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Dr. Scott Sampson is the paleontology consultant on Dinosaur Train Read more »
Sorry, Dr. Scott Sampson is no longer taking questions.
Some of the many images indelibly etched upon my mind as a youth include paintings of a swamp-dwelling, long-necked gargantuan named Brontosaurus; a tail-dragging, many-plated wonder known as Stegosaurus; and a lumbering, upright terror dubbed Tyrannosaurus. These creatures were not depicted as particularly fast-moving, intelligent, or complex, but they fueled a young boy's imagination to a roaring burn.
Today, these same animals have been transformed. Brontosaurus (now known as Apatosaurus) has emerged from the swamps to be one of the largest land animals in Earth history. Stegosaurus, though still adorned with those amazing plates, no longer drags its tail, and the legs are tucked beneath the body, suggestive of a much more nimble animal. Meanwhile, although retaining its status as prehistoric terror, T. rex has shifted from its previous Godzilla-like posture to a sleeker appearance, with the body held nearly horizontal.
This transformation applies not just to the above trio of dinosaurs, but to all of them. Thanks to many new fossil discoveries studied by insightful paleontologists, dinosaurs have been reinvented and supercharged along the way. No longer the dim-witted, sluggish behemoths of old, modern reconstructions depict dynamic beasts that sprint, live in herds (or flocks), and take care of their young. If all that weren't enough, it turns out that dinosaurs aren't really extinct. They still fly above us (and occasionally adorn our dinner plates) in the feathery guise of birds. And as for me, well, I too have transformed, but that youthful fascination has persisted and today I am a professional dinosaur scientist or paleontologist.
In September of 2008, I was contacted by Halle Stanford, Executive Vice President of Children's Programming at The Jim Henson Company. Might I be interested, she inquired, in serving as science advisor on a new PBS television series for preschoolers called Dinosaur Train. My initial reaction was, "Huh, dinosaurs and trains? That sounds like an unfortunate mix." But the more I learned about the project, the more intrigued I became. Halle explained that this animated series, the brainchild of Craig Bartlett (Hey Arnold!), would feature a kid T. rex named Buddy and his adoptive Pteranodon (flying reptile) family using the train to travel around the Mesozoic Era (that is, the age of dinosaurs) and meet various kinds of dinosaurs and other animals. Humans would not be part of the animated portion of the show, so I needn't worry about any confusion about humans living with dinosaurs.
Ultimately, the combination of PBS and The Jim Henson Company was simply too enticing, and I agreed to come on board the project. Dinosaur Train, we all agreed, could be an excellent vehicle, literally and figuratively, to teach preschool-aged kids--and, equally important, get them excited--about the natural sciences. From the beginning, the plan was not simply to focus on dinosaurs but rather to relate them to present day animals, offering children a better understanding of how nature works today as well as millions of years ago.
In order to help achieve the latter goal, each episode would conclude with a live action segment that would feature real kids and address some of the science behind the stories. As the dinosaur scientist on the project, I had a passionate interest in these segments, particularly the somewhat counterintuitive idea that we might use a television show to inspire kids to head outdoors and explore the natural world. In part because I had some previous experience working in front of the camera (for example, with the Discovery Channel series Dinosaur Planet), the folks at the Henson company later invited me to host the live action segments.
Almost exactly one year (one very busy year) after that first invitation from Halle Stanford, Dinosaur Train premiered on PBS. A total of eighty episodes grouped into 40 half-hour shows will air over the next couple of years. The great stories, convincing characters, and eye-popping computer generated animation combine to transport kids to a wondrous and whimsical world, yet one that is grounded in the latest science. Appearing as "Dr. Scott the Paleontologist," I then have the great pleasure to address how we know what we know, helping to translate the latest (and often stunning) scientific discoveries into brief, kid-friendly segments.
To my mind at least, Dinosaur Train has achieved its goals admirably. The series is ambitious on a number of fronts, including education. The show features many remarkable discoveries--not just about dinosaurs, but also sea-going reptiles, sharks, turtles, and bees, and many other creatures. We firmly believe that preschoolers can learn to think like scientists, making observations about the world around them and using this information to create and even test ideas. In most episodes, Buddy the T. rex says, "I have a hypothesis"; and it warms my heart to have children come up to me, utter that same phrase, and then proceed to demonstrate a real understanding of what it means.
In sum, I am very excited by the success of Dinosaur Train. Kids are learning not just about dinosaurs, but, more importantly, about their own world. At the close of every half-hour show, I wrap up with the exhortation, "Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries." I love to think about children doing exactly that, perhaps even observing birds in order to make discoveries about the dinosaurs in their own backyard!
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