Scott Sampson is a Canadian-born dinosaur paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science communicator, and host of PBS KIDS “Dinosaur Train.” Among his education endeavors is a blog, The Whirlpool of Life, and a book, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life, which is the first comprehensive review of dinosaur paleontology for a general audience in more than two decades. He is presently working on another book that addresses the pressing problem of connecting children with nature, and will give a lecture at MA, “The Extinction of Experience: Youth, Nature, and Sustainability in the Digital Age,” on Wednesday, October 26.
1. What initially drew you to the study of paleontology and, specifically, the study of dinosaurs?
I like to think of myself as a kid who never grew up. Thanks in large part to my mother’s encouragement, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and paleontology from the age of five. My dino-interest was also fueled by a fascination with nature more generally. As long as I can remember, I loved being outdoors. Once again, credit goes to my parents, who regularly took our family camping and hiking. Although I contemplated other career paths (and still do!), I retained that childhood fascination with fossils and decided to pursue paleontology as an adult. In effect, then, my search for dinosaurs simply expanded from a backyard sandbox to a planet-sized sandbox.
2. Obviously you are passionate about communicating Darwin’s core message—that all of life is related through deep time—to students and the general public. Why is this so important to you?
Western culture is arguably the first in human history to lack an origin story—a cosmological account of where we come from and what it all means. Yes, those of us aligned with a religious tradition have a story, but many of us lack such affiliations. The irony here is that, over the past few decades, science has provided a rigorous and absolutely stunning epic saga of our origins, from the Big Bang to the present day. Far from living in a vast, dead universe, it turns out that we are immersed in a creative cosmos, and that we have a critical role to play in its unfolding.
Yet, at present, we don’t use this cosmic narrative to inform the arc of lives. If humanity is to achieve anything approaching ecological sustainability, there must be a shift in worldview that transforms the natural world from resources to relatives, returning humanity to its rightful place embedded within nature. It’s largely for this reason that evolution—expanded to encompass cosmos, life, and culture—deserves to be taught early and often.
3. You are also passionate about place-based learning. What role does place-based learning have in education? How do we best facilitate this kind of teaching and learning?
My view is that place-based learning should reside at the very core of all education. This approach—rooted in experiential, hands-on, often outdoor activities—uses local place not only to communicate general ideas but to deepen the meaning of education, connecting children to their native landscapes. Communities become classrooms for learning science, art, history, math, English, and social studies. Integral to this approach is community service, with students engaging in such activities as growing gardens and reclaiming streams, planting trees and launching recycling programs (exactly the kinds of things that occur at Marin Academy!).
An additional, revolutionary element is that teachers and students assume some control over creating the curriculum, co-creating content based upon shared interests and collaborative efforts. Far from being parochial, place-based education simply uses the local to inform larger-scale explorations. Much better to understand and connect with the local redwood or oak forest before tackling the Amazon rainforest. Importantly, recent research has demonstrated that place-based education bolsters academic performance across the board, along with community engagement and a sense of connection with nature. The best way to facilitate this type of learning is to get students outside experiencing local nature and culture, and to make the leap into more project-based learning that breaks down disciplinary boundaries.
4. In light of your busy academic work as a scientist, why have you committed yourself to “Dinosaur Train,” a TV show aimed at very young children?
Based on the best science now available, we have one generation to shift our behavior and stave off a range of ecological and humanitarian disasters, from warming climates to widespread habitat destruction. An average scientific paper will be read by a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, colleagues. PBS KIDS “Dinosaur Train” currently reaches 15 million households per month. Kid viewers are learning about science and nature, with many of them are now aspiring to be scientists. That’s the power of mass media, and that’s why I’ve elected to devote the bulk of my time to science communication and connecting kids to nature.
5. I have to ask—what is your favorite dinosaur?
When I was a kid, my favorite dinosaur was Stegosaurus, the famous plant-muncher whose backbone is lined with plates and spikes. As an adult, I’ve become partial to horned dinosaurs, and I have to say that my favorite is a remarkable, newly discovered beast named Kosmoceratops that I had the honor of naming just last year. With a total of 15 horns on its skull, Kosmoceratops is the most ornate-headed dinosaur known!