Last year Science World named world renowned paleontologist and science communicator Dr. Scott Sampson as its new President and CEO. Born and raised in Vancouver, with a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto, Sampson has held positions at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the New York Institute of Technology, and American Museum of Natural History before assuming the helm at Science World.
If you have children under 12 years old, Sampson is probably a familiar face, though you might know him better as “Dr. Scott” from his live segment at the end of each Dinosaur Train episode on PBS Kids. He is also a thought leader on the subject of society’s growing disconnect with nature and its impact on the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of children.
A passionate advocate for reimagining cities as places where people and nature thrive, Sampson has authored books and spoken widely about how to reconnect people – particularly urban dwellers - with nature, how to nurture imaginative play and autonomy in children by deepening their connection to the outdoors, and how we can meaningfully leverage technology in pursuit of these goals. Given these areas of focus, Sampson seems an ideal match for BC’s flagship science and technology organization, especially with the not-for-profit’s increasing focus on sustainability and conservation in recent years.
We recently had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Sampson and ask him a few questions about his career trajectory, growing up in Vancouver, the intersection of nature and technology in child development and his vision for the future of Science World. It was a short conversation, but packed with substance – and we are delighted to share it with you here on Webnames Blog.
Webnames: I came across a quote from you while reading an interview the other day and it gave me pause. You said that you couldn’t in “good conscience … continue to graduate students who were studying animals that had been dead for 75 million years when we are facing all of these pressing crises today.” How has this sentiment changed the trajectory of your career?
Scott Sampson: I was born and raised on the west side of Vancouver. Like many kids here and elsewhere, by the age of four I decided I would grow up to be a dinosaur paleontologist. Unlike the vast majority of kids, that childhood passion never died and I actually followed through, getting a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto. Eventually, I landed a dream paleontology job at the University of Utah, with access to graduate students, a great museum, and amazing fossils just a few hours drive away.
In different times, I would have spent my entire career there. But, given all the pressing crises around sustainability, I found myself seeking an alternative path.
So I moved into science communication and then museum administration, with the goal of utilizing the museum platform to drive social change. In particular, I was concerned about science illiteracy and the growing disconnect between people and nature. Bridging this gap, I came to believe, was essential to addressing the sustainability challenge. Eventually my convoluted path led full circle back to my hometown, where I now serve as Science World’s CEO. I still love dinosaurs, but I’m thrilled to be in my current role, working to scale science literacy and nature connection across BC and beyond.
Webnames: You spent your childhood in Vancouver and did your undergraduate degree at UBC. Where did you experience nature as a child growing up in Vancouver in the 1980’s?
Scott Sampson: My passion for dinosaurs was undoubtedly rooted in a childhood love of nature and the outdoors. When I was a kid, my parents regularly took our family camping, exploring the wilds of BC. But it wasn’t in the towering Rockies that I formed a deep connection with nature. As for most youngsters, that connection happened close to home through daily interactions with nearby nature. For me, that nearby nature was found in neighborhoods around Dunbar, and especially in the University Endowment Lands (now Pacific Spirit Regional Park). First with my parents, and then with friends, I spent countless days exploring that wonderful second-growth forest. Those experiences created a powerful lens through which I still see the world today.
Webnames: That sounds amazing. That type of freedom and access to explore nature is getting to be rare for kids today. What can parents do to reset the balance between technology and nature in their children’s lives, especially if their children are older and their relationship with technology firmly established?
Scott Sampson: The average North American youth today spends about seven hours each day staring at screens, and about seven minutes a day playing outdoors; that’s 90% less outdoor time than their parents had. This indoor migration has been a major factor in the skyrocketing health issues experienced by children and teens—for example, obesity, attention deficit disorder, and diabetes.
Parents seeking to create a better balance between technology and nature in their children’s lives might start with themselves. Do they truly value that natural world? Do they get outdoors on a regular basis and take their children with them? Because if adults value nature, kids will too. They take their cues from us.
It may sound odd, but a great place to start is with schedules. We schedule everything else for kids, so why not unstructured outdoor playtime? Simply aiming for 30 minutes a day of nature play is a great start. I’m willing to bet you’ll notice an immediate benefit for both the children and the parents!
Another terrific strategy is to join a family nature club. These are groups of families that get together, mostly on weekends, to share some outdoor activity, from hanging out at a local park to going on a hike in the mountains. These clubs offer kids a chance to connect with other kids outdoors, while parents can stay back and chat with other parents.
I recently wrote a book called, How to Raise a Wild Child, to give parents, teachers, and other caregivers all the tools they need to connect any child with nature.
Webnames: Science World is an institution that many British Colombians have grown up with, going there as youths and now taking their own children. What is your vision for Science World and its role in the larger community beyond that of an attraction?
Scott Sampson: Science World has been around for over 25 years, and I’ve been on the job there for a little more than a year. In that time we’ve been asking, “What social role does Science World need to serve for the Lower Mainland, and for BC generally, during the next generation?”
We set out on a listening tour, eventually interviewing over 1400 people—from staff and board members to community stakeholders across the Province. We then took all that feedback and used it to generate a new vision strategy.
We envision a near future for Canada that is both high tech and nature rich, with most people literate in science and related fields. Canadians, we believe, will come to view themselves as deeply connected to nearby nature, and seek to act on behalf of it. Although Science World’s activities will remain focused in BC, we believe that our influence and impact can span all of Canada and beyond.
In the future, education won’t be confined to classrooms. Learning will be possible any time, any place, and at any pace. Children and youth will be able to tap into community resources to search out and explore learning pathways that match their skills, passions, and ambitions. We believe that the journey to this future must include a dramatic scaling of science literacy.
To help get the process started, Science World is spearheading Symbiosis, a deeply collaborative “STEAM” learning ecosystem—where STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & design, and Mathematics.
Today, most learning opportunities exist in isolation from one another. The idea behind learning ecosystems is that these opportunities become networked, illuminating a diverse range of career pathways while also providing the mentorship young people need to pursue the pathways they are most passionate about.
Supported by with a diverse network of cross-sector partners—including K-12 schools, higher education, business, and non-profits--Symbiosis will create a network of mentors and learning providers. Our vision is that, within five years, every child and youth in BC will have access to this interlinked web of STEAM learning opportunities.
Suffice it to say, then, that these are exciting times. And Science World is looking forward to co-creating this thriving future with our community. Stay tuned for more!
Science World is a charitable organization that engages British Columbians in science and inspires future science and technology leadership throughout our province. Learn more about their current exhibitions and workshops, explore their terrific free resources and read about the vision for the organization in its 2016/2017 Annual Report.
We enjoyed reading this 2-part interview with Scott Sampson on the blog Geek Dad. Their discussion explores how to raise a "wild child", the implications of a lack of outside time on kids, as well as accessible, low pressure ways to get kids out and exploring the natural world.
You can follow Sampson - "science communicator, nature lover, dinosaur guy" - on Twitter here.
Signing off with a, “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!” - (Had to be done!) Team Webnames