An interview with Frances Nankin, Thirteen/WNET :
Co-Principal Investigator of Cyberchase.
Transcription of Interview with Frances Nankin
Frances: Cyberchase is on many platforms, but the cartoon part takes place in cyberspace, and it's a classic struggle of good versus evil. We have three Earth kids who are called into cyberspace, by Motherboard, and they join Motherboard's helper, Digit, who is a cyboid, who's played by Gilbert Gottfried.
The kids plus Digit have to solve Hacker's latest attempt to take over cyberspace. Hacker is played by Christopher Lloyd. The fun we have with the show is it's comedic. Our writers are very funny people. It's math in the sense that Hacker's problems always, by the way, surprise, surprise, involve some sort of math thinking, problem-solving, or across the board with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. They have to either do numbers, or fractions, or measurement, or geometry, or...but the problems are all there. They're an integral part of going through the adventure and solving the problems. So, it's seamless, you don't feel like you're thinking about math, but at the end you know because kids talk about it. They say, "Oh that's math." They have their adventure in cyberspace and they beat Hacker once again, and then we wait for the next adventure.
Online, though, Cyberchase is much more than that. It's a collection of fifty plus games that kids can play that are all math-based, some of them immersive like our Quest game, which PBS has told us is the most popular game on pbskids.org. Kids can spend up to an hour and a half on it, and what's nice about that is, they're going through this virtual game where they're on a quest, to solve a mission to beat Hacker.
But at the same time, there're little sidebars where they have to do math, some form of math that we've built into the game. So it's nice to know that kids are there, they're being entertained, they're being totally engaged, and at the same time they're problem solving, or they're doing some basic math skills. And we know from research, we're very research-based, that it works. It gives kids more confidence; they feel like "wow, I can do this." We get emails from kids all the time. "I couldn't believe it, I watched Cyberchase this morning, and I went into school and my teacher was teaching the same thing that I just saw on Cyberchase and I knew all about it," I mean, you know, it doesn't get any better than that.
Who watches the show?
Frances: We target grades 3 to 5, which is ages eight to eleven, we have a little over four million viewers per week tuning into the episode. I won't talk about online because it's very hard to get demographics there right now, but of the viewers who tune in, we have a little over two million kids, ages two to eleven. They start at two and they go up to eleven. We have several hundred thousand viewers who are age twelve to seventeen.
They're very articulate online, by the way, and both Facebook and blogs, where we hear about it. Along the lines of it admitted, "You watch Cyberchase?" And you learn something, I mean, so that happens. And then we have this group of adult co-viewers. It's over a million adults who watch it with their kids, or presumably with their kids, or perhaps for educational purposes.
Interestingly, because we take a constructivist, and not an authoritarian approach, but more a facilitator approach to the content. We never let the kids be teachers because it just dies at that point. Who wants to sit around and listen to a talking head? We have to build it so that it's a discovery on their part. Because of that, we have educators who tell us, "I'm not going to teach that subject the same ever again," because in the discovery process, an avenue into understanding how something worked.
One of the most difficult subjects to teach in a meaningful way is fractions, and we have, I think at this point, five different episodes on different ways of thinking about fractions. I can tell you they are the hardest shows we do, both from the story and the content standpoint, because figuring out how to do it in a way that makes sense is just really, really tough.
What are the ingredients of a successful episode?
Frances: First and foremost, for me, is emotional resolution. I feel that emotion is very much an integral part of both learning and certainly socializing peer-to-peer relationships. Our best shows have high emotion between our strong characters. Not just good versus evil but our Cybersquad themselves have dealt with some very real social issues.
Happily I can say because we're now talking and writing for our eighth season, we're getting pretty sophisticated about that. I think there are a lot of really nice things happening in the scriptwriting there. Then emotional on the learning sense, that there's a real "ah ha" in there for the viewer. That the viewer isn't passive, but is in fact inspired by watching it to go and do something, we hear from some of the parents of our viewers. We have a little more than four million viewers who tune in each week. Of that, we know that more than a quarter of those are adults co-viewing, which is very exciting. And they're very communicative, they write to us and say, "You won't believe what my kid just did. You know, they didn't get it in school. They got it through Cyberchase."
How do you balance educational goals of an episode with character and story development?
Frances: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Part of the struggle that we have on our team, which is two sides of the brain, the left side and the right side. The production side with our head writer, and the supportive writers, and our producers. Then on the content side, the two math content directors.
What happens is that both groups have a tendency to go down their own path in terms of what they believe is needed for the corpus of shows. We have 81 shows currently on air right now, but there are always new aspects that both groups want to explore, whether it is through character development or content development. Everybody's very passionate, by the way, there's nobody on this project that isn't passionate. So, in the tussle, what comes out finally is what happens behind closed doors between myself and my senior series producer. We just go with our impulse, which is, I think, to make sure that the emotional impact of the show works on both levels. It works both on the “ah-ha” side of the content level work, where the viewer looks, and thinks, and scratches their head and has the jaw drop down, "I never thought of it that way." That's on the content side.
On the character side, we try to draw on conflicts that kids of this age group have, very real conflicts Self-centeredness versus team, ...learning style. Not understanding something and being frustrated by that, and how do you handle that? Where one person gets it and wants to just get started. Where as somebody else needs more time and more organization before they can begin to wrap their brain around it. We try to make all of that come out, we can't in every episode because sometimes the story doesn't call for it, but we try to maximize that feeling in the story so that it works on many levels.
Beyond the TV shows, what other Cyberchase initiatives are out there?
Frances: You can interact with Cyberchase online, and you will get lost in the huge wealth of that website. The kid’s site alone has pages, and pages, and pages, of different things for kids to do that are very interactive. They can watch videos; they can play the games, the immersive games, and the standalone games that are tied to the episodes.
We know from data what our most popular games are. How kids go back to them again and again, and play the same games, so there's a lot of repeat playing. I think there's a satisfaction there, knowing how to do something in math and seeing how it works. Then on the parent-teacher side of the site, which is just massive, there are avenues one can explore with one's child either as an educator, or as a parent. Where, for example, if you want to throw a Cyberchase party, there's a piece there that tells you how to make a cake that looks just like Buzz.
On the financial literacy side, because we do different initiatives for the project, you can help your kid make a Buzz bank, we call it, which looks like Buzz on the outside but it's two plastic bottles. One is for saving, and one is for spending. Kids start to discriminate how they're using their money, kind of thing. You can download board games and piece them together, and make one tied to financial literacy again. So it's vast there, and the reach there, it's a hugely popular website, it's enormous.
Then on our outreach side, we have multiple partners nationally, an important component of which is children and science museums. We have informal relationships with them, where they will use our materials as tabletop displays. More formal, the Children's Museum of Houston produced this 1500 ft. exhibit with separate funding from the National Science Foundation that is traveling over five years to over fourteen different cities, and engages kids in very real and beautifully created activities where they feel like they're in cyberspace. Very popular exhibit, and we'll hold a Cyberchase day at a museum with nothing more than a Digit in costume and a tabletop of activities, and museums double their attendance for the day. So, we know that branding works, we know there's recognition out there, and that it's the project over the six years that it's been on air, has gotten legs. And it's getting a following. Kids will go through it because we gear it to ages eight to eleven. As kids grow out of it, more kids are coming into it, and the popularity is continuing.