Among many adults, science is becoming "cool" again. TV shows such as Mythbusters or Brainiac are popular among geeks like me, while the CSI franchise has taken off among the mainstream.
Meanwhile, a similar effort is underway to engage young people in STEM learning through mass media.
Of course, this is nothing new. A steady stream of shows from Mr. Wizard to 3-2-1 Contact to Bill Nye the Science Guy, Jake's Attic, and ZOOM have entertained and educated kids for many years. Today's shows are working harder to connect their original product directly to youth through classrooms and after-school programs. The Discovery Channel was a major sponsor of the 2006 NSTA conference, and forensic science has also taken off among science educators thanks to CSI's popularity. I'd like to highlight some PBS shows in particular which are connecting to after-school around the country:
Cyberchase, produced by PBS-affiliate WNET in New York City, is an entertaining animated series that teaches standards-based math lessons. The program's website includes materials and other educational tools for parents and teachers. Furthermore, WNET supports professional development for educators from both formal and out-of-school time education.
Following the success of ZOOM, WGBH in Boston is offering two new science and technology shows. Fetch targets younger students. Design Squad, which targets middle grades with a reality show-like design competition, is due for release in February. Both programs have been designed with connections to educators in mind. The WGBH team offers materials and trainings in support of educators who are using the show. Note that the Design Squad educator trainings specifically target out-of-school time education through the Girl Scouts of America and the National Afterschool Association.
Finally, Dragonfly TV, produced by Twin Cities Public Television, offers a number of high quality materials in support of its science inquiry show. Dragonfly models the inquiry process and then encourages children to apply inquiry methods at home and in their communities.
These are just examples of the many high quality programs that are available. Surveys, research, and common sense tells us that students do not need more hours of traditional schooling, but they do need engaging activities that connect them to real-world science and scientists. Mass media has the potential to offer these programs, and, by connecting what they see on television to what they encounter in school and in their communities, educators can multiply the impact.