as well as Christopher Botjes of the Society of American Magicians.)