When I close the chain-link gates behind the mass of families wielding strollers and iPhones, I run through the monologue in my head. I tell myself to remember to mention the T-Rex show, tell them about their stamp books, tell them that they’re scientists.
The eyes of the patrons, especially the young children, widen at the sight of the first dinosaur peering over the tall fence. Usually, they point and shout that they can see this gargantuan thing looming above them. They’re scared that they’ll be dino kibble as soon as they paid the cost of admission.
“Don’t worry. They’re all vegan. Even the T-Rex,” I assured the crowd of children. The serious paleontologists in the crowd cast doubts on this assertion, but it was something I did in earnest.
When I give my opening monologue, I ask the crowd of children and their families, “Are you ready to be scientists today?” and get them to cheer.
One of the things I noticed was families bringing their daughters, their nieces, their granddaughters, their cousins: all young girls who love science and want to learn more about dinosaurs.
At my job, I donned lab coats and goggles for archeology labs to encourage families to keep digging and to discover fossils. I was a fake scientist, no Ph.D. in archeology for this college freshman. But this sort of thing made me realize that these young girls want to be into science, even if this is a day trip.
Knowledge is power
Going back to that monologue, when young girls interrupted the monologue about how they want to be a scientist, a paleontologist, that they knew every dinosaur in the park I applauded them instead of ignoring them. I would usually follow up with something along the lines of, “I see we have a fellow scientist in the audience!” and they would be excited (or have stage fright, depending on the crowd). Once, I saw a girl with a “future president” t-shirt. For the rest of the opening monologue, she was Madame President and her family was the Secret Service, I told her it was an honor to meet the President as I opened the gates for the family to explore the park.
Being confident in anything is difficult, regardless of age. According to a 2018 article in TIME Magazine, confidence levels can drop to 30% in girls between the ages of 8-14. Those formational years are crucial when it comes to education, with introductions to physical sciences like chemistry and physics.
And even with this, there still is a huge gender gap in STEM fields beyond primary school education. According to a 2017 study by the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 35% of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in higher education are women internationally.
At one point in my tenure as an expedition guide, I noticed one of the big draws for customers (a show that features a T-Rex puppet) had a huge change that made me want to cheer. The fearless dinosaur wrangler was a young woman, who lead the crowd in songs about dinosaur bones and how to approach the giant T-rex without getting eaten. She defended kids from becoming dinosaur brunch, “tamed a dinosaur,” and showed to the audience the importance of bravery and discovery. A little detail like this is huge, especially in the era of films like the Jurassic Park franchise having a predominantly male cast. Instead of being in the background, here was a young woman who was the heroine, taking families to see a dangerous dinosaur without a shred of fear.
Fake Scientist, Real Impact
Even though I was an actress bringing families into a park populated by dinosaurs, I felt that bringing an authentic experience was essential. It was more than just running through my lines. It was about teaching families the importance of learning. To me, it was important to encourage the next generation of scientists. To encourage young girls to research and study dinosaurs, to explore science, to be confident in their research.
While the summer of COVID-19 might close the theme park for some time, I know there are plenty of resources to encourage young scientists. There are free workshops, YouTube videos, and opportunities to learn about the importance of science.
When I donned that lab coat in the thick summer heat, I knew I looked ridiculous. But the idea of being a scientist and encouraging others to be a scientist was what made me keep the lab coat on. And to grab the goggles. (Protecting eyes is crucial, especially in a hands-on field like paleontology).
So to the young scientists of the world, keep going. I might be a fake scientist, but the impact that young researchers can bring to the table in their future endeavors is undeniable.
See you all out on the trails.