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Monday, August 23, 2010

Scientastic!

Posted By on Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 1:08 PM

Parents usually want their children to learn. But sometimes kids just want to watch TV.

John Pollock, an associate professor of biology at Duquesne University, has found a way to please both generations. His new WQED-TV television show, Scientastic!, teaches adolescents about health and social issues in live-action 30-minute episodes.

Often we learn the most when we're not aware we're being taught. Think about those songs filled with rhyming animal facts that get stuck in your head at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Or the interactive screen at the Carnegie Science Center that lets you look up what was happening in astronomical history the day you were born.  

Officially, this is called "informal science education," the National Science Teachers Association's term for all science education outside the classroom. And it's Pollock's method of choice: He's helped create popular exhibits and multimedia projects for Phipps Conservatory, the Carnegie Science Center and the National Aviary, among others.

"I try to create things that add to what an institution already has and create some new lessons for people to learn," Pollock says. "People can pick up more about the fundamental principles of science and do so in a way that's really fun and engaging."

Scientastic! is Pollock's first television broadcast. It follows 12-year-old Leah as she encounters everyday issues relating to health, friends and the ins and outs of life in middle school.

Pollock wants the show to encourage teens and their families to become active participants in their own health care. That requires knowing both the right questions and how to ask them.

"The way I look at it, our health literacy is intimately linked with our society's science literacy and our general literacy -- how well we read and collect information," Pollock says.

"For example, nowadays when most people are faced with the challenge of finding the answer to something, they Google it. In Scientastic!, Leah learns briefly about using the web, but she wants to use the library. She wants to talk to experts. And that's what we're trying to show people -- that kids can find the docent or the curators and ask questions, that they can talk to their doctors about medical issues and expect reasonable answers."

In the pilot episode, one of Leah's friends breaks a bone playing soccer. That launches Leah on a quest to understand how bones work, how they heal and how our diets effect bone health. The episode also confronts the issue of bullying among teens.

Funding for Scientastic! comes from UPMC Health Plan; The Pittsburgh Foundation's William K. Fitch Fund and Lewis H. & Jess Morgan Kelly Fund; and the Science Education Partnership Award of the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health; Duquesne University; and the U.S. Department of Education.

Pollock hopes to produce the rest of the 12-episode season and broadcast it weekly on WQED. Meanwhile, Scientastic! has traditional classroom applications, too: The show will be made into DVDs and lessons plans available to teachers throughout the region. 

Scientastic! premieres on WQED-TV at 8 p. m. Thu., Sept. 2.

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