Betsy Kruk's curiosity for all things dinosaurs started early.
In first grade, growing up in Carol Stream, an extra credit word in a spelling bee was "paleontologist."
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"After that, that was it," Kruk said. "I never grew out of my love for dinosaurs."
Kruk, now a master's paleontology graduate student studying at the University of Alberta in Canada, shared her knowledge of the prehistoric creatures by live video chat Tuesday with close to 100 sixth- and eighth-graders from District 93's Stratford Middle School.
Kruk's first question, "Does everybody like dinosaurs?" was met with a resounding "Yeahhh" by the class, and from there she held a captive audience.
She asked the class what creatures dinosaurs are most closely related to, and showed the kids the answer of crocodiles and alligators while holding the cast of an alligator skull. Kruk also talked about the two different groups of dinosaurs, explaining the irony that lizard-hipped dinosaurs, not bird-hipped dinosaurs, evolved into birds.
Kruk's theory of the dinosaurs' demise is threefold, based on a meteor, a sudden rise in global temperature followed by a cooling-off period and a rise in sea level. But, as Kruk's audience knew, not all dinosaurs died.
"Not everybody realizes that," she said.
Kruk's in-progress thesis paper, which she characterized to the kids as "think of it as the longest paper you'll write in your entire life," is on a particular triceratops. Instead of horns on its face, this unusual example that Kruk held a model of had a bony mass on a part rough, part smooth face.
"I get to cut up dinosaur bones," she said, "and see what I can understand."
The rarest fossil Kruk has found is a fragment of a dinosaur egg discovered in Montana and the biggest a rib. She discovered her first fossil as a 14-year-old on a family vacation to Glacier National Park.
"Tell your parents to take you to national parks," she said.
When Jennifer Miesse's sixth-grade class was asked afterward the coolest thing they learned, there was no shortage of answers.
"I learned that birds evolved from dinosaurs," said Aiden Lynch.
Added Ana Hernandez, "I learned how paleontologists dig up fossils."
And really, who doesn't love dinosaurs?
"It's fun to study them," said Alexa Marshall, "because they were living before we (humans) came."
Kruk's face-to-face conversation with the students is part of the district's focus on one-on-one personalized learning, made possible by significant technological updates. Last year, meteorologist Andy Avalos was a guest speaker.
A conversation with Kruk about her work with dinosaurs meshed well with Miesse's discussions in class on how scientists conduct experiments and do research.
"We're studying scientific method, and it's nice to talk to somebody who is doing that every day and applying what we've learned," Miesse said. "My kids' question always is 'What are we going to ever do with (what they learn)?' By meeting someone they can relate to how it's done every day.
"Dinosaurs," she added, smiling, "you don't grow out of them. They're still interesting."