Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Riding the Dinosaur Train

This past Friday, I had a truly remarkable experience. While visiting the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to give a talk in support of my recent book, I agreed to participate in an informal “meet and greet” with some local kids. When I walked out into the museum’s dinosaur hall at 2:00 pm as scheduled, I was, to put it bluntly, blown away. Here’s why.

I am not a big watcher of television. And I’m very concerned about the vast amounts of time that kids today spend staring at screens—not just TVs but computers, cell phones, and electronic games—instead of being outdoors. At latest count, children’s screen-time averages an astounding 10 hours per day. So when I was approached by Halle Stanford, Executive Vice President of Children’s Entertainment at The Jim Henson Company (you know, the creators of the Muppets) about advising on a new television series for preschoolers, I was skeptical to say the least. When she then told me the proposed name of the series—Dinosaur Train—I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. About half of all Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, a staggering statistic that speaks as much to the current state of science education as it does to the influence of the religious right. As a paleontologist and science communicator, I regularly find myself (re-)stating the facts: dinosaurs (other than birds) died out more than 65 million years ago; humans first appeared only about 200,000 years ago. So the idea of mixing dinosaurs and trains in a television series sounded misguided at best—the Flintstones all over again.

But Halle went on to explain the show’s concept. A kid T. rex named Buddy is adopted by a Pteranodon family. Anxious to discover the identity of his species, Buddy sets out with his family members on the Dinosaur Train (operated by Troodons of course, the smartest dinosaurs) to travel around the Mesozoic and meet other creatures. Humans and dinosaurs, I was assured, would not appear together. The more I pondered this premise, the more convinced I became that the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, must be a genius. If the goal is to get kids interested in science, why not tap into the two things they love most—dinosaurs and trains? And when I learned that the renowned Jim Henson Company had hooked up with PBS KIDS for the series, I realized that the offer was too good to resist. I said yes and embarked on a whirlwind year of brainstorming ideas and reviewing scripts.

Each half hour of Dinosaur Train includes two episodes. The bulk of each episode is devoted to eye-popping computer-generated animation, as Buddy and his family travel through a wondrous and whimsical (and generally friendly) Mesozoic world. Most episodes involve traveling on the train through space and time to meet a new kind of dinosaur. In addition to many of the old standards like Stegosaurus and Triceratops, the adventurous little tyrannosaur encounters plenty of recently discovered beasts that have yet to appear in kids books—for example, the winged Microraptor and the burrowing Oryctodromeus. In addition to dinosaurs, Buddy and his Pteranodon siblings meet a variety of other animals, from frogs and dragonflies to sharks and plesiosaurs.

While in the midst of working on scripts and reviewing artwork, I was invited to take on an additional role, on-air host of the show. I had done some television work previously, including serving as host for the Discovery Channel series Dinosaur Planet, but this was different. At the end of each animated segment, out comes “Dr. Scott the Paleontologist” to host a live-action “interstitial.” With help from a changing repertoire of children (and the always well dressed Mr. Disclaimer), I address the science behind the stories—not only what we know but how we know it. These segments make explicit connections between dinosaurs and animals living today, with the aim of inspiring excitement about nature generally, as well as getting kids outside exploring the natural world—even looking for “backyard dinosaurs” (aka birds). I conclude each half-hour show with the same closing line: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries.”

From the beginning, it was agreed that the show’s approach to science education would be ambitious. After consulting with experts in childhood learning, we adopted the philosophy that preschoolers can learn to think like scientists, critically evaluating alternative ideas. So Dinosaur Train goes beyond the names, sizes, and dietary predilections of dinosaurs to address the way life works, both then and now. Kids are encouraged to think like scientists, making observations, generating new ideas, and even testing those ideas. In most episodes, Buddy states, “I have a hypothesis,” and he and his siblings then set out to test it through additional observations.

I’m thrilled to be able to say that Dinosaur Train, which first aired on Labor Day of 2009, is already a roaring success. Millions of children all over the country and around the world are now tuning in daily to hear about Buddy’s latest hypothesis and learn more about dinosaurs. The December ratings revealed Dinosaur Train as the top-rated show on PBS KIDS, and among the top children’s shows on television. And, as I can report from numerous communications with parents, it has also become the springboard that we hoped it would be, getting kids outdoors with a renewed interest in understanding nature.

The runaway success of Dinosaur Train was underlined last Friday, when more than 700 people jammed the dinosaur halls of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to say hi Dr. Scott the Paleontologist. Over 500 of those people were children, and I had the pleasure of meeting every one of them. Many youngsters told me of their favorite dinosaur. Many others asked questions, shared their own dinosaur-related hypothesis, or expressed conviction about becoming a paleontologist. Some gave me presents of their own artwork. Smiling parents waxed on about their enthusiasm for the show. “Ever since Sam has been watching Dinosaur Train, he’s become fascinated by the birds in our neighborhood.” “Samantha now loves to play in the mud looking for dinosaur bones.” Prior to setting out on this adventure, I questioned the ability of television to get kids outside exploring nature. But no more. Thanks so much to all of you who came out to the Cleveland Museum last Friday (and to my talk at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Saturday). It was a wonderful experience meeting you all!

I am very grateful to be involved with Dinosaur Train, and all of us involved with the show are amazed and heartened by the enthusiastic response it has received. Thank you to all DT fans out there!

(A portion of this post was adapted from an article that appeared in issue #92 [Winter 2010] of Prehistoric Times Magazine.)

19 comments:

  1. Scott,
    There was awe at your evening talk at the CMNH when they announced that 500 children attended your afternoon talk and then applause when they said your personally talked to every one of them. It's great that you are able to clarify here how your personal concerns about another TV show keeping kids inside were assuaged. I watched a few episodes to see what it was about. At 54 I'm not the intended audience but 20 years ago my daughter and I wouldn't have miss an episode. Her first movie was "The Land Before Time" and she was highly offended that they didn't call the dinosaurs by the correct names!
    As a side note, my talk on Sunday went very well and was well received. I think you have some new fans. After rehearsing Saturday, I changed a few things up. It was so great to meet you. I have a friend guitar-playing friend who has met several rock stars but I told him I've met "real" rock stars. Hope your Carnegie event went well.
    Reed

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  2. I find it interesting that my children enjoy Dinosaur Train on PBS, while I enjoy your blog. You are part of our household :)

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  3. Hilarious - my husband JUST put Dinosaur Planet on to watch with the boys....and who do I hear, but you! You really are part of our family!!!! lol

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  4. You are a common name in my household, Dr. Scott. Your attitude towards getting children outside is wonderful, I know my son and I head out @ 12:30 after Dinosaur Train just about everyday. He even wants to go outside and dig around in 30 degree weather and don't even talk to him about going inside to have lunch. I applaud your work in paleontology and look forward to learning more about dinosaurs!

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  5. Very inspiring. Has it been sold to any stations in Germany yet? Would be great to have a reason to watch TV again!

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  6. Hi David,

    Sorry, I'm not sure if Dinosaur Train has made it to Germany. A search online might reveal the answer I suspect.

    Cheers, Scott

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  7. Hi Dr. Sampson!
    This show seems to be such an example to follow! I've just commented about it on my blog. On the other hand, 'Dinosaur train' hasn't arrived to Spain... we'll have to wait a little more until our children can enjoy it.
    I really think these kind of shows are a great way to introduce science to children and youngsters, so it's a pleasure to see you're part of the team. Congratulations for the well-done work. Really inspiring!
    Cheers,

    F.G.

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  8. This is really great. It seems like you really are making a difference, doing your part in creating a better world. Congrats from an amateur science blogger from Finland!

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  9. Honestly love the show! I watch it during physics (freshman would look awkward watching it in class, with other 15 & 16 yr olds, which makes it funny :P) and I can't get enough. Its sad I wake up around noon, or I'd watch every day!

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  10. We quite accidentally stumbled upon Dinosaur Train in our house. Our 3 year old son has been enthralled with dinosaurs for a year, knows all the names of dinosaurs in mulitple books. One day while he was home sick, Dinosaur Train came on and it's been a part of our home ever since. Milo has many of the episodes memorized, as well as many of the songs. He asks to watch specific episodes, lately he's been liking the hadrosaurus episode. In fact, he just pointed out 'Buddy, Tiny, Shiny, Don, and Dobter Scott!!!!' on your blog. We'll have to plan a trip to the museum very soon! The program is wonderful! Thanks!!!

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  11. dear dr.Scott: my favorite careickter is Don because he likes to colet things and he is so funny. i like buddy too because he is so smart.my favorite part is when they get to go meet other dinosure spishis, and i like when they get on the dinosure train, and i like the theme song. I like all their names. my favorite name is shiny, and i like shiny's color of scals. Because it's my favorite color my favorite dinosuer is a pteranedon. when are you coming to Denver?

    from Isabel

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  12. Last comment was written by my 7-year old daughter Isabel.

    She & I read your article together and she kept asking "did Dr. Scott write all this?" "can I meet him? too?"

    She was shock to read that you wrote "preschoolers", she said I'm not a prescholeer but I love the show.

    As as Carla said, you're part of the family

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  13. Just want to let you know we LOVE DT at our house, from my 3 year old son, to 8 year old daughter. Thanks for all your hard work helping our kids learn...You should come to Laramie, WY sometime--we have a nice little Geology/Dinosaur museum at the University!
    Jennifer Hamilton, WY

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  14. My son is about to turn 5, and in addition to wanting a dinosaur-themed party, he expressed interest in a dinosaur dig. A bit of research revealed a local preserve that has a paleontologist on staff, and a "dinosaur" dig available as an option for his party. Thanks to you, I think he's more excited about meeting an actual paleontologist than he would be about meeting an actual dinosaur (if I could make that happen).

    Dinosaur train has made him more curious, more interested in science overall, and has improved his vocabulary. When he had to offer up some Q words at school, he offered "quadruped"--and could define it and give examples--instead of things like "queen" and "quilt".

    All the things I've always loved about the Henson productions and public television are present in this wonderful show. Thank you so much for bringing it to life!

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  15. Dear Dr. Scott, I want you to know how much my husband and I appreciate what you and the team have brought to our lives thru Dinosaur Train! Isabo can name all the dinosaurs in the dino alphabet (she's in 4K). And just yesterday, the 5K teacher at her school had her teach a segment on dinosaurs, since Isabo knew so much more than she did. The teacher later told me that Isabo's enthusiam has sparked interest throughout her grade, as well as the upper 5K's. She even admitted to being wooed by the gentleness of the quadropeds. Isabo loves Alvin the Allosaurus, and I love Laura, the Giganotasaurus (sp?). Anyway, we're convinced that not only did the show teach her about dinosaurs, but improved her speech thru sheer effort of pronouncing the names! She is matter of fact in her demonstration of different characteristics, and has told me on many occasions that she wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up! We are hooked! We're looking forward to working on our dinosaur excavations we bought on-line for her birthday, as soon as weather permits!
    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you and we are ready for more episodes!

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  16. Big Dinosaurs in our current earth gravity their bones would splinter
    holding their massive weight , They would be no more mobile then
    a beached whale .
    http://www.dinox.org/redgravity.html

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  17. My family also loves the show. We like that the show uses the real dino names, even the hard to pronounce ones.

    My 3 yr old has taken a keen interest in the work of paleontologists. This spring we buried dinosaur bone kits (covered in chalk) she laid the string, and painstakingly searched until she found the bones. she chiseled, brushed, washed and put the bones together. Ever since she's been asking to meet a real paleontologist - the t.v. just isn't enough for her. Lol We're very happy to live close to Drumheller/Tyrell and hope to get there in the next few weeks. Even if her path doesn't continue in that direction I know the show helped her explore her interest even more than I could have on my own.

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  18. My 3 and a half year old is a huge fan. He was going to go as Buddy the T-Rex for halloween this year, but couldn't due to nobody having orange sweatsuits, not even Wal-Mart. But he loves watching Dinosaur Train and tries his hardest to say the dinosaur names during your little bit at the end. Getting pretty good at it actually. :-) Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for teaming up with the Jim Hensen people to make a great show. We really enjoy it. :-)

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  19. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

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