What to know - before the show!

Twelve-year old Dessa and her mother, Esther, move to a new town to start over after losing Dessa’s father in an accident. Dessa struggles with her emotions and refuses to open up to Esther about what she’s feeling. At her new school, Dessa struggles to fit in, so she relies on her astounding imaginary friend, pioneering 19th-century English paleontologist Mary Anning, to talk to.

On a school field trip to the Natural History Museum, Dessa and Mary-Anning observe a wall of pictures containing portraits of the pioneers of paleontology – all men with not one credit to the women like Mary Anning who also made discoveries. Dessa is approached by Nilo, a popular boy at school with a penchant for soundscapes, who questions whether she’s lonely or crazy, leading Dessa to become overwhelmed with emotion and punch a hole in one of the portraits. To make up for the destruction caused, Dessa is forced by the head of the board of trustees, Nilo’s father, to work with Nilo on a project for the upcoming science fair.

That evening, a frustrated Esther works on writing a jingle for an ad while Dessa and Mary Anning examine tools for the science fair project outside. As they work, Mary Anning questions Dessa about her father. Dessa retrieves a book of notable paleontologists that she claims was given to her by her father. Esther and Dessa lament the fact that their beloved husband and father are gone. In a fit of passion, young Dessa decides that she is going to help Mary Anning get the recognition she deserves.

The next day, Nilo arrives at Dessa’s house where he’s informed that their science project will be to prove science’s bias against women who should be receiving proper acknowledgement for discoveries. Dessa explains that she will use her skills to dig for fossils but that they’re going to let the judges of the science fair assume that Nilo had the idea and did all the work because he’s a boy. Then, once they’ve had their moment of triumph, they’ll reveal the judges’ bias and demand they finally acknowledge Mary Anning’s pioneering achievements and hang her portrait on the wall at the museum.

Nilo reluctantly agrees to the project, and Dessa begins digging under the guidance of Mary Anning’s expertise. Nilo underscores her work with sounds he’s recorded revealing that the thing he most wants to do with his life is work on sound for video games. As time goes on, Mary Anning relays part of her life story and the adventures she had while digging. As she tells one story about being buried, Dessa grows overwhelmed by emotions and begs to stop.

The following day, Nilo interrupts Esther while working on another ad jingle. Nilo confesses that he has been participating in some dangerous activities with his so called ‘’friends’’ while Dessa seems to avoid people at all costs. Esther shows him a stack of letters, all from Dessa’s friends back home who are trying to be there for her. Esther acknowledges that Dessa is not okay after losing her father, and that instead of getting those heavy feelings off her chest, Dessa’s bottling them up. Esther asks Nilo if he could try to be a friend for her during this time.

When Dessa and Nilo get back to work, they uncover a mastodon tusk. They compare it to a skeleton at the museum and discover that the skeleton in the museum isn’t male, but female. With their project ending, Dessa isn’t ready for the thrill of making history to come to an end. Dessa begins to hyperventilate when forced to think about what the hard truths of the accident and her father. Nilo tries to console her, but Dessa becomes defensive when learning he and her mother were talking behind her back.

Later, Esther is confronted by the imaginary Mary Anning. Esther blames Mary for ruining her life, and through clearing out the strong uses of hyperbole, Mary Anning helps her see that the accident uprooted her family. Esther admits that she wishes Dessa would have turned to her instead of an imaginary friend, but Mary Anning points out that Dessa is not running from her mother, but from addressing the truth that her father wasn’t as present in her life as he should’ve been.

At the science fair, Dessa and Nilo present their discoveries about the mastodon. As they had hypothesized, questions and photo-ops are directed to Nilo instead of Dessa who soaks up the attention because for once his dad looks proud of his son. Nilo doesn’t share that it was Dessa’s idea, causing Dessa to spiral and black out.

Mary Anning appears to Dessa, and they revisit the stormy night of the car accident. Dessa uses Mary’s scientific process to pause, observe the patterns, and find the hidden details. She remembers her mother yelling in the car and first thought it was a distraction but soon realizes Esther is trying to grab the steering wheel before they crashed. When Dessa wakes up, she finds she is home with her mom. Esther is happy that Dessa is all right and that Mary Anning came to her when she needed someone. Nilo comes over with their winning trophy and shares that he told his dad the truth about Dessa leading the project. Though they did not get Mary Anning’s picture up on the wall, they all honor her by loudly proclaiming her name.


In Digging Up Dessa, present day Dessa tries to honor the historical achievements of Mary Anning while also struggling with the events of her own past and the difficult emotions that comes with it.

Have students write a letter to themselves to open at a future date for each of the prompts below:

  • Open When You've Had a Rough Day
  • Open When You Can't Stay Focused
  • Open When You Need a Laugh
  • Open On Your Birthday
  • Any other prompt you wish to add

Encourage students to write their letters and include any words of comfort, silly jokes, or other things to fulfill the prompt. Once students have finished writing, have them sign and date their letters then seal each one in an envelope with the prompt written on the front. Collect the letters and store them in an area labeled for each student. Let them know they can open a letter for themselves whenever they need to.

KAS: HE:3.1.3; HE:3.1.4; C.1.4.a


August 26, 1918 - February 24, 2020.
Physicist, mathematician, and NASA space scientist

Women have been making waves throughout history since the beginning of time. Women serve as activists, doctors, teachers, authors, and more. While STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are often dominated by men, there are still plenty of women responsible for important discoveries that have shaped our world and continue to do so.

In small groups, have your students choose a woman who has made great contributions to a STEM field. Below is a list of famous women in STEM if your students need some inspiration:

  • Marie Curie (a physicist known for discovering radium and polonium)
  • Katherine Johnson (a physicist, mathematician, and NASA space scientist known for her calculations that guided NASA's 962 Friendship 7 Mission)
  • Florence Nightingale (a statistician known for her sanitation reform and founding modern nursing practices)
  • Alice Augusta Ball (a chemist who discovered the cure for leprosy)
  • Tu Youyou (a pharmaceutical chemist whose work led to the discovery of drugs used to treat malaria)

Have each group research their STEM contributor and create a presentation about their chosen woman in STEM. Encourage students to include information about the lives of their woman in STEM, their greatest achievements, and how/when they received recognition. What is the legacy their woman in STEM left behind? How can we continue to uplift women in fields where they often lack recognition?

KAS: C.3.2.b; I.IQ.C3.A; I.IQ.G1.A


Role models are individuals that are looked up to by others as an example to be imitated. Role models can be athletes, scientists, and performers as well as teachers, family members, and friends.

Click on the link below and print the 'My Role Model' worksheet for each student. Have them choose a person they admire, attach a picture of their role model to the page, and fill out the sheet. Then put their role models on display so everyone can see and find inspiration.

My Role Model Activity

KAS: C.3.1.c; HE:3.2.1

Digging Up History: The Life and Times of Mary Anning

Pioneer fossil collector of Lyme Regis, Dorset. Oil painting by an unknown artist, before 1842. Golden Cap is visible in the background. Held at the Natural History Museum, London.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 in Lyme Regis, United Kingdom. During her youth, her father would take her fossil hunting, which was not common for young girls during this time. He taught her how to clean the fossils, and later, he would sell them at his shop. Unfortunately, in 1810, Mary’s father, Robert, passed away due to tuberculosis. The rest of the family had to find means to support the family, and Mary was told by her mother to sell her findings.

At the age of 12, Mary’s brother found a fossilized skull from an unknown species. Mary went digging for the rest of the fossil, and after several months of digging, she uncovered a fossilized skeleton that was 5.2 meters (approximately 17 feet) long. It took years of analyzing and debating before it was given the name Ichthyosaur. This discovery was the first for this species.

Twelve years later, in 1823, Anning discovered the first complete Plesiosaurus. Following the news, many did not believe it was real. Even Georges Cuvier, known as the father of paleontology, publicly stated it was fake. The Geological Society of London held a meeting to discuss this find, though they did not allow Mary to be there. Cuvier admitted he was wrong after much debate in the meeting.

Later, Mary discovered some bones that ended up being a pterosaur (flying reptiles). While this was not the first pterosaur to be discovered, it was the first one uncovered outside of Germany. Mary continued to sell her findings, which fascinated people causing them to visit fossil displays.

Though Mary Anning contributed majorly to paleontology and is known as the princess of paleontology today, she was not recognized by male scientist in her time. Men who reported her findings would not credit her, and she was never invited to join he Geological Society of London. In 1847, Mary Anning passed away from breast cancer.

Today, her discoveries are displayed in museums, and Lyme Regis – the area where she often dug- has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She inspired many others of all genders to go into paleontology.

How to grow - after the show!


Portraits are used in museums to display historical figures of the past. Imagine there being a portrait to memorialize your actions, discoveries, and awards. What would you be honored for?

On a separate sheet of paper, write out what the placard might say in 3-5 paragraphs. Include:

  1. Name
  2. Date of birth
  3. Events from early life
  4. Accomplishments
  5. Any important events

Once everyone has finished, ask the students for volunteers to be interviewed about their life. Start off the interview with the young person introducing themselves and what they’re known for. Ask example questions, and then allow other students to ask questions. After the interview, have the student to make three poses demonstrating what portraits may be at the museum.

KAS: C.6.3; C.7.3; C.8.3; TH:Cr1.1.3.a


Nilo is a character in the play who want to be a sound designer for video games. Foley sounds are a way to create sound effects using random objects. Give the students some examples of foley sounds, suing various objects. Then have the students grab an object and create sound with it. (Examples include aluminum=thunder, shredded newspaper in plastic bag=stepping in grass, pair of gloves=bird wings.) Once the students have been able to practice on their own, put them in groups of three and have them create a story using their sounds.

KAS: 4-PS4-3; TH:Pr5.1.7.b; TH:Cr3.1.6.c


Throughout the years, paleontologists (pay-lee-on-tall-uh-jists) have discovered a variety of dinosaur species. Each species has its own characteristics.

Click the link below and print the dinosaur match activity for each student.

Dinosaur Match Activity

For an added challenge after reviewing the answers, have students stand up and move around the space. Ask them to walk as each dinosaur you call out.

KAS: 8-LS4-1, 3-LS4-1, TH:Cr3.1.3.b

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