Faces of Engaged Scholarship: Jim Hakala, Senior Educator, CU Museum of Natural History

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By Gretchen Minekime


Jim Hakala is in awe. He knows his work contributes to enhancing the curriculum for Colorado’s K-12 students, but doing that work has also made him aware of the life-changing efforts by many at CU Boulder and higher education colleagues around the nation. 

“I get emotional about it,” said Hakala. “Through the Outreach Engagement Professionals Network here at CU and attending the national Engaged Scholarship Consortium, I’m constantly in awe about what folks are doing.”

Hakala joined CU’s Museum of Natural History as their first full-time educator in 1999. He remembers when the state updated its science standards about 10 years ago and Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) contacted the museum for help. 

“The teachers were equipped to teach to the new geology standards, but not about fossils. The district hoped we could fill that void and provide them with a hands-on resource. We weren’t quite sure what the resources would look like, but we were excited by the challenge,” said Hakala. 

Cathy Regan, Hakala’s colleague at the museum, along with museum curators, collection managers and graduate students, developed the first set of fossil kits. Hakala took the program over in year two and worked with BVSD’s fourth grade teachers and his museum colleagues to evolve the kits and applied to the Office for Outreach and Engagement for program funding. Five districts were served during the first year, and additional districts began approaching Hakala to provide kits at their schools. Fossils in the Classroom has provided 800 kits, at no charge, in service to 48,000 Colorado elementary students.


Hakala about how the museum’s community-engaged scholarship contributes to CU Boulder as a whole:

This is one of the parts I love the most, because we’re the University of Colorado. Pre-pandemic I’d contact school districts and teachers, rent a van and drive kits out to schools, spend a few hours training teachers and then move onto the next stop. I’d do these delivery tours a few times a year.

Gosh, I remember, a while back I had contacted a teacher in Lake City (near Gunnison). I drove into this beautiful town, and the school was one small building. You know maybe 30-40 kids total in the cafeteria eating lunch. I met the teacher, started showing her the materials and another teacher who was observing could not believe someone came all the way from CU Boulder with these kits. It struck me how really important and special what we can do is. 

Now I ship the kits, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it in person. I appreciate that I’m the face of CU Boulder when I meet these teachers and administrators. I show up in my branded gear, with real fossils and support materials, and the teachers have always been so grateful to have the university come to them – across CO. This is a good thing for all of CU Boulder. It shows we care and that we’re the whole state’s university. 

About one idea leading to another:

Once the fossil project was off the ground, we developed an in-house exhibit based on Steve Lekson’s research in the prehistoric Southwest. I realized we could do for Colorado archaeology what we had done for fossils. We’ve provided about 200 archaeology kits, and they’re being expanded. We’re working to produce videos with American Sign Language interpretation, Spanish Closed Captions, and even an online 3D experience of our Paleontology Hall. So, to add these levels of accessibility is just really exciting and key with current practices of hybrid and remote learning. 

The fossil and archaeology projects serve a niche bringing hands-on learning to classrooms. Because they’re well-funded and established, I can keep trying different things. I can pull undergrads and grad students into projects and lean on their expertise. This gets them involved in fresh aspects of the field, and it’s an opportunity to introduce them to engaged scholarship. Pushing curriculum out into communities gives us ideas that our on-campus work doesn’t. 

About the benefits and challenges of community-engaged scholarship:

I feel like the work is a partnership. For example, early on we had object labels for each of the kit’s fossils. One of the teachers suggested that an annotated object list would be helpful so we added that. We translated the list into Spanish, and other worksheets are currently being translated. So, the kits have evolved from something that we, as insiders, thought was good to something teachers need. It’s a process of listening and addressing educators’ needs. We’re not just giving and expecting appreciation. 

Students in districts are doing real science with real fossils—much as our paleontologists do. This excites the kids. There was a K-12 school in Southeastern CO that I delivered to twice. The teacher had four 4th graders. She told me how much it meant to the kids and that she wanted to bring those kids to campus. This was just before the pandemic and so hasn’t happened, but I want it to. I’ve offered to help make it a whole campus experience. I want those kids to know that they, too, can come here, be part of this campus and that this university is here for them with open arms. I would like to think programs like ours help light that spark. 

I know my work plays a role. I’m happy to do it and honored to have the support, resources, and scholarship that underlies what I am able to do with communities. Isn’t that why we’re here…to make that difference for students of all ages? I can’t imagine a greater calling than that. 


The CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement facilitates mutually beneficial partnerships between communities and scholars who seek to advance their work in community settings. Faces of Outreach highlights the stories of CU Boulder faculty, staff, students and public partners conducting the work and what they’re accomplishing together.  See more Faces of Engaged Scholarship stories and learn about what the Office for Outreach and Engagement offers.