Behind today’s landmark fossil announcement is a tale of science education done right. 

Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the new species of human relative, Homo naledi, forged a close partnership with a high-school biology teacher several years ago. The teacher, John Mead of Dallas, Texas, made several trips to visit Berger in South Africa and brought a play-by-play of the Homo naledi discovery to his students and to classrooms around the world. [View Mead's video interviews with Berger and members of his team here, and read compilations of Tweets from the scientists here on Mead's blog].

As I write in today's Dallas Morning NewsMead had friended Berger on Facebook some years ago, though the two did not know each other.

Then, one night in 2012, Mead was on Facebook when he saw a green dot light up by Berger’s name.

At the time, Mead was about to teach his students about Australopithecus sediba, a human ancestor that Berger unearthed in 2008. Like the current discovery, the Australopithecus sediba find generated international headlines and was called the most important human ancestor discovery ever.  Would Berger be willing to field a few questions from his students, Mead asked?

“I had expected him to say, ‘I’m a busy guy,’” said Mead. “But he said, ‘Sure. Tell me about your school.’”

When he invited Berger to speak to his class, Mead was doing several important things for his students: bringing them in touch with the latest scientific discoveries; dispelling the notion that science is invariably a lonely pursuit conducted in a lab with test tubes and chemicals; that it’s a boring collection of facts that need to be memorized; and that all the big questions have been answered.  

Popular sites like This is What a Scientist Looks Like have taken aim at many of these same misconceptions. And there are several efforts to help teachers bring scientists into the classroom, including this one by Scientific American and this one by Google.

Kudos to Mead for starting at the top.