The power of television amazes me as an educator and an educational consultant. Kids craft many of their views of the world and their place in the world from the images they see on television. With this kind of lock on the attention of our nation’s kids comes a huge responsibility to look at the message we are sending. Television kid culture sets the stage for learning all kinds of lessons.
Our National Science Education Standards promote the principle of ‘science for all,’ but do we really promote a ‘science for all’ visual image to our kids?
Recently, I was talking to the third and fourth graders in my class about the television programs they choose to watch. I asked them to describe, based on their impressions gleaned from science on TV, what they thought a scientist was like.
‘Scientists wear glasses, look dorky, wear a white doctor thingy [a lab coat] and a pocket protector.’
‘Scientists have messy hair, with their face all black because they just blew up something.’
‘Yeah, they look like a nerd!’
Then Tasha, an inquisitive girl in the class, asked a tough question.
‘Doc, why are all the scientists on TV boys? It’s not fair!’
‘We do science at school all the time, but you never see girls doing the fun stuff on TV. The boys get to go places and do all the cool stuff!’
That led to my next question, ‘If you made the television shows, how would the shows look?’ Not surprisingly, Tasha immediately had some suggestions.
‘They [TV hosts] talk like they’re talking to a bunch of grown-ups. Some of the people joke around and have fun, but some of them act like know-it-alls. They’re all serious. And how come they have a lot of TV shows for kids, but no kid scientists? The kids are just kind of helpers. The adults get to do all the fun stuff.’
Based on my discussions with kids, I drew several conclusions about how TV can better serve up science to kids.
First, if we want to encourage all kids to view themselves as people who are candidates to become scientists and/or informed adults who are knowledgeable about scientific issues, we need to show kids role models of television hosts and participants who represent all kids. There is a great push to encourage women and minorities to become scientists, but kids are rarely shown women or people of color as the active scientists on television shows.
Kids need to see both men and women-boys and girls-as science role models. All people can be scientists, even if they don’t have a lab coat!
Kids will sit and passively watch a variety of television programs, but for educational programming to be truly educational, as well as entertaining, kids need to have a more interactive part. Kids need to see other children investigating questions and finding solutions. Kids need to see the real-life connections to their world, so that they realize science isn’t something that happens only in a laboratory or in a faraway exotic location. Science happens in their own homes, backyards and communities. They need to be shown that science isn’t something that is dull and boring. Science can be fun and fascinating!
On a positive note, educational television has made amazing strides in this area. Kids are talking more about educational programs than ever before. Science programming is giving kids many more options to learn about their world. However, with the expanding variety of shows competing for their attention, kids don’t have to stay tuned to shows that don’t hold their interest.
Youngsters are asking for shows that are fast-paced, playful and fun, with kids in lead roles. Kids enjoy humor and imagination-and they do notice quality. They talk about the quality of the animation, the music and the story. They enjoy shows in which the adults learn along with the kids and experience the same wonder and interest as a child experiencing the world with fresh eyes.
Whatever the form-from animation with voice-over to live action-kids need to see (and hear) adults and kids learning and exploring the world together.
Above all, kids need to see that science can be ‘way cool’ for all people.
Lisa Nyberg, Ph.D., works as a teacher, writer and educational consultant in Eugene, Oregon. She recently served as one of several science curriculum specialists in the development of Sesame Street’s new season, which has a science focus.