By Joe Lofaro
Three UT Martin communications students—Joel Flowers, Allison Jones and Lindsey Patrick— gave up their spring break in 2011 to go to the middle of nowhere, Dighton, Kan., for a video project that is now part of an exhibit at Discovery Park of America in Union City, Tenn.
Discovery Park of America offers visitors a world-class educational and entertainment experience with more than 70,000 square feet of exhibits focused on nature, science, technology, history and art. The centerpiece of Discovery Park is Discovery Center, a 100,000-square-foot building showcasing 10 exhibit galleries: Children’s Exploration, Energy, Enlightenment, Military, Native Americans, Natural History, Regional History, Science/Space/Technology and Transportation. In addition, a special exhibit gallery features traveling exhibits.
Discovery Park has been in the works for nearly 10 years and opened Nov. 1, 2013. The Robert E. (Knoxville ’60) and Jenny D. Kirkland (Martin ’64) Foundation is financing the park, and their efforts represent more than a $75 million investment so far with the potential to increase to $100 million.
The gigantic museum is in Union City, a rural northwest Tennessee community with a population of about 11,000. It’s about 10 miles from the UT Martin campus, and that proximity gave students and faculty the ability to be part of its development. Much of the artwork and exhibits are a result of the hard work of UT Martin students and faculty members such as communications professor Rodney Freed.
In 2011, the three students made the 800-mile trek to Kansas with Freed in a university van. In other vans were Michael Gibson, professor of geology, and 11 of his students. The students and professors met a team of geologists from Triebold Paleontology who were there to unearth fossils. Flowers, Jones and Patrick had one goal: Record everything that was found.
“Coming home with nothing was not an option,” Freed says. Freed’s students recorded more than six hours of video and completed all the necessary interviews. Freed helped with the videos and shot more than 300 still pictures on the four-day trip. The students got professional experience and class credit.
Gibson and his students found the Mosasaur, a prehistoric marine lizard, and two prehistoric fish fossils from the Cretaceous period, which are now in a display in Discovery Park of America and a museum in Colorado. “They uncovered fossils buried for millions of years, some of which are new and significant finds to science,” Gibson says.
Two of the communications students, Flowers (Martin ’12) and Patrick, and Freed made another trip to Colorado to document the fossils taken to the lab.
“I guess what I gained most from the trip was the ability to see beyond myself. I was more than a guy holding a camera,” Flowers says. “I was witness to some amazing moments—standing out on the windswept plains of Kansas and getting to be one of the first people to lay eyes on the remains of an ancient creature that you only saw in picture books as a child.”
Other UT Martin faculty members helped with the project. Lionel Crews, professor and director of the Honors Program, and David Coffey, professor and chairman of the history and philosophy department, also have made contributions to Discovery Park of America as well as retired professor emeritus Bill Austin, who helped assemble a gristmill on the property.
“We recorded history,” Flowers says. “I captured moments that will now be shared with others for generations.”