A Master’s Degree in Popular Culture is not only a great ice-breaker at parties (and a surefire way to strike fear in the hearts of your parents), but it turns out to be very useful when developing an animated series for teachers about science misconceptions. Who knew?
Before we dive in to how pop culture shaped the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s Good Thinking!: The Science of Teaching Science series, how about a quick lesson? I’m sure Ms. Reyes would approve.
Popular culture is often described as the “cultural glue” that bonds people from all walks of life together through a shared experience. For example, whether you live in Topeka or Tribeca, are 23 or 67, are a retired homemaker or a club promoter, if you both watched the series finale of Mad Men (sob), you have a common point of reference to draw upon should you meet at an airport luggage carousel. If you happen to inhabit another planet in a different galaxy, a Kardashian reference would most likely be your entry into the conversation.
That’s in part why popular culture references – pointing to another body of work, fictional character, or well-know event – are so abundant in movies and on television. It adds another layer of enjoyment, a wink to the audience that makes them feel knowledgeable or “in on the joke.”
Bugs Bunny was a frequent borrower of cultural references (weirdly highbrow ones, like the Barber of Seville and Richard Wagner), but it was The Simpsons that really set the bar for animated television laden with pop culture references. I love the rapid-fire references in Family Guy, but one could argue that there’s very little original text holding all that self-congratulatory smugness together. But I also enjoyed Ted 2, so I clearly can’t be trusted.
And this brings us full circle to Good Thinking!: The Science of Teaching Science (How? A talking teddy bear and a talking piece of chewed gum, obviously), and how and why we used popular culture references in the series.
Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) launched the Good Thinking! series to explore pedagogical ideas across a range of subject-matter topics like energy, natural selection, and gravity, as well as cognitive research findings on topics such as student motivation, or the myth of left- and right-brained people, earlier this summer. It’s an engaging and entertaining web series designed to enhance K-8 science education, and deepen understanding of STEM topics for teachers and students alike.
The Smithsonian’s bold, brave, and awesome decision to make Good Thinking! an animated series (versus live action) not only gave the team at FableVision license to borrow from some of the best classic series, it also set audience (more on them in a bit) expectations. Viewers knew they were in for a something a little wacky and fun – a big departure from run of the mill professional development videos.
Animation is a good approach to reduce the stress and apprehension around learning complex information. If animation allows the audience to let their guard down a bit, they will hopefully realize that science can be a ton of fun, and pass that same mindset on to their students.
From the beginning, we drew on popular culture to shape Good Thinking!’s world and characters while keeping the audience in mind.
Speaking of audience, the huge network of teachers tuning into the series is incredibly diverse — gender, age, geography, race, student population, economic status, subject matter expertise. While we can’t make a “one size fits all” experience, popular culture references are a good point of entry for people to rally around. (Remember a few paragraphs up about how pop culture is “cultural glue?”) The important thing is not to overuse them, or to make them so obscure that the creators are the only ones “in on the joke.” In that sense, cultural phenomenon that have made their way into the pop culture lexicon (like Twilight featured in the Natural Selection episode) make good broad references.
In creating the series, our major inspirations were the 1950s Tex Avery House of Tomorrow and Farm of Tomorrow cartoons featuring the omniscient “golden voiced” narrator and clever visual and verbal puns and gags, and the talking inanimate objects (Globey, Chairry, Clocky) from Pee-wees’s Playhouse. All of the inanimate objects that spring to life in Ms. Reyes’ classroom were based on well known actors and fictional characters (you can read more about them here) as a way to make THEM feel familiar and relatable, even when the complex scientific info they’re dispensing might not be.
We tried to lean on references/jokes teachers would be familiar with, not just because of their own personal experiences, but because these things have become so entrenched in media representations of teaching and classrooms — so meta, I know.
From seasonal classroom decorating to the horror show of the fridge in the teacher’s lounge, from the “secret” side of teachers that comes out when the kids go home (Ms. Reyes’ goth phase in Make it Rain!, or nod to Mad Max in Fired Up About Energy) to the “teacher’s pet” whose hand is in a perpetual state of up-ness, there are hopefully some moments in every episode that ring true..
A few more pop culture rules for the road: it’s critical the episodes and the writing stand on their own, and even if you don’t “get the reference,” the scene is enjoyable and the information presented is clear. For example, in the Natural Selection episode, Charles Darwin serves Ms. Isabella Reyes and Blossom, umbrella drinks poolside in Isabella’s daydream. It’s a funny gag if you make the connection, but nothing is lost if you miss it.
And as tempting as it is to use hot “of the moment” references to seem hip and relevant, the series needs to live for a long time and not feel dated. That’s why I can mention doing the “Whip/Nae Nae” in this blog post, but Gummerson and Bunsen may NOT discuss their mutual heartbreak over the Affleck/Garner uncoupling.
The Good Thinking! series is one of many projects where we have “gone to the pop culture well” for inspiration. Bite Club, a financial literacy game that teaches about retirement savings, is set in a Vampire nightclub similar to Fangtasia in the TV show True Blood. Reality TV shows like Jersey Shore and The Real World influenced the story for the Infinity Island animation for LIME Cable Broadcasting, and celebrity internet cats, the writer’s gift that keeps on giving, were the basis for Señor Ticklewhiskers character in Learning.com’s Digital Citizenship app. There are lots of other examples as well, but in every case, the choices we made were about setting the right tone and finding the hook to draw a specific audience into the experience. And maybe a little about what we learned on Buzzfeed that day. But only a little.