ARI SHAPIRO, host:

We're visiting national parks across the country this week. And today, we're heading a few hours outside Salt Lake City, Utah, to a site where dinosaurs used to roam. Like most parks, Dinosaur National Monument has a junior ranger program. Kids fill out a booklet, pledge to take care of the park, and get a little badge. But as NPR's Jeff Brady found, this park also enlists junior paleontologists.

JEFF BRADY: Who would have guessed that millions of years ago, northeastern Utah was a hotspot for dinosaurs? And now families like the Hazelwoods from Lexington, Kentucky, come to see the leftover bones. Ten-year-old Justin Hazelwood is the family expert and an aspiring paleontologist.

Mr. JUSTIN HAZELWOOD: Paleontologists study, like, what kind of fossils and what they used to live there. They, like, try to find new bones. They try to…

BRADY: His mom, Kay Hazelwood, says Justin's obsession has become a family learning experience.

Ms. KAY HAZELWOOD: I didn't know anything about dinosaurs until he got interested in them when he was, like, 3. And we used to read dinosaur information books at bedtime. And my mom refused to read them, because she couldn't pronounce the names. She's like, I'm not reading those.

BRADY: Justin's about to become an official junior paleontologist. There's an impressive gold star badge to be earned, but only after he completes a few tasks. First, there's an activity booklet. He's on page three, picking out and circling the dinosaurs on a page filled with all kinds of animals.

Mr. HAZELWOOD: The ones that flew, swam in water and that are mammals are not dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were all reptiles.

BRADY: Justin has inspired me to learn more, too, and maybe even earn one of those cool badges.

This one is a dinosaur?

Mr. HAZELWOOD: A stegosaurus.

BRADY: Okay. That one's a horse.

Mr. HAZELWOOD: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRADY: That one?

Mr. HAZELWOOD: That one's not, 'cause it goes into water.

BRADY: Oh, okay.

Mr. HAZELWOOD: That's an early crocodile, but it was not considered in the dinosaur time.

BRADY: The activity booklet is relatively new. Karla Beasley with the Park Service says the goal is to teach the 2,000 or so kids who come through each summer that fossils tell a story about the past - and that you shouldn't stick them in your pocket.

Ms. KARLA BEASLEY (Park Services): We want them to keep the fossils that they find, like out on the trail or something, in place because paleontologists can come and learn a lot more about that fossil by knowing where it is, not just what it is.

BRADY: In addition to the booklet, there's a short hike.

Ranger MATT GREUEL (Park Services Ranger): Welcome, everyone. My name's Ranger Matt. I'm going to be your guide for the tour this morning.

BRADY: After a short bus ride, Matt Greuel leads us up a steep trail along a rock face.

Ranger GREUEL: You know, because we came just from coming down steps there when we turned down here, we're coming about - we went about 20 million years.

BRADY: Out on the rock, we run into another dinosaur fan, Tyler Sachse from Jupiter, Florida, and he's just spotted something interesting sticking out of the rock.

Mr. TYLER SACHSE: My sisters think it looks like wood, but I sort of think that it looks like bone. And I looked at it like this, and I see very, very small holes in it.

BRADY: And what does that tell you?

Mr. SACHSE: Well, I know that some bones have holes in them, so it can, like, make blood and stuff.

BRADY: For those of us with less-trained eyes, there are white arrows pointing to some of the fossils. But figuring out what part of the dinosaur they were isn't easy.

Mr. HAZELWOOD: It looks probably like some sort of leg or armpiece or something like that.

BRADY: As our walk ends, Justin Hazelwood and the other soon-to-be junior paleontologists get an encouraging word from Ranger Matt.

Ranger GREUEL: And you guys were doing just a fantastic job of finding your fossils. You're excellent paleontologists.

BRADY: And then it's back to the visitor's center to pick up our hard-earned badges, but only after raising our right hands and taking the junior paleontologist pledge.

Ranger GREUEL: I…

Unidentified Group: I…

Ranger GREUEL: Your name…

Unidentified Group: Your name…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ranger GREUEL: Promise to take care of the fossils…

Unidentified Group: Promise to take care of the fossils…

Ranger GREUEL: And learn about…

BRADY: Jeff Brady, NPR News, at Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah.

Unidentified Group: …and I promise to take care.

Ranger GREUEL: …of where I live, too.

Unidentified Group: …of where I live, too.

Ranger GREUEL: Congratulations.

SHAPIRO: Congratulations, Jeff. And you can see his impressive gold star junior paleontologist badge and activity book at npr.org.

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