Though Massachusetts’ history might be best known for the Mayflower or the Boston Tea Party, state officials and scientists on Wednesday celebrated a piece of local history from the mid-Jurassic era.
Gov. Charlie Baker, alongside Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and state lawmakers, attended a ceremonial signing to name the Podokesaurus holyokensis — a swift-footed lizard weighing in at around 90 pounds and three to six feet in length — as the official dinosaur of Massachusetts.
The prehistoric lizard had already won its crown in April, when Baker signed the bill (H 3190) designating the dinosaur with the title, and Wednesday’s ceremony at the Museum of Science in Boston celebrated the dino as a part of Massachusetts STEM Week 2022.
Organized by the Executive Office of Education and the STEM Advisory Council, this year’s fifth annual STEM Week takes place from October 17 through October 21. The theme, “See Yourself in STEM,” focuses on mentoring women, people of color, first-generation students, low-income individuals, English language learners and people with disabilities underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Polito, co-chair of the advisory council, talked about using dinosaurs and other “fun” topics to get children excited about STEM education.
“We’ve been intentional in Massachusetts to turn our classrooms, along with our educators and leaders in our school districts, into learning labs and investing in equipment and state of the art things like CNC machines, 3D printers and lab scopes, so kids can have fun exploring and discovering and not being afraid to try different things out,” she said.
Inspiring students to enjoy science, particularly girls and children of color, she said, helps them envision future careers in STEM, and nourishes the state’s innovation economy.
Baker reminisced on being interested and excited by dinosaurs as a kid himself, and thanked the man behind the bill, state Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis of Framingham, and other lawmakers for giving a “spunky underdog from Holyoke the opportunity to be the dinosaur here in the commonwealth.”
Lewis explained to audience members Wednesday morning that the idea for designating a state dinosaur came to him in the late hours of the night at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A den leader for his child’s Cub Scout Group, he said he was rifling through a Boy Scout book one night looking for something that would engage a group of eight-year-olds on Zoom after they had spent all day learning virtually at school.
“I skipped to the back and there was a segment on dinosaurs,” he said. “And I thought ‘I like dinosaurs, maybe we can do something with that.'”
He learned there were 12 states with state dinosaurs, and the next day reached out to leading paleontologists from around the commonwealth to ask why Massachusetts did not have a designated dino.
Lewis said he began working with paleontologists who were excited about the project, and saw it as an opportunity to get kids around the state excited about science and learning about the legislative process, at a time when schools were struggling to keep students’ attention through screen learning.
He and his staff put together an online poll between two options the paleontologists recommended. By the end, 35,000 people had participated and Lewis had been the subject of international press on the topic.
“I was getting emails from parents who were so excited because their kids were obsessed with dinosaurs, and they could talk about the legislative process,” he said. “I got emails from teachers who, rightfully so, were sick of talking about the pandemic and social distancing and masks and hand sanitizer. Instead they could talk about something fun that everyone, or at least most people at one point in their life, loved dinosaurs.”
Parents of children who had never reached out to their state representatives before suddenly began contacting them about more than just dinosaurs, Lewis said.
“During the pandemic, many folks lost their jobs, many folks lost their health insurance related to their employment, and people who had never turned to their state rep and state senator before now had a reason to,” he said.
In light of this year’s STEM Week theme, the Podokesaurus holyokensis seems even more appropriate. The dinosaur’s fossils were discovered by Mignon Talbot — the first woman to name and describe a dinosaur, among other glass-ceiling-smashing accomplishments.
Lewis said Talbot went from being someone only paleontologists knew, to a household or classroom name.
“If this project inspires just a couple girls to grow up and explore paleontology it would have all been worth it,” he said.