David Wilcots OPC ’80 lives and works in Philadelphia, and he has mapped a part of the city most of us don’t often think about — the soil types, historic fill, groundwater and bedrock types underground. An environmental geologist for Sci-Tek Consultants, Inc., a civil, environmental and geotechnical engineering firm, Wilcots used Geographic Information System (GIS) in 2015 to create 3D models of the subsurface of Philadelphia County.
“I helped create the maps the Philadelphia Water Department consults in order to forecast what they will find in a specific spot if they need to dig,” Wilcots said. The maps, he said, are used just about every day, and Philadelphia Emergency Management Department and the Department of Public Safety also ask to consult the maps. “[The maps] give you some idea of when you will hit groundwater, how deep the bedrock is and what kind of bedrock it might be.”
In addition to his job with Sci-Tek assisting construction excavations and supervising drilling projects to keep the environment safe, Wilcots is passionate about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. His website, Dinosaurs Fossils and Adventures (www.DinosaursFA.com), is geared toward children ages 8 to 14 and their parents. On the site, kids can learn more about dinosaurs, fossils, geology and paleontology. “It’s fun because kids and parents email me through the site with questions. I’ve heard from people as far away as New Zealand and the Philippines!” Wilcots said.
He also visits classrooms in the area to teach elementary and middle schoolers about fossils and paleontology. Wilcots brings fossils from his own collection for students to handle and explore. “I have specimens from as old as 550 million years to 10 million years. I try to cover much of geological time with my fossils, so the kids can have a hands-on learning experience they can’t have at a museum,” Wilcots said.
Wilcots was a lifer at PC. “The science classes at Penn Charter were strong all the way through,” he recalled. “I especially loved the Earth Sciences class in eighth grade. I was already interested in dinosaurs, fossils and rocks, so it filled an interest. And, it was a lot of fun. Mr. [Whitman] Cross OPC ’50 taught the class, and he was the kind of teacher who just knew everything.”
Many of the fossils in Wilcots’ collection he dug up himself. For several years, he has joined a dig in southwestern Wyoming conducted by Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Southwestern Wyoming is of particular interest because of the age of the rock in that region. “The rocks are 47 million years old, give or take a half million,” Wilcots said. “That epoch was after the dinosaurs went extinct, but before modern mammals evolved. So you’ll find fossil horses, but they’re two feet tall. Rhinos, which lived in North American then, were the size of goats. It’s the time when ancestral eagles and hawks diverged, and there were early primitive carnivores. Cats and dogs had not yet evolved.”
Wilcots does a great job explaining the science and his work. It’s easy to tell why he’s good at bringing the information to budding geologists and paleontologists — he is passionate, and the excitement shows. No doubt, the many who pass through Dinosaur Hall at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences are lucky to have him as a docent. Wilcots is a volunteer there and will be ready to answer any questions you have. Or you can email him from anywhere, even New Zealand or Timbuktu!