Dragging Science to TV

Dragging Science to TV

Dragonfly TV begins second season on WETA.

Last summer, Laurie Sullivan wasn’t in the classroom. But it wasn’t far from her thoughts. Sullivan, a teacher in the “Project Discovery” program at Barrett Elementary School and Arlington’s Teacher of the Year for 2003, melds science, math and language arts in her lessons. So she is on the look out for ways to keep her students interested – something funny, something interesting, but with some connection to what’s going on in the classroom.

“I love ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy.’ Last summer, I spent a lot of the summer taping the shows,” said Sullivan. “I tried to make video guides, so we know what we’re going to see, we can watch it, then pause and talk about it.”

With Dragonfly TV, Richard Hudson isn’t trying to give the world another Nye, the comedian and scientist who hosts children’s science shows first on Disney then Noggin cable channels. “We don’t have a Bill Nye. There are no actors,” said Hudson, executive producer of the children’s science series airing Mondays this summer on WETA. “These are real kids, doing their own experiments.”

Dragonfly’s second season premiered Monday, and the second season hews close to the concept of the show from the first season. “It’s really kids doing science meets MTV,” Hudson said.

DRAGONFLY PRODUCERS, from Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minn., looked around the country for middle school students to feature on episodes, students doing science experiments of their own device.

“We send scouts out to state science fairs,” said Rick Swanson, the show’s science editor. If an experiment looks especially interesting, he said, he will contact his or her science teacher, and start the process of replicating the experiment on camera.

They may not be typical science fare, however – past episodes have shown experiments based on judo, go-cart races, white water rafting and model rocketry. The sequences are set to alternative rock, rap, dance music, jazz and classical – snippets from all genres.

“We want to give them a slice of music they’re listening to,” said Gloria Bremer, Dragonfly’s creative director. “And topicality – we want something to illuminate the story with charm and humor.”

Most important, though, is that the experiment focus on the scientific method. “It’s not about science facts, but about the process of science,” said Hudson. “We don’t provide very many facts in any one episode.”

“They’re not just lecturing, but having the kids do it,” said Valentine Kass, program director for informal science education at Arlington-based National Science Foundation, one of Dragonfly’s main sponsors. “These are problems that kids pose, and then it’s about figuring out what makes a good experiment, and how to go about it.”

The hope is that children watching will see that they too can do science, based on what’s going on in their daily lives. Some experiments they can turn off the television and perform immediately; others will require special knowledge and equipment that hobbyists may already have.

THE GIRLS WHO race go-carts try to determine what gears should go on their racer’s engine before a big race, first trying a gear with fewer teeth, then with more, and looking at test results for each one. “Those kids had an intimate knowledge and understanding of their investigation,” said Hudson. “We just formalize the process.”

In another episode, 15-year-old Maurna Donovan looked at the results of physical exercise on her friends’ memories. She and a partner started with a simple memory test, showing a group of their friends a 20 household objects, arranged on a towel, for one minute. They had three minutes to write down as many objects as they could remember.

“We separated the group of kids into two teams,” Maurna said. “One team sat and played board games. The other team, we had a maze and an obstacle course where you jump and run and crawl: a lot of moving.”

Both teams went through their exercises, physical and otherwise, for about 20 minutes, then took the memory test again. “We came back and found the team who exercised, their memory increased,” Maurna said.

Results were far from clear, and what they showed most of all was that more testing was in order, she said. But the experiment did prove their hypothesis, and sparked some interest in science.

“Science isn’t my favorite subject. But I didn’t feel like I was doing science projects on the show,” said Maurna. “I felt like we were just finding out.”

IT TOOK TWO days to find out, though, and Dragonfly’s producers had to condense that into four and a half minutes, Bremer said. “We’re maybe accelerating it for TV.”

Shorter segments make it easier to use science programming in the classroom, said Mark Johnston, science advisor for Arlington Public Schools. Short segments and the opportunity to conduct hands-on experiments are crucial elements if teachers are going to incorporate television shows into their classroom, he said. “It’s more meaningful than sitting passively.”

The longer the segment, the more likely that lights will get turned off, Sullivan said. Short segments keep students’ attention in the classroom. “It keeps them engaged,” she said. “If I don’t turn off the lights, kids don’t feel like it’s a movie, they don’t feel like a passive viewer.”

If she can turn off the television and have them start working on an experiment like they’ve just seen, that’s even better. “We can pause and discuss it,” Sullivan said. “I try to tell kids that’s how they can do science too.”