Marjee Chmiel is a curious person. She’s curious about stories and science and where the two cross paths. Marjee is the Associate Director for Curriculum and Communications at Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC). Earlier this year, SSEC and FableVision Studios unveiled a new free animated (yep, we said animated!) professional development series, entitled Good Thinking!: The Science of Teaching Science. Explaining science can be tricky, and explaining “the ideas we build in our mind to make sense of the world” – as Marjee calls it – required a non-limited visual medium. FableVision talked with Marjee about the Good Thinking! series, the subject matters we tackle, and how this research-based series is providing a one-of-a-kind resource to science educators everywhere. And be sure to watch the entire Good Thinking! series on YouTube here

What is the Good Thinking! The Science of Teaching Science origin story?
A few things came together. I was in Johnston County in North Carolina to see some of the teacher professional development going on as part of our Investing in Innovation Grant from Department of Education. I was amazed by how in-depth and fantastic the content was that the teachers were getting. While most teachers were working at the elementary level, they were learning things about science pedagogy that I didn’t learn until I was in a doctoral program for science education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (which is considered one of the top programs in the country). I was really impressed and thrilled with this training and the teachers seemed to love it, too.

The down side was that the training takes place during the summer, which means that a lot of teachers miss it, or teachers are not hired on yet, or get transferred to different grades or schools by the time the school year starts. So teachers and principals were asking us to come up with a way to provide some of this training. But what I saw in the face-to-face training was so collaborative. Teachers were learning from other teachers. How do you capture that dynamic while making it accessible and flexible to accommodate hectic schedules?

Good Thinking! certainly can’t replicate that sort of experience, but I felt like the videos and their format started to get at some of the needs that had emerged.

My doctoral dissertation was a content analysis of science education web video, so I had a mental catalog of what was out there and what we were lacking. The thing I saw was that there was a lot of content out there on the sort of the “just the facts ma’am” parts of science. But the finer points of how humans understand their world and what it means to shepherd developing brains into scientific inquiry were locked up in research journals. Unless you were lucky enough to take a world-class doctoral course or participate in our professional development, it would be a challenge to get your hands on that knowledge.

I discussed the feedback we had gotten from our teachers and administrators with people back at Smithsonian Science Education Center and the idea for these brief videos that address common misconceptions about science and how science is taught began to emerge. The title “Good Thinking” seemed obvious and catchy.

Who’s the Good Thinking! audience? How do you imagine accessing and utilizing the information in these videos?
Our primary audience is elementary school teachers who are teaching science. In elementary school, you have to be quick and nimble with the content you teach and it isn’t uncommon to move through the grade levels and teach different grades. Accessible content refreshers are critical for this type of work and online web video has been an amazing resource to that end. But instead of offering a general science lesson, we wanted to couch the science in a way that matters most to educators. We wanted to tie into the types of questions that might arise in your students. Furthermore, we thought there was a need for providing this type of information from a trusted resource such as Smithsonian. That is why we were careful to provide citations with each video. This is a research-based resource that is accessible and available for any teacher anywhere, anytime.

In addition to teachers, we imagine the series will appeal to science nerds everywhere.

Some might say it is unusual to create an animated professional development resource for adults. Why did you choose to animate Good Thinking! vs. a live action instructional video?
At the heart of this video series are mental models: the ideas we build in our mind to make sense of the world. We wanted to explore mental models that people have about cells, atoms and rain clouds. Live action felt too restrictive. We wanted to go places that cameras can’t go. Animation was a logical choice. It allows us to convey multiple ideas at once and construct actual mental models, watch the water cycle take place, or see the total energy of a system. I honestly don’t see how this would have worked as a live series.

What’s your favorite way that a science topic has woven into an episode?
I love the way we talk about what it is that scientists actually do in the Learning Styles video. I get sad when I hear people talking about things like “dancing mitosis” or making a rap about the rock cycle as a way to “engage multiple learning styles” in order to learn science. All that does is have kids memorize facts. When people go into the voting booth or make health decisions for their family, I don’t care if they know the difference between prophase and anaphase. We don’t need people in congress who know the difference between metamorphic and sedimentary rock (though it would be nice)! And that’s all that stuff does, it is a disguise for rote, decontextualized recall knowledge.

How do the Good Thinking! characters explain or personify the science topics being communicated?
All of the characters in the series are curious people. Ms. Reyes wants to learn more about her profession. The children want to learn more about their world. Those curious humans are at the center of the series and they are at the center of science.

We’re asking you to play favorites – who’s your favorite classroom character on Good Thinking?
Definitely Bunsen. My undergrad is in chemistry and I taught chemistry, so we’ve already got that connection. He cracks me up.

Marjee Chmiel is the Associate Director for Curriculum and Communications at Smithsonian Science Education Center. In this role, she oversees print and digital product development for the unit. Marjee is a former high school chemistry and physics teacher who has also worked as a technology administrator at the elementary and high school level. Marjee has lead development on numerous award-winning projects at Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) and National Geographic's The JASON Project. Marjee holds a doctorate in educational research and evaluation with a special focus on the intersection of science education and educational technology. Her publications on education range from the practical to the theoretical with articles ranging from The Science Teacher to the Oxford Handbook on Mixed Methods research. As a hobby, Marjee has her own micro-press which was nominated for best new small press and best book design in 2012. Marjee resides in Maryland with her husband and their two small, yippy dogs, but she retains the pizza snobbery of her native Chicago.