MANTUA TOWNSHIP _ Ken Lacovara is getting a new $1.95 million 65-acre classroom full of fossils and he can't wait to have every student in South Jersey come visit it.
Rowan University officials announced Wednesday that the university is buying a quarry owned by Inversand Company and converting it into a research and education lab for students of all ages.
Paleontologist Lacovara, a Mainland Regional High School graduate who grew collecting rocks and digging holes in Linwood, will be the dean of a new School of Earth and Environment, leading the research into whether fossils deep in the site can offer insight into the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
"This quarry was the Jersey shore then," he said. "You can see the marine deposits."
The site is a dream for Lacovara, who has traveled to Egypt, Argentina and China as part of his research into Mesozoic Era paleo environments which contain the remains of dinosaurs and other vertebrates. He is leaving Drexel University to join Rowan, and said one of the best parts of his new job is its proximity to his home in Swedesboro.
"It's the first time I've been able to dig fossils and be home for dinner," he said.
Gloucester County and Mantua Township officials have been working with Inversand for the last few years to preserve the site. The township has sponsored an annual Dig Day open to the public, and more than 1,500 people have registered to participate at this year's event Saturday. Lacovara has brought his students there for years.
"People get so excited when they make that personal connection," Lacovara said. "They are so thrilled that they, themselves, found something that is 65 million years old. Kids are just fascinated."
Lacovara traces his first interest in the field to a Cub Scout presentation on rocks in second grade.
"The next day I wrote a paper about how sedimentary rocks were the best because they have fossils in them," he said.
His brother Tom started collecting fossils from an uncle's farm in Pennsylvania, and Lacovara loved the idea that there were "old dead things" in the rocks.
A bit of a science geek, he even recalls as a kid choosing a 45rpm record of the Apollo astronauts' transmissions over a Beatles record.
"Those astronauts were my rock stars," he said. "Things just clicked for me."
Still, he almost became a professional drummer. He was the house drummer for the Golden Nugget casino for a year and played in California before deciding to come home and get his college degree.
He got his bachelor's degree in geology from Rowan (then Glassboro State College) in 1984 then went on to a career that has put him in science journals and on the History channel.
He wants the quarry to become an annual field trip for schools, calling paleontology "a gateway to the sciences" to teach students to observe and ask questions.
Rowan president Ali Houshmand said future plans or the quarry include a visitors center and classroom building.
“Our vision for the fossil quarry goes beyond educating schoolchildren," Houshmand said. "We will transform it into an internationally prominent center of research for people of all ages. We are looking forward to continuing to partner with Mantua Township and Gloucester County to accomplish that.”