A team of local experts are making an educational science television show for middle school-age kids on WXXI.
It sounds like a set-up, but when a developmental psychologist, an inquiry science specialist, a Ph.D-holding physics professor, a writer with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, and an actor/director/graphic designer teamed up to make a local educational television show for middle school-age kids, they weren’t joking.
The team — Grant Gutheil, Gail Grigg, Brian Koberlein, Kevin Schoonover, and Susan Sherwood — set out to create unique science programming for seventh and eighth-graders. What they came up with was the premise for a 30-minute episode TV series and an online tie-in that they say could revitalize that age group’s interest in learning.
Their show, “Prove Your World,” is currently in pre-production while the team assembles the funds needed to produce a quality pilot episode. WXXI is already on board to test market and air that episode, and if it’s well-received, PBS may choose to air “Prove Your World” for a national audience.
“Our goal is not to make scientists for the world,” says Gail Grigg, professor of inclusive child education at Nazareth. “Our goal is to increase science literacy — having enough knowledge about the world around us to make critical decisions in day-to-day living — because everyone is a consumer of science.”
“Prove Your World” stars four puppets — Hopper, Popper, Emmy and Bop — and RIT physics professor Brian Koberlein as the show’s resident physical scientist. In each episode, the characters will present a question (“How do airplanes fly” in the pilot episode, for example), develop a method to assess the question, walk through their theories and discoveries, and interpret their results. They will then move from the “funky science junk shop library experimental lab setting” of the main set to see how their new knowledge can be applied in the real world.
Koberlein is quick to point out that through this process, he won’t be a traditional science show host.
“If you look at a lot of science done for kids, it's top-down," Koberlein said. “Bill Nye is the expert who will show you what the answer is, and you're the one who passively watches. That's not inquiry learning.”
According to Koberlein, inquiry learning is driven by questions and encourages kids to be curious and find their own answers. In the show he’ll act as more of a guide than a professor, encouraging the puppet characters and occasional real-life guests to ask the questions that will lead them to the best answers.
Developmental psychologist and associate professor at Nazareth College Grant Gutheil, who also voices Popper, said the best way to get a kid to use scientific method is to let them start with a question they find interesting. The team has been surveying students from as many different backgrounds as possible to find out just what those questions are.
Page 2 of 3 - “We believe very strongly that the way to interest kids in science is to help them work to answer their own questions,” Gutheil said. “It may sound a little bit radical, but fundamentally, that's actually how actual scientists do their job.”
The “Prove Your World” team will use puppets to help make the characters more relatable and because puppets can be over-the-top and entertaining. The team hopes the puppets will be interesting, fun characters kids can relate to who just happen to do science.
Koberlein said those types of science-minded characters are rare on television.
“The expert is usually an old white guy with a bow tie and fuzzy hair, and if you are a girl or an ethnic minority or a farm kid, you don't see a lot of scientists like you,” Koberlein said. “One of our goals is to make sure that kids from all different backgrounds will see aspects of themselves in the characters and puppets. ”
“We have five characters that are at the center of the show, and none of them are experts.”
Behind the scenes, however, the entire “Prove Your World” team is made up of experts. While many shows, including “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” have been driven by production companies that hire out educational and scientific consultants, “Prove Your World” is exactly the opposite.
“The science and education is the core,” Koberlein said. “It's a radically different approach, and it's not how anybody has done it before.”
If all goes well and the show is picked up, the team will launch a supplemental website where kids can ask questions, interact with guest scientists, explore a Wikipedia-like network of connected science topics, and even perform, participate in, and share their own experiments and data.
There are already programs through which kids from all over the world collaborate by gathering and sharing information to find extrasolar planets. Koberlein said similar astronomical projects, biological surveys, and more “real science” can be done by motivated kids at home.
“There's real, active science to be done,” Koberlein said. “Kids can do new science, but it has to be collaborative and it has to be guided and you need that support.”
Gutheil said he imagines the website turning into a place where kids can be excited to share their own science videos and data not only with others on the site, but also with friends, family, and teachers.
“We see this as a companion to vital stuff that already goes on in schools,” Gutheil said. “I want Prove your World two or three years from now to be the heart of a national digital science fair.”
For now, the team is probing local, national and federal science and learning foundations to raise the $250,000 they say will allow them to build sets and puppets and film a high definition, national-quality pilot episode. Once that money is raised, the production will be locally-based.
Page 3 of 3 - “This is a Rochester product,” Gutheil said. “We have every person and every resource we need right here in the Rochester metro area to produce world-class children's science programming. We want to be the ones to do that.”
Prove Your World presents at TEDx Rochester