PASADENA, Calif. — Paleontologist Scott Sampson is about to add one more item to his resume.
Monday, the research curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah becomes a television star for the preschool set.
He's the human in the midst of a slew of impossibly appealing CGI characters on the new PBS series "Dinoaur Train."
"It's a funny thing," Sampson told the Deseret News. "I have a job that's the envy of most 6-year-olds. And there aren't many people who can say that."
Produced by The Jim Henson Co., "Dinosaur Train" combines two things kids are fascinated by — dinosaurs and trains — to create a show that's both entertaining and educational. And what kid doesn't love dinosaurs?
"Most kids, of course, grow up and grow out of it. I just never did," Sampson said. "I think all kids at some level are fascinated by dinosaurs. So it's nice to grab them and use the dinosaurs to get them to learn about all kinds of other things."
"Dinosaur Train" follows the adventures of Buddy, a preschool-age Tyrannosaurus Rex who is adopted by a family of Pteranodons. Together, they travel (by train, of course), through jungles, swamps, volcanoes and oceans, learning concepts of natural science, natural history and paleontology. Each half-hour episode consists of two 11-minute animation segments, followed by short live-action segments with Sampson.
"This isn't a show about dinosaur paleontology. Dinosaurs and paleontology are in there, but dinosaurs really are a terrific vehicle to teach kids about nature," he said. "Because paleontology sits on the cusp of the earth sciences and the life sciences, you can use it as an entry point to talk about almost anything in the natural sciences. ... We are using this show as a vehicle to talk about all natural sciences, and we try and tie in the dinosaur stories with the modern world."
For example, the live-action segments compare animals today with dinosaurs millions of year ago.
"One of our major goals is to get kids outside and experiencing nature firsthand," Sampson said. "For example, birds are dinosaurs in a very real sense, and so we want kids getting outside, looking for backyard dinosaurs, doing exploring, learning how to be scientists on their own."
And, while he never imagined a career in kids TV, it's come easier than you might expect.
"I have to say, it's a natural for me. I've been teaching kids most of my adult life," Sampson said. "I spent many years working in a planetarium in Vancouver teaching kids about the night sky. I've lectured to kids on dinosaurs for years and years. And I've done some other TV work."
(He was the primary science consultant and on-air host of the 2003 Discovery Channel series "Dinosaur Planet.")
And his experience as chief curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History was training ground as well.
"I've helped to put together exhibits, and I've done lectures and kids programming and things like that," Sampson said.
He admits he was more than a bit skeptical about signing on to the new show.
"When I was first approached about this project and they said, 'OK, we're going to have dinosaurs on trains,' I went, 'Oh, that sounds a little odd. As a scientist, I've got to take a step back.'
"But it's the marriage of Jim Henson and PBS. And those are both trusted sources, so I thought, 'Well, let's see what they have to say about education and what their goals are.' And they really had strong educational goals. And aggressive and ambitious goals about what to do with content. And they were really willing to listen to the ideas I had about the kinds of things that could be approached and sort of going to new levels."
And Sampson is more than just a performer on "Dinosaur Train." He had considerable input in the 40 episodes for the first season.
"I get three cracks at every script from concept to outline to final script," he said. "I co-write the live-action segments that I appear in. I consult on the look of the animals. I'm involved with the Web site.
"It's really fun. And I'm excited about the product that's coming out now."
The look of the show is amazing. The computer-generated dinosaurs and the world they inhabit are amazing to look at.
"I have to say the animators have done a tremendous job creating this whimsical world for preschoolers that just sort of sucks you right in. It's really 3-D." Sampson said. "So you combine that with the content — the actual learning about how the world works and dinosaurs as the vehicle for that — and it's unbeatable. I mean, it really is phenomenal. I'm extremely impressed with the quality of the show itself."
Which was sort of a relief, given that Sampson was working on his part of the project without knowing how the finished product would look.
"I'm sort of going, 'Whew! This looks great!' Because you just never know when you put all this energy into a project and you have all these people doing different things around the world, from Singapore to Canada to Hollywood. And to see it all coming together into a finished project is really exciting."
If you watch …
What: PBS' new animated/educational series "Dinosaur Train"
Channel: KUED-Ch. 7 and KBYU-Ch. 11
When: Debuts with a two-hour, four-episode minimarathon Monday (Sept. 7) from 7-9 a.m. on Ch. 7 and 8-10 a.m. on Ch. 11.
Airs Sunday-Friday at 8:30 a.m. on Ch. 7; Monday-Friday at 9:30 a.m. on Ch. 11, and 2 p.m. on Ch. 7; and Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. on Ch. 11.
e-mail: [email protected]