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`Science Guy' Mixes Facts and Fun

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1995



SEATTLE

It's 7 p.m., and ``Bill Nye the Science Guy'' is on the air - or is it out in space?

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Both, metaphorically. The enthusiastic Mr. Nye, wearing a soccer uniform, is taking viewers on a tour of the universe.

A miniature soccer ball, representing the sun, is at one end of a playing field. In rapid-fire film edits Nye moves across the field, stopping wherever planets would be in a scaled-down solar system. Then the big question: ``How far do you think it is to the next star?'' Speeded-up footage shows Nye zipping down the road in a car, and viewers learn that the closest star would be 700 kilometers (435 miles) away.

The lesson comes with a dash of humor from the show's voice-over narrator, comedian Pat Cashman: ``Kids, don't drive this way at home.... You could leave tire marks on the living room carpet.''

If Nye has his way, fourth-graders around the country - and some older folks, too - will be inspired to adopt his motto, ``Science Rules.'' And they might start talking and thinking in metric units, as the Science Guy does consistently on his show.

Nye says he has three goals: ``Make money, change the world, and have fun.'' Making money refers not only to earning a living but also having a successful show.

``If you're making a TV show, it has to be fun. It has to be entertaining. Otherwise, don't even bother,'' Nye says in an interview. So the show's editors add flashy packaging, from MTV-style music videos to mock previews for movies like ``Compass Man'' (included in a show about magnets).

Change the world? That means sparking more interest in science. ``Any problem you can think of,'' from traffic congestion to illegal immigration, ``is fundamentally a science problem,'' he asserts. Yet Americans have a serious lack of scientific literacy, he says.

``The people I'm going after are fourth-graders,'' he says. Research suggests that this age is a transition point where many children lose interest in science.

As for fun, that's always been part of Nye's learning environment. ``I was taught science in a creative, fun way. I don't know what happened. I slipped through a crack,'' he jokes.

Aired weekdays on 250 public-TV stations and syndicated on weekends on commercial channels, the show reaches an estimated 4.4 million viewers a week - not huge by big-network standards, but ``OK'' for an educational show aimed at a fourth-grade audience, Nye says.

The show began in 1993 and started nightly runs on public-TV stations last fall. Walt Disney's television subsidiary distributes episodes commercially. Disney, PBS, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) fund the show, along with PBS station KCTS in Seattle, where the show is produced.

Children, as well as adult ``cross-viewers,'' enjoy the mix of experiments, facts, and zaniness.

``It's cool,'' says Casey Middaugh, a 10-year-old Seattle resident. Her twin sister, Laine, says the show, which her teacher sometimes used in classes last year, has made her more interested in science.

``Bill Nye is just weird enough,'' in her view, while ``Beakman's World ``(CBS) is ``too weird.''

Shows like these are ``extremely valuable for kids,'' says John Cowens, a fourth-grade science teacher in La Grande, Ore. He credits the shows with encouraging teachers to do more experiments in class, often using simple supplies.

Each Nye show includes a do-it-yourself experiment or two, such as constructing an astrolabe using cardboard, a straw, string, and a protractor. The episodes also feature interviews with ``way cool'' actual scientists. Since scientists are often thought of as mostly white European males, Nye tries to make sure the children and other guests on the show include women and nonwhites.

While the show's fast pace is par for the course on today's TV, some educators worry about ``entertainment value'' going too far.

Michael Leyden, who teaches science education at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, says such shows are helpful ``up to a point, and of course everyone disagrees on the point.''

He has only seen ``Bill Nye'' once, so he withholds judgment. But Professor Leyden says that if shows make it look as though ``everything is fun,'' students may not be prepared for reality. ``You learn science by doing a lot of hard work,'' he says.

Nye is working plenty hard. The rush to produce shows leaves little time for the bicycling and travel he'd like to do. He has roots in both science and entertainment, having studied mechanical engineering (he worked for Boeing and Seattle's Pacific Science Center) and written for Seattle's home-grown comedy TV show ``Almost Live.''

Each Nye show is sharply focused, to help viewers retain one or two points. The lesson for an episode on buoyancy, for example: If you put something into the water, it displaces water; if the thing weighs less than the water it displaces, it will float.

``That's all we wanted you to get, for a half hour,'' Nye says. ``If you get more, that's great.''

Shortened videos of the shows are available to teachers. The NSF has sent out 127,000 teaching kits to fourth-grade teachers across the country in conjunction with the show.