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Meet Mosa Mack: Science Detective

Last week, students around the country—grades four through eight—were introduced to Mosa Mack: a hip + urban preteen with a passion for scientific exploration. Conceived by former Harlem science teacher Lissa Moses Johnson, Mosa Mack: Science Detective is an animated educational series following Mosa Mack + friends as they investigate science’s many mysteries. By promoting discussion + active interaction, the series aims to engage students in the scientific process of deductive reasoning, while exposing them to the thrill of inquiry borne out of natural curiosity. Amidst preparations for the National Day of Inquiry launching the series, Johnson was kind enough to carve out some time to share her inspiration + vision for this exciting project.


You have a background in biology and also taught science in Harlem. How did these experiences lead you towards promoting engagement in the sciences, and ultimately towards the creation of the series? 

I hope that all students have that “Aha!” moment in classes where they realize that a certain subject, or certain content that really connects with them. I can distinctly remember sitting in my college biology classes, and being astounded by and very appreciative of the information I was learning. I kept thinking, “Why isn’t everybody learning about this right now?” I was very inspired by my own classes, and when you take that inspiration and contrast it against student disengagement, there’s a really big disconnect.

When I thought about the inherent excitement of science and contrasted that with the problem of student disengagement, I saw a disconnect. Yes, there are things going on in the lives of students, and yes we need to approach education in a holistic way where we can provide support, but disengagement was a problem I knew I could help solve.

During my time teaching I realized the power of media in the classroom. The first time I put on a video, my students would be in this zone in which they were intensely focused on the subject. And as soon as we fully animated an episode and got that into the classroom, we saw amazing results. By framing science content with an animated mystery, the students were linking in background knowledge, they were laughing, and they were engaging in scientific thinking at a very high level.

1f4835_935bca8fdbc673867d83a210862ff013.jpg_srz_980_495_75_22_0.50_1.20_0So in preparation for the National Day of Inquiry, we showed the pilot at three different schools—one in Florida, one in Rochester, NY, and one in Brooklyn—to show how students are reacting. When I showed the first episode at the charter school here in Brooklyn, the students’ reactions were so genuine—and I was so excited about how much they loved it—that I wanted to get some video of student reactions at other schools.

Could you talk about the inspiration for the Mosa Mack character—a young, hip, and urban girl of color—and how she relates more broadly to the mission of the series?

We structured our mission very specifically: we want to expose all students to the thrill of learning, while empowering girls and children of color. So in the same way a Caucasian male can speak to all students, we want our female protagonist of color to speak to all students. I began realizing that the educational resources I had at my disposal offered very little diversity in terms of how scientists were portrayed. Just as there are very few women and people of color in the STEM field, there are very few women and people of color in educational resources.

Making animated science mysteries is something that will not fix the entire educational system, but it will fix an important hole in the system: it will get children excited about science, increase diversity in educational resources, and bring home the message that it’s okay, and even cool, to be curious.

Students—and adults even—like to hear, “You’re right.” It’s a really nice feeling. So part of our challenge is how to show students that when you’re investigating something, you’re not going to have somebody say, “You’re right.” What you will have is evidence to support your answer. And that’s what’s important. We want teachers to say, “That sounds reasonable. Now, what’s your evidence?”

Mosa Mack: Science Detective episodes aim to engage students in scientific thinking through interactive problem solving. How exactly will the interactive component work in the classroom?

Mosa-and-friendsI’ve had those classroom experiences where students can really rise to the occasion. If they really love a project, they can accomplish some amazing tasks. And that’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to set the bar high and leave it in their hands. However, we also didn’t want to leave the teachers with no support.

So the way we’ve incorporated the interaction is this: the animation is a short mystery, and then after the mystery, we invite students and teachers to solve the mystery together by going to our website and downloading a few options as supplementary resources to fit their needs. So they can do a classroom discussion, they can do a small group discussion, or they can also do individual worksheets. We wanted to balance giving teachers maximal flexibility while giving them structure and comfort working within a guide.

Where are you going next in the project, in terms of expanding your reach?

While we’re beginning in the classrooms, we want to open up the audience to include parents as well. The most effective homework pieces are the ones that get students to engage with people, interact with their families. So we see a huge potential in bringing these mysteries home as well. We also want to offer parents support.

We’re also now working with a high teacher in San Antonio—Anna Hill-Moses—who approached me saying she thought this project could work really well in her classroom. So the high school component of the project is now on the website and basically offers science students in high school the chance to write their own mystery. It’s a performance-based assessment that would allow them to teach students in the younger grades through this mystery. And it’s such a comprehensive assessment because writing a mystery is actually very hard. You have to start at the end and move backwards—plan everything out before the summary is created.

Mosa Mack: Science Detective is a web-based series of short, animated science mysteries to expose all students to the thrill of problem-solving. For more on the series be sure to visit the official website // Like on Facebook // Follow on Twitter!

Cognitive Resonance: Inspiring Young Minds with a Lab on Wheels

Tyler AltermanTyler Alterman is an artist-turned-cognitive-scientist and the founder of The Think Tank—a mobile cognitive science laboratory geared towards inspiring the next generation of scientists by providing young minds with a firsthand // hands-on look into the scientific process. Tyler’s initiative has already garnered attention from the likes of WIRED and Nature, but what I found most interesting was the path that led him to science, and ultimately towards developing this exciting project.

How exactly did you dream up the idea for a cognitive science lab on wheels?

About six months ago, over the winter, my mother sent me this New York Times article about this artist named Kim Holleman, who created “Trailer Park.” Instead of being a trailer in a park, it was a park in a trailer—this trailer just went around New York City and people could go inside and sit on a bench and listen to the sounds of fauna and indulge in flora. I thought that was pretty cool, but then I thought: “Why can’t cognitive neuroscience have something like that?” So I went to my favorite coffee shop—Café Reggio—where I’m friends with the waitresses, and I told them my idea. They said “Okay… but it needs to have a big glowing brain on top.”

And so The Think Tank was born!

What is the model for The Think Tank project?

The Think Tank:

Can a recycled bread truck topped with a glowing brain revolutionize science education?

It’s partially modeled after the BioBus, which is another mobile lab that’s been running for the last seven years. We want to emulate their approach, which is to bring students aboard the bus and integrate biology lessons with whatever they’re currently learning in the curriculum. So we hope to do a little bit of that, but The Think Tank will mostly be similar to  this amazing program called Lotto Lab, which is half an arts studio and half a public science lab. The founder, Beau Lotto, is a hard core perception researcher who’s recently teamed up with classrooms to guide kids through asking original questions in perception science. He then helps them in pursuing original experiments—running them + collecting the data—and finally writing them up in kids-speak with crayon diagrams. He even got one of these published in a serious biology journal—the kid’s work as is! I mean, he worked for a long time to find an outlet, but eventually he found a true, peer-reviewed journal to publish the kid’s work in, because it’s original work and because kids can do original work.

The Think Tank’s mission is to close the gender and race gap in science through experiential learning.” How do you aim to achieve this goal?

I hated science in high school because it wasn’t about asking original questions or exercising creativity. It was about passive intake. And it’s totally insidious because it gives you a picture of the world that is all mapped out—like there’s nothing new. It’s totally defeating the curiosity—this core part of science that’s just totally ignored. I wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid, and I probably would have continued that passion if I understood the way science actually works. But I ended up going into more creative disciplines because those were the ones that created more curiosity and exploration in my mind.

So The Think Tank’s mission is partly about cultivating curiosity. But also, more importantly, it’s about showing kids that they can do science. If you look up who scientists are, you’ll mostly see bearded old men—the data is there. If the brain is indeed a prediction machine and it runs off of expectations, there’s really just no Bayesian prior that I can become a scientist if I’m black or Latino or a woman. So what chances do you think you have of being a scientist unless you know you can actually do science?

But in low resource settings you’re not going to have neuroscience and psychology built into your curriculum. And it’s sad because these are the two subjects that everybody’s interested in. Everyone is fascinated by humans and it’s this ideal sort of gateway drug into the rest of science. But also in low resource settings, they don’t have the proper equipment to be teaching really good science. So the beauty of the truck is that it can go wherever the need is—low resources or high.

So you actually have an arts background, but ended up moving towards the sciences later in life despite your dissatisfaction with them in high school. What exactly sparked this transition?

Tyler remains active in the arts scene doing performance work with Crichton Atkinson's Nothing Space--an alternative arts space that hosts art performances, happenings, video open mic nights, painting shows, dance, theater, science talks, readings, and gives a platform to the ideas of today.

Tyler remains active in the arts scene, doing performance work with the Nothing Space, which hosts art performances, happenings, video open mic nights, painting shows, dance, theater, science talks, readings, and gives a platform to the ideas of today.

I used to be a graphics and communications designer. But in class, my professors would say things like: “Use red if you want to attract attention” or “Use an edge near a point if you want to add tension.” They would prescribe all these arbitrary sounding rules that ended up just being true—or at least most of them. But then I would ask: “Why should it be that red is something that attracts attention or the edge near the point adds tension?” And they never really had answers.

So that’s when I started turning to the psychology literature to tell me why certain things influence humans more than other things. I started listening to RadioLab and became totally obsessed. And I would take these long walks through Central Park listening to social psychology lectures through UCLA on iTunesU—I listened to two entire classes over the course of one week… I know Central Park super well now!

It was then I realized that I had stopped picking up the book about typography, and instead was picking up the book about unconscious influences on human behavior. I knew then that there was no other route—I was hooked!

Interested in supporting The Think Tank initiative? Don’t miss Brainbash 2013 CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College on June 18th from 6-9pm. For more exciting updates be sure to Like The Think Tank on Facebook and Follow them on Twitter!