An Interview with Frances Nankin: What about Math in Cyberchase or Cyberspace?

Oct 25, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Frances, tell us a bit about your background and education and experience.

My first experience in education was sometime around kindergarten when I lined up my teddy bears and tried to teach them the alphabet! (They were very attentive, of course.)

Later, I earned a masters degree in education and taught first grade for a few years before switching over to educational media. I co-founded Cobblestone Magazine, a history magazine for kids, with another first-grade teacher, then a few years later moved on to start up a science magazine at Scholastic in New York. I switched again after several years to develop content for the Magic School Bus TV show. And when that show stopped production, I joined Cyberchase. I’m a consummate teacher who has been able to reach millions of children over the years with fun and engaging educational content.

2) Now when did you first get involved in this Cyberchase?

Pretty much at the start. I joined the team as content producer, then took over as executive producer when the former EP left. I’ve been with the project eleven years.

3) How does it help kids in math?

Cyberchase is a multi-media project on PBS KIDS GO! targeting kids ages 8 to 11. More than just a TV series, kids engage with Cyberchase on our popular website (pbskidsgo.org/cyberchase), and through our engaging activities presented through classroom and afterschool programs as well as children’s and science museums.

Cyberchase features three kids – Jackie, Matt and Inez – who are called into cyberspace and team up with their cyboid pal Digit to help save the benevolent Motherboard from the dastardly Hacker. Cyberchase For Real, the live action segment at the end of each episode, uses comedy to explore math in the real world. Kids really connect to the characters and stories in the show, and therefore to the math content too.

Our mission is to help kids develop enthusiasm for math, develop math and problem solving skills, to model the usefulness of mathematical thinking, and to help kids apply their math skills in the everyday world. We’ve conducted dozens of independent research studies which show that we’re successful, and educators tell us that we’ve even changed the way they approach hard-to-grasp math topics.

4) Can you tell us about some of its components?

We’re excited to announce that a newly redesigned Cyberchase website just launched with a fresh look, awesome new features and for the first time, all of Cyberchase’s multi-media math content in one place! This includes 94 episodes and hundreds of videos, math games and hands-on activities that capitalize on the fun and adventure of the series. We believe the new easy-to-use site design will play an important role in improving STEM literacy because it makes the content much more readily accessed by kids, parents and educators.

We also have a mobile app – Cyberchase Math Match – available for iPhone and iPod Touch and an interactive whiteboard app – Lucky Star Game Show – for classroom SMART Boards.

5) What is the cost to parents or schools?

There is no cost. We are a public media project funded by the National Science Foundation and others, available on public television stations nationwide (PBS KIDS GO!) and online at pbskidsgo.org/cyberchase.

6) Could you review the basics- where does it begin, and how far into math does it go?

Each 30-minute episode of Cyberchase explores a single math topic through a mystery adventure where the kids and Digit, a.k.a. the CyberSquad, take on Hacker’s latest scheme to rule cyberspace. The topics are all rooted in the NCTM Standards (National Teachers of Mathematics) for grades 3 to 5, and represent the basic strands, including geometry, algebraic thinking, measurement, and numeracy.

Because Cyberchase is narrative-based, kids relate to the characters and their adventures, borrowing their problem solving strategies to solve math-based problems on their own.

We know from our viewers and research that children are able to apply what they learn from the episodes to their school work and to their family activities at home, building their confidence so they don’t turn off to math in the later years of school.

7) Tell us about some of the bells and whistles that help kids learn.

The redesigned website features a user-friendly FIND IT! section so kids and adults can browse the site by topic, choosing from our huge selection of videos, games and activities to learn about the math by engaging with the different types of media.

And each game, activity or video selected offers MORE COOL STUFF – additional related content to extend the learning experience in fun and surprising ways.

8) Do kids get immediate feedback? Are problems timed?

Overall, this is not our approach to helping kids build math and problem solving skills. However, we do have a game, supported by a story as revealed in three short videos, called the Lucky Star Game Show in which kids compete for high scores. Using the game show format, players engage with two sections: The first section is untimed and focuses on problem solving; the second is timed and players solve as many arithmetic problems as they can in 60 seconds.

The first section of Lucky Star has also been developed as a whiteboard application and is available free from the SMART Exchange for classroom use.

The mobile app, Cyberchase Math Match, is also timed and players compete with themselves to improve their scores.

9) Do you have a website where people can learn more about this?

Please reference above information for my response to this.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Cyberchase has built a large and diverse fan base over the past nine years, with children cycling in somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8, and out several years later (though we know they check back to the show and online when they get stuck on concepts such as fractions and proportional reasoning). Our older fans have a strong voice on our Facebook page, and it’s a lot of fun for us to read about the different ways that Cyberchase has made a difference in their lives.

We’re thrilled that we were given the chance to pull together all our terrific episodes, games, videos and activities in one place so that children can continue to enjoy the Cyberchase experience and gain from its impact as the kids before them have.

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