Moving beyond sitcom science

Raising the Bar on Science Awareness

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Scott Sampson
Scott Sampson
“These days, shows like The Big Bang Theory seem to pass for science content.”

That’s Scott Sampson, one of this year’s AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award winners.

(Ouch! We kind of like Sheldon.)

Sampson’s point, though, is that for all the talk about how educators in American schools need to re-emphasize and prioritize themselves to the teaching of science, it more often than not is just that – talk.

“You would think,” said this vice president and chief curator of the Research and Collections Division of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, “in an age where we face a sustainability crisis, there would be a high demand for good science programming. But the converse seems to be true.

“In a media scene dominated by reality television, science-based programming is fighting hard to maintain a foothold,” he said.

For many reasons, then, Sampson decided to do something about it.

Dinosaur Planet, a four-part Discovery Channel series that aired back in 2003, is just one of them. It was a show he both hosted and helped create.

“Each of the four episodes told an exciting story based around Cretaceous-aged dinosaurs from different parts of the world – for example, velociraptor and protoceratops from Mongolia, and daspletosaurus and einiosaurusfrom from the western United States,” he said.

“I was interjected multiple times into each episode,” he said, “to convey the science behind the stories.”

Following Planet came Dinosaur Train (2009), aimed at younger children – mostly in the range of three to six years of age, which was produced by the Jim Henson Company and featured daily on PBS KIDS.

And what would seem like a tough sell, teaching science to kids this young (forget the AAPG award; he should be getting a medal), Dinosaur Train is finishing up its third season of episodes.

“Last I heard, the show was airing in over nine million U.S. households per month,” he said, “and in over 100 countries worldwide.”

At the Tipping Point

For Sampson, who also is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, the key to teaching science to anyone, but especially to children, is passion and engaging stories.

“Best of all are settings where children get to exert some control over what they choose to study,” he said. “That is, they ’co-create’ their curriculum with teachers who, in mentor-like fashion, offer more questions than answers and allow kids to engage with nature firsthand.”

In the show, Sampson serves as science adviser and host, appearing at the end of each episode as “Dr. Scott the Paleontologist” to talk about the scientific content and make connections to the present day world.

His tagline at the end of every episode is, “Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries!”

It’s more than just a theme line.

Sampson thinks we are at a tipping point in history – a tipping point that intersects both history and science.

“Now, more than ever before, we need an abundance of good science communication,” he said. “At this pivotal juncture in history, we find ourselves in a precarious position, with critical tipping points looming and minimal time to make the necessary adjustments.”

Clearly that involves the ability to understand science, the ability to teach science and the persistence to promote science.

The AAPG award puts him in very good company – company, incidentally, he idolizes.

“My sense of gratitude only increased when I saw the list of previous recipients,” Sampson said in talking about the AAPG honor, “which includes many distinguished individuals, including the famed evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould.”

Seeking an Understanding

There it is, the third rail.

You do a show about dinosaurs, as Sampson does, the question of evolution comes up. You currently serve as the lead researcher in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, as Sampson does, the question of evolution comes up. You do field work on the ecology and evolution of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs in Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar, Mexico, as well as the United States, as Sampson has, the question of evolution comes up.

And when it does, Sampson, who also has written Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life, is ready.

Surprisingly, though he is as understanding of the passion on the “other side” as he is certain they are wrong, Sampson appreciates the diplomacy scientists need to show in addressing doubters, but he is exasperated by having to.

“Regarding evolution, polls continually show that about half of Americans do not accept evolution,” he says.

First, though, he wants to make a distinction.

“I prefer to use ’accept’ over ’believe’ in this context. After all, we don’t ask people if they ’believe’ in gravity.”

The 50 percent figure, Sampson believes, is key to the problem.

“This figure stands in stark contrast to the greater than 99 percent of scientists who fully accept biological evolution,” he said. “I don’t try to tell anyone what to believe; we all have free choice in that regard. My goal is to convey our best understanding of the science of evolution in a way that is easily digestible by non-scientists.

“Do I expect everyone to accept evolution as the guiding theory of biology? Not anytime in the near future,” he added.

Until then, Sampson, who said through the shows he will continue to be a proponent of science – in his words, “real science.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Sampson agrees.

“It is important to expand the numbers of those who embrace evolution, since a sustainable future for humanity will depend on us making decisions based on an accurate understanding of how the world works. Of course, science must play a central role if we are to resolve the sustainability crisis in the near future.

“Equally important,” he added, “is the need to connect people to their local places. After all, why would we ever become sustainable unless we care about where we live?”

And then he talks about reconnecting kids to that very notion – their lives, their homes, their environments.

“We must counter the current trend of keeping kids indoors staring at screens and instead raise them with a strong emotional connection to nearby nature founded on direct experience,” he said.

They can always watch The Big Bang Theory when they come back inside.

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