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.
So 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?
I’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!