`KnowZone' serves up `Nova' to kids

A TV series on science and nature that appeals to young people? It would need catchy rock-music numbers, right? And perhaps a round-table of teens discussing how the subject matter relates to their own lives. Not if ``KnowZone'' is any indication.

The new PBS series, which premi`ered Feb. 28 (Saturdays; check local listings), is serious-minded and packed with unadorned facts. Yet it's not only accessible to its target audience of 10-to-14-year-olds, but often exciting.

Created by the producers of public TV's award-winning ``Nova'' - the renowned science series for adults - ``KnowZone'' consists of re-edited versions of its adult counterpart. The approach is simplified and the length whittled down to 30 minutes - about half that of ``Nova.'' It uses animation and easy-to-grasp graphics. And it adds a likeable and effectively low-key host who uses distinctly unscientific words like ``weird'' and dresses in casual, colorful clothes: David Morse, Dr. Jack Morrison on NBC's ``St. Elsewhere.''

In topic and approach, the series can vary sharply: Tomorrow's program (``Why Birds Sing,'' March 14) cocks a scientific ear in the direction of bird calls, and the following week there's a documentary called ``Henry Ford's American Dream'' (March 21).

These shows are ``simplified'' and youth-oriented only in relation to ``Nova.'' They still take a no-nonsense approach to their sometimes daunting material, and many adults may prefer them to the original, since there's nothing patronizing in their tone and the same basic ground is covered.

In place of the song-and-dance style typical of ``Square One'' and other television teaching shows for younger kids, ``KnowZone'' captures the zest of a scientific quest in exploring the physical world.

It's not afraid to show us things like oscilloscopes when measuring bird songs to determine their meaning. But it also tries hard not to destroy the wonder and joy of nature - especially when exploring something as poetic as bird calls.

In the March 14 program, you can watch a bird fly right up to a tape recorder when the characteristic call of his species is played, or see a professor carry a stuffed owl into a marsh to see how the birds react to danger.

In the Henry Ford documentary, young people will learn that a car is not just a car, but a remarkable product of mechanical genius whose evolution parallels the social history of our century.

A lively archive of wonderful old film clips illustrates the narrative - including the oldest movie of a production line. We see a picture of a bright-eyed Ford at 28 - when he was a worker at the Edison Company with a reputation as great tinkerer - and learn about that revolutionary idea of his, the assembly line, and that even more revolutionary idea, doubling wages to $5 a day.

But young people will also learn the sadder side of Mr. Ford's career - his war profits, his anti-semitism, and his eventual deterioration into bitterness and alienation from society.

Utilizing the rich potential of the ``Nova'' series so kids could enjoy it was a fine idea, and the results - in the form of ``KnowZone'' - have proved highly rewarding.

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