Encouraging kids to ‘prove their world’

RIT astrophysicist gathers unique cast of characters for science TV show

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Prove Your World started with a parental rant.

The science TV show with an interactive website for 8- to 13-year-olds grew from RIT professor Brian Koberlein’s frustration with the science programming available to his young son. 

“A lot of the shows are awful,” says Koberlein, senior lecturer and computational astrophysicist in the Department of Physics. “They are either overly distracting or the science isn’t right, or it’s very shallow. That’s what started me thinking—there has to be a better way to do this. I said to myself, ‘How hard can it be to create a science show that works?’ ”

Two years, a committed team and an educational nonprofit organization later, Koberlein knows the answer: “It’s insanely complicated. We’re doing all the hard stuff first. Most shows already have a production company and bring in consultants. We started with the core of knowledge—the experts. When we get to the point of producing a series, we’re going to have a radically different program.”

The first iteration of Prove Your World was as a website featuring videos Koberlein produced with funding from the RIT College of Science. Two of his videos aired on WXXI’s Homework Hotline last fall. 

Koberlein and his colleagues expanded the idea to teach scientific literacy—critical decision-making about scientific topics—to a wider audience. Their pilot for Prove Your World is in preproduction. The show will debut with Koberlein and a cast of puppets exploring how planes fly. WXXI will run the pilot episode and help to find a home for the series on public television.

The team must raise $250,000 to cover the pilot and the cost of four custom-made puppets. RIT and Nazareth College signed formal agreements with Prove Your World this spring, and an agreement with WXXI will follow soon. Corporate sponsorship from Ward’s Natural Science, a supplier of science education materials, will outfit the set with equipment. 

Prove Your World has applied for federal tax-exempt status with the IRS and will soon be able to accept direct donations. Funding for the project also can be directed through RIT and Nazareth. 

The team’s first $10,000 will pay for a professional-quality puppet. Puppets will act as proxies for children and as a device to accelerate experiments and lead to conclusions within the 30-minute episodes. 

“Teaching kids to think scientifically largely involves changing what they already know and changing part, at least, of what they already think,” says Grant Guthiel, professor of developmental psychology at Nazareth College.

“Each script that we do, each lesson that we do on TV and on the website follows an inquiry model,” adds Gail Grigg, professor of inclusive child education at Nazareth College and an expert in the methodology.

Inquiry-driven learning allows children’s questions to guide the instruction. It differentiates Prove Your World from other programs and informs the scriptwriting. 

During the writers’ meetings, Koberlein focuses on making sure the science is accurate. Education experts Grigg and Susan Sherwood watch for the presentation and comprehensibility of a topic. Guthiel pays attention to how the script talks to middle-school kids. Kevin Schoonover ’86 (B.F.A. graphic design), the creative director, adds levity and humor. 

“We have people coming from so many different areas at once on the script, it can make it frustrating because you think you’re done, then you have this other issue you have to deal with, but it just makes it that much better,” says Sherwood, an educational consultant with a doctorate in curriculum development and a background in inquiry- driven learning. 

The television series will drive viewers to a website where kids, teachers and parents can connect with scientists and engineers, and where kids with shared scientific interests can meet.

Many children in the middle-school demographic lose interest in science. 

“The social development issues during middle childhood are profound,” Guthiel says. 

No one wants to stand out as a “geek.” Added to that are constraints of national education requirements and teachers uncomfortable with their own understanding of science, how to teach it and how to make it exciting for their students, note Grigg and Koberlein.

“It’s really hard,” Koberlein says. “You can see on 
television, you have little kids’ science shows and you 
have high school science shows. You don’t have anything in between and there’s a reason why. That’s why we’re 
targeting that range.”