Bonus: Science on the Children's Television Workshop

Bonus: Science on the Children's Television Workshop


Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg

Guest: Ingrid Okert

Producer: Leila McNeill

Music: PBS Nature Theme Song (via Internet Archive)

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In this episode, the hosts talk with Ingrid Okert, who researchers the history of science education on television. Ingrid goes behind the scenes of the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop) to show what made the programs Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact so special.

Show notes

Ingrid Okert

Sesame Workshop


Transcription by

Leila: Welcome to this bonus episode of the Lady Science Podcast. If you listen to our last regular episode, episode 22, you'll know that we had intended to include an interview with Ingrid Ocker, who studies the history of science education on television.

Leila: Our conversation with Ingrid went way long, and there was just too much good stuff to cut, so we're giving you the full interview here, enjoy.

Anna: Ingrid Ockert is a historian of science, and she's a current postdoctoral fellow at The Science History Institute. She is also on the board of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Ingrid, thank you so much for being here.

I. Okert: Thank you guys so much for having me. It's just such an honor to be featured on this program.

Anna: We wanted to talk to you for this episode on the history of science on TV in particular, because you're an expert on science and media. So, can you tell us just basically a little bit about your research and your particular interest as a historian?

I. Okert: Yeah, sure. I'm very interested in the histories of science and media. I feel really lucky to be doing this research at a point where there's a lot of rapid scholarship around these issues. There's a lot of great scholars like Bernie Lightman, who have written about the history of science, and books, and lecturers in the 19th century. I really see myself, in some ways, building upon work like his and James Secord's.

I. Okert: And so, my work looks at the ways that people who are scientists work with people who are not scientists, and communicate to others about science. There's many different mediums you see this happening in, but my research specifically is about science on television.

I. Okert: I'm definitely one of those people who grew up with a lot of science on TV. That definitely goes from shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Magic School Bus. I was a huge fan of Pinky and the Brain, which I would argue, in some ways counts as this science on television representation. And also, The X-Files. Things like that.

I. Okert: In my own research, my doctoral research really looked at the ways classic science shows worked, and the whole genre of science TV came into being in the United States. I started in 1948, and I went up to 1980. But in the work that I'm doing as a postdoctoral fellow, I'm even looking at shows that are about science fiction, like Star Trek, are very much the result of real collaborations between scientists and non-scientists.

I. Okert: It basically means I'm a giant nerd, and this is something I've known for a long time. This is the great thing about working at a place like The Science History Institute, is I'm there with lots of other people who appreciate and tolerate my nerdiness.

Rebecca: And hey, you figured out how to make a profession out of being a nerd and studying fellow nerds, which is great.

I. Okert: Yeah. Definitely. Totally, right? I think the best thing is when you find letters where people are nerding out about how awesome each other's work is, right? You know?

Rebecca: That's pretty cool.

I. Okert: That's always fun.

Rebecca: So, to dive in to specifically your research and the way you've charted science on TV, we're I feel like familiar today with scientists who make and lead their own TV, examples like Bill Nye the Science Guy or Neil deGrasse Tyson come to mind. And so, they create the shows, and they help write them, and they host them, and they're really the central figure of this. But as your work has shown, this wasn't always the case, and in the earliest days of science programming on TV, the storytelling was handled by actors, directors, and writers, and scientists acted as consultants or demonstrators.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about that shift, and what it's meant for the image of scientists?

I. Okert: Oh, yeah. Well, this is something that really interests me because we're in a period right now where there's interest again, in the ways that scientists can learn from communicators, non-specific scientists. Are you guys familiar with The Alan Alda Institute?

Anna: Yes.

I. Okert: The Alan Alda Center.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

I. Okert: They just celebrated their 10-year anniversary, which is super cool, right? Where you have an actor, Alan Alda, who is basically teaching people that improv can help scientists feel like they form positive connections with the general public. But one of the things that I was really interested to find out, was that in the late 1940s, this is something that scientists were already doing. And rather, people who were actors and creative types, as you were mentioning Rebecca, they were really at the forefront.

I. Okert: And so, for the first two big TV shows about science on television, The Johns Hopkins Science Review and Watch Mr. Wizard, they're two shows that are really dreamed up by people who have, basically, their expertise in the world of a broadcasting, in the world of, basically, theatrical production.

I. Okert: My favorite person is Lynn Poole, who was the guy who started The Johns Hopkins Science Review. He started off as a modern dancer, dancing with The Martha Graham Company. And for most of his 20s, he was touring Europe. And then, when he decided to settle down and figure out what he actually wanted to do, he started as a curator over at a art gallery in Baltimore. And he had married someone by that point, Gray Johnson, who had been a Johns Hopkins student.

I. Okert: And so, I think that was part of the reason they went back to Baltimore. When he was hired by the University, in the late 1940s, he had experience, again, as an art curator, as a modern dancer, he had been a Broadway producer. He basically did a lot of art stuff, and the University asked him to create a whole new form of public relations, and he thought, "Oh, TV would be great."

I. Okert: And so, he jumped into television, in the way that a lot of us ... Again, I think about podcasting. A lot of us learn this technology just by diving in. And so, he spent a year at a local television studio in Baltimore, and a year later he said, "Okay, I can do a TV show now. I know how to do this. Well, of course, I do."

Rebecca: Sure.

I. Okert: And so, for him, I know how he thinks about the relationships, particularly between non-scientist and scientist because he wrote a book about it, called Science Via Television. It's one of the only books, certainly the first book I know of in the United States, to talk about how to broadcast science on TV, specifically. It might be one of the only ones, and certainly one of the only ones into the 1980s.

I. Okert: And so, he had a curious relationship with scientists. He really did think about them as consultants, and people who were in the art world as the experts. He talks about the ways that if you're working with a scientist on a show, you need to tell them exactly how to behave on a show. You need to tell them what to wear because scientists have no sense of taste, so they're going to wear terrible suits. And you need to tell them how to act because scientists don't know how to act for a camera.

Rebecca: Right.

I. Okert: What he says, which is interesting, is that he differentiates the type of television performance that you do from the type of lecture-style that a professor would know how to do. He says that they're different things.

I. Okert: And in terms of the history of broadcasting, this is actually significant because there are scientists around the country in the late 1940s, early 1950s, who were very interested in presenting their science on television. But they present it, usually as this very static, one guy, one camera, chalkboard, wa-la! Right? But Lynn Poole says, "No. No, no. We actually need to create a visually interesting story and the scientist is at the center of that story, and they don't know it, and they have no idea how to do it."

I. Okert: Not surprisingly, there was a was like a Time Magazine article written at the same time, which basically said, "Scientists don't like going on the show because they don't feel like they're respected." And again, there was a lot of tension because of this in the early years. Scientists actually, they know what they know. Of course, they want to be equal partners in this. But folks in television at the beginning, are certainly very resistant.

I. Okert: Part of this, to be fair, is because of the quality of live television in this period. Right? And so, shows like The Johns Hopkins Science Review and Watch Mr. Wizard are shot live, and then they're distributed around the nation on these things called kinescopes. But again, in order to really act, and literally act, for a 1950s audience on TV, you have to be able to have lightning-quick reflexes and you have a lot of limitations.

I. Okert: Yeah. Part of the reason, again, live television, certainly live science TV, is really formulated and dreamed up by these people whose backgrounds are from the world of the theater.

I. Okert: Another one of these ... I mean and again, it changes once you can get ... Different forms are different. There are shows that are not done live, that are taped and they're edited substantially. I'm thinking the shows from the late '50s are a good example of this. Any of the Walt Disney specials, like that he did on space flight, or my favorite, which is called Our Friend the Atom, which comes out 1957, where Disney claims to have a whole science department, and he doesn't.

I. Okert: Again, it's this imaginarium, where again, you're trying to imagine, “Well, how do scientists and non-scientists work together to craft this message?” And again, you get some crazy visuals in the 1950s. That's when you get the image, specifically in Our Friend the Atom, of the genie, the nuclear genie that comes out of the bottle. The genie is this metaphor for the potential or the threat of atomic energy.

I. Okert: And so, again, basically through the '50s, you have this particular structure and organization, where people who are coming up with the programs in general, are folks who got a really strong background in the arts, they're well-connected in Hollywood or New York. Again, there's a pretty strong regional divided, which I would argue still exists. I would be happy to talk about that because it's something I'm really interested in seeing.

I. Okert: Basically, yeah. It's basically this very strong sense that the arts are sort of the way to understand science, but this starts to change by the mid-'60s. There are different historians who have looked at this as well. David Kaiser's book, How the Hippies Saved Physics, is really interesting because in some ways it taps into this, right? By the mid-'60s, there's a whole different generation of younger graduate students who start getting involved. And I would argue that graduate students are always the ones who are at the forefront of these revolutionary events. Right? You know?

Rebecca: Yeah.

I. Okert: So, they're the ones who say, "Hey, we can actually do shows. I mean, we're interesting. We should be doing more lectures." Part of this is that people who are very active in science, and certainly in science communication in the 1960s, do so ... The scientists are very much struck by this feeling of their own, it's not morality, but it's their own involvement in movements, that end up leading to the creation of weapons, right? And certainly, in the 1960s, people are very much focused on Vietnam.

I. Okert: And so, one interesting thing, in terms of science communication that happens, is that by the late 1960s you have the growth of movements like Science for the People. It's very much science and society driven. It's not about education per se, but again, it's about trying to understand the ways that science and society work together. And that's when you get a lot of scientists who want to get involved, in more of a way than just being the scientist on tap. They really want to start writing the scripts and being an active presence.

I. Okert: In the 1970s then, the NSF actually, The National Science Foundation and the AAAS start sponsoring programs that encourage science journalism and science programs. And then, that's when you get scientists that start getting involved in programs, and you get shows like 3-2-1 Contact, and NOVA, and Cosmos.

I. Okert: Yeah, so that's ... And then, what I would argue, is once you get into Cosmos, which is when Carl Sagan, who is this amazing planetary scientist, he's the very first scientist to really leave the production of his own program. He's the one who really starts making it okay for scientists to really be at the forefront of these programs.

I. Okert: And then, that's when we go into the modern era, where you have scientists who are really leading it and in charge, more or less.

Anna: Yeah.

I. Okert: That's a very long-winded terrible explanation.

Rebecca: No, it's interesting though, the idea of the '60s comes back to being this turning moment. It's a cliché, but it makes sense. Everyone is rethinking the way that these structures should work, and so are scientists on this level.

I. Okert: And again, what I've been doing research on this year, and I'd like to argue, is that Star Trek is a turning point.

Rebecca: Yeah.

I. Okert: It's one of those I could joke about it, but actually ... Because between 1964 and 1974, there are no regularly aired shows about science on nationally broadcast channels. There's nothing. You have specials, like Jacques Cousteau, you have the National Geographic specials, you have Wild Kingdom, if you count that, but you don't have something where chemistry/physics is regularly aired. Except, again, if you're thinking about science fiction, and that's when Star Trek is an interesting entity.

I. Okert: So, yeah. Yeah.

I. Okert: Anyways, I can monologue. I'm sorry.

Anna: One of the other shifts that you describe in this changing history of science and television, is what is the shape of the science content that's being presented, I guess. You talk about this early 20-th century idea of everyday science, which is explaining to people how science operates in their everyday life. It might be in the appliances in your house, or the train you take to work, or whatever.

Anna: You talk about how in the 1950s, in the early days of science on TV, that women were actually one of the main audiences for these everyday science shows. And then, there's the shift later, women sporadically, and not as much as men obviously, appear as scientists and hosts, later on in that history.

Anna: Can you just talk a little bit about this shift from educating viewers about the commercial on practical benefits of science, to teaching them about thinking like a scientist? It seems to me that's there's a little bit of gender is threaded through this shift in a way.

I. Okert: Yeah! I think so. Yeah, and I get its something where ... If we think about the viewership of the 1950s, right? We think about ... Well, what do you guys think about, in terms of audience, if I say who is watching TV in the 1950s? What would you guys say?

Anna: Yeah. I mean, during the day, women who are at home.

I. Okert: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. That and kids. Yeah.

I. Okert: Exactly! Exactly right. You guys are historians, you know this. And so, yeah. If you think about the audience, it's women at home, right? And again, not just women, but women of a certain higher economic class, who can afford television, and afford not to work. So, they have a certain amount of disposable and discretionary income. And then, you have young mothers, who again, I think about young mothers, I think of people who are in their early 20s, who are at home with children, who are the beginning of the baby boom.

I. Okert: And so, people who are selling television sets, really want to make sure that they have programs that will interest both of those markets. And similarly, people who are creating ... You know, who have products that are being manufactured in the 1950s, also want to be aiming at those markets.

I. Okert: I know I've seen lots of amazing images at The Science History Institute of plastics, and really interesting advertisements of Tupperware, and disposable products that are aimed at that market. So, women in those periods, they were a big group. Similarly, there's an interest by people who are science communicators to reach that market.

I. Okert: There's a great article by a historian named Beth Luey, about how there's actually a rise in popular science paperbacks in this period, partially because you have a group of women who might have actually been educated through college, but then, of course, have left the world of education to have children, but they still really want to know, they really want to learn.

I. Okert: And so, the Johns Hopkins Science Review, the very first science show is an interesting example of this because the accent episodes that remain are not heavily focused on what we might think about, in terms of being 1950s hot button issues. They're not all about physics. In fact, a huge number of those episodes are actually about, again, this concept of everyday science. Which I use because pretty much people in that period use a phrase that's similar. They'll say, “Oh, this is science of the everyday. We're going to be talking about.”

I. Okert: My favorite episode actually, is where they talk about how dish washing liquid works. I didn't know how it worked, and so I was watching it, and I was like, "This is really interesting. Wow." Did you know, if you use a certain type of hard water versus cold water, it will have a different effect on the dishes?

I. Okert: The Johns Hopkins Science Review is produced in a way that is very respectful to look at those things. It's not being trivialized, right? They're like, "Hey, women at home, you want to know how this works. This is great. This is how it works."

I. Okert: And similarly, Don Herbert, who was the creator of Watch Mr. Wizard also understood this. His shows, again, were similarly looking at the science of the home. Both TV shows would have viewers write in and say things like, "Hey, I've learned about the science in my every day life. Thanks very much."

I. Okert: So, again, the heavy commercialism of the 1950s is a large part of the television viewing audience. And again, a huge part of that is because people are trying to sell televisions. Again, if you have a TV show that's educational, and you're trying to convince a young family it's a good investment, you'll say, "Hey, Joey and Suzie can learn in the evening when they get home from school."

I. Okert: And so, yeah. There's this way that, in fact, owning a television set and watching educational TV about science makes you a good mother. And so that's, I think the first part of the response to that question, of how gender threads in. It makes you a good consumer, yeah, but it especially makes you a good mother because you're training your child for a better future than the one that you had. Yeah. They might want to be a ... You know, Billy could be a doctor and Suzie could be a lab tech one day. You know?

I. Okert: I say that a little bit tongue in cheek. But I will say, I think one thing which was surprising when I was researching these episodes, is again, just how when we have the narratives, rightfully there are narratives of science that are talking about the ways in which science has been exceptionally exclusionary. I know, listening to episodes of this podcast, you guys have talked a lot about this.

I. Okert: But what's interesting is the world of science broadcasting, I think because it starts in the arts, it's not as exclusionary as you would think. Because on all of these shows there are women involved in the production, and women appear on camera in all of these shows from the late '40s into the early '50s. And in fact, there is a program ... The only program that is nationally broadcast, that has a woman hosting it, and it's the only one that I know of ever, honestly, is this one from the mid-1950s. It runs from 1956 to 1959. It's called Discovery. It's hosted by a woman named Mary Leela Grimes. It's done at WGBH up in Boston. It's nationally aired and distributed. College students use it. Elementary school teachers use it around the country, and it's about this woman talking about nature. She talks about the science of your backyard and things like that.

I. Okert: I was very shocked when I heard about that initially, because again, it doesn't match the narrative that we think of, when we think about women in science in the '50s, expect it does, right? Because it's a woman talking about nature. There is this way in which, again, there are more women present than we would expect, but it's in ways that are very gendered. So, it is exactly what we would expect.

I. Okert: I was just going to say, I feel like that brings us really well to also, 3-2-1 Contact.

Ingrid Ocker: Yeah, it does. Because what's interesting to me, again, most of the ways that women are involved in these programs early on, are in ways that are, to be honest, it's if they're married to the guy who is hosting the program. That's usually the way it is.

I. Okert: I mean, yeah. It's something where you have a ... And again, these are heteronormative relationships usually. Yeah, your wife might be helping you, in a serious way, advertise the program around the country or help you come up with designs.

I. Okert: But it's not until the 1970s that programs start saying things like, "Oh, we actually should be considering the ways that women are actually involved in science." Now, NOVA is a show that comes, it's right before 3-2-1 Contact, and in some ways it's the first show where they really hire women producers to produce things expressly. They spotlight women in science. But 3-2-1 Contact is a really cool show because it's the first science series where the entire staff says, "We need to think about the ways to bring women in to science and to be more inclusive of other people as well from different communities." It's the only program where it's headed by a woman, directed by a woman, the research staff was largely women. Yeah.

I. Okert: So, yeah. I'm glad that you pivoted to that point.

Rebecca: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

I. Okert: Totally.

Rebecca: I loved the chapter from your dissertation of this. For listeners, one of the interesting things about 3-2-1 Contact, and that leads to what Ingrid's laying out, is that it was a show developed by The Children's Television Workshop, which most of know as the creators of Sesame Street. You see a lot of those progressive ideals that we associate with Sesame Street and Children's Television also in 3-2-1 Contact.

Rebecca: So, yeah. Ingrid, could you describe a little bit about how 3-2-1 Contact was developed, and the concerns and ideas floated by academics, scientists, writers, and educators who participated in shaping the idea of the series, and how the shows mall of representation of marginalized people worked in the context of a science show?

I. Okert: Yeah. No, totally. Again, to start with Sesame Street, which is of course, the best place to start. Sesame Street is a TV show that is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary this November. It has made a huge impact in the ways that people think about the relationship between childhood television and education. There's a really great scholar I wanted to do a shout out to, whose name is Kathryn Ostrofsky, who is writing one of the big books on Sesame Street in television.

I. Okert: And so, yeah. I would say, it's an interesting thing. If you think about, again, the way television is, we know we have a lot of options, right? We have cable, we have Netflix. It's really hard to think back to a day, when in 1969, you had this brand-new station, and there's only four stations on TV. And so, one of these is this station called PBS, and it's amazing because it's educational. Sesame Street is one of the first programs on that station, and it's a runaway hit because it's aimed at, again, children, which is always a good market for television. Specifically, it's about creating an imagined state where children from everywhere, from marginalized communities, can be included in everyday life.

I. Okert: In 1970, I think it's about 80% of all preschoolers in the United States watch Sesame Street. That's the estimated figure.

Rebecca: Wow!

I. Okert: Yeah. So, it's everywhere. It's everywhere. It's pervasive. And so, I mean it's this huge success. The Children's Television workshop, which is the group that puts on Sesame Street, is led by an amazing visionaire named Joan Ganz Cooney, who is a woman who cut her teeth in the 1950s working against the sexism in the industry, to basically head one of these large companies that produced television. But she does it at an interesting perspective because she's all about creating situations where people feel really like they can collaborate with each other.

I. Okert: One of the hardest things that I found, when I was researching this dissertation actually, everything that's basically CTW as we call it or The Workshop is what you call The Children's Television Workshop, every memo basically says it's the group that hosts it together. No one claims credit. There's no one person who says, "I did this." They're like, "Well, as a group we all did this." Because again, it's all about this message of total equality. It's what you would totally expect from the people who create Sesame Street, right?

Rebecca: It makes me so happy.

I. Okert: Yes! They're completely like that. I was really fortunate to talk to a couple of the young researchers, who had been working there at the time, and they were like, "Oh, this is such a great place. We would have lunch together over in Central Park." The Workshop is and was still based in a couple of office buildings that are directly across the street from Lincoln Center, which is pretty cool.

Rebecca: Wow.

I. Okert: You can still walk in front of Lincoln Center, and you look up, and you see all these Muppets in the window. It's like, "Oh, yeah. CTW, that's Sesame Street right there."

I. Okert: And so, basically Joan Ganz Cooney, she hired a bunch of young people, basically in their 20s to staff, basically the building. It was this very equalized fun environment. Naturally, they put together Sesame Street. And then, there was this great producer named Sam Gibbon, who helped put together another show called The Electric Company, which I think viewers might be more familiar with because of the reboot.

I. Okert: And then, they sort of said, "Huh. We have a show that's basically about teaching young children social skills. We have a show about teaching young kids literacy. What about science literacy? Couldn't we teach that on TV as well?" And so, they basically ...

I. Okert: The way that CTW worked, they came up with an idea. They would say, "Let's have a retreat and talk about it, and we'll invite everybody we know to talk about it." So, they went out to Long Island, and they had a three day workshop in a mansion. And they invited people from Princeton, and from Boston, from Harvard. They recruited people who were Broadway execs. They were like, "Okay, what do you think? We have this idea."

I. Okert: Two of the very vocal people who were involved in this workshop were the Morrison's, Philip and Phylis Morrison, who were very big names at that point in science communication. Phil Morrison was an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons. He had been a former student of Oppenheimer's. He hosted a column on scientific America. So, yeah. He was a big name who was there. And his wife Phylis was similarly big as well. They were part of a team that had led, I think, they had led the first investigations into elementary science in the 1960s.

I. Okert: Their input, basically at the conference was, "We need to create a show where we can teach kids that it's okay to make mistakes in science. If we can basically talk about that, that's what the show should be out because there are tons of opportunities to make mistakes and that's fine."

I. Okert: They had also very serious heads of departments. They had, I think the Dean of Engineering at Princeton University at the time was there. He was like, "No. It's all about teaching the scientific method."

I. Okert: Again, through discussion, there were a lot of different ideas bandied around this particular three day workshop. And then what happened was that they had all the ideas. They put them together in a manifesto, and then the workshop employees basically sent those ideas to their research staff and said, "Okay, we have some ideas on what we think we want the show to look like, what's see what kids actually want to watch?"

I. Okert: That's actually one of the most interesting take aways to me from the show that becomes 3-2-1 Contact, was that they actually, they being The Children's Television Workshop, did this historic thing, where for the first time in the history of science on television, they directly asked their audience, "What do you want to watch?"

I. Okert: And again, they've been making shows since the late 1940s on science on TV, and nobody's done that. No one has gone to the audience beforehand to say, "So, do you like science even? What do you want to watch?" Which to jump forward, is something I think we ask ourselves a lot today. It's not such a revolutionary idea today at all, but in 1975 it really was.

I. Okert: What's cool, is that they canvas, and they get responses from, I think it's about 4,000 students, who are between the ages of eight to 12 nationally, and so it's all these different responses. Basically, the research team is four people, a guy named Keith Mielke and then his three principal investigators if you will, Milton Chen, Hilda Clark, and Barbara Myerson Katz. Barbara, who I got to speak with at length a couple years ago, absolutely lovely, told me that they called themselves the mod squad, right? There's this one woman whose Jewish, there's one guy who is Chinese, and one gal who is African American. They were like, "We're going to come up with the best show that there is."

I. Okert: But again, that was intentional. They were hired to create a show that was going to be inclusive, and The Children's Television Workshop understood that in order to do that, they needed to have a room of not just white guys, right?

I. Okert: So, what they find out is interesting. They're asking people in the mid-'70s, they're asking kids in the mid-'70s, "What do you think of science?" Not surprisingly, a lot of girls write back in saying, "I don't like science. Science is boring. I like Little House on the Prairie way more." The interesting study that they actually came out with in some ways, was they were trying to figure out a way to include inclusive characters for the show, which becomes 3-2-1 Contact. They understood that they wanted to have a show that was based in reality mostly, that would show and reflect real kids. So, the kids would watch TV and say, "Hey, that kid is like me. I could be a scientist. That kid's Puerto Rican, I'm Puerto Rican. This is going to be great."

I. Okert: What they found out, when they were trying to ... They did these assessments, and they asked kids who their favorite characters were, specifically on TV shows. These girls, over and over again said they loved Charlie's Angels. They kept on saying that. The researchers were so frustrated. They were like, "What is this? I mean, these kids don't understand that Charlie's Angels is not meant for nine-year-old girls. It's meant for teenage boys. What's going on?"

I. Okert: And actually, what I think they observed indirectly in this study, was what we would later call The Scully Effect, right?

Rebecca: Yeah. When I read this, I thought that was interesting because it's the idea that ... Well, when girls see representations of women doing cool stuff, they're excited because they don't get to see representations of women doing cool stuff very often. So even if Charlie's Angles were meant to be these sexualized superheroes for teenage boys, the fact that they're women who get a kick ass, appeals to nine-year-old girls. And it's delightful.

I. Okert: Exactly! And that's exactly what they found out. It was the confidence of these women. That's what the girls responded to. Years later ... Again The Scully Effect is named after Dana Scully and The X-Files. It's this whole thing that girls who grew up watching The X-Files in the '90s end up wanting to become scientists. I agree. That's where I would have been. You know? I think it's a great show. I believe in it. But yeah.

I. Okert: This study, in the mid-1970s, is the first time that we get quantifiable data about what kids are watching on TV that's related to science. And all this data is all compiled together. And for the file stage of television production for 3-2-1 Contact, which is kind of what we all do today. But again, it was more unusual, especially for a TV show in the 1970s to be given reports and said, "Okay, here are reports, now make a TV show."

I. Okert: For the production of the actual content of the series, they recruited scientists to come into rooms with writers. Someone told me that they literally didn't let them out until they came up with a script. They would just lock them in, and they were like, "Okay, no one gets lunch. It's summer in New York City. You don't get to come out of the room until it's over."

I. Okert: I think that was probably a slight exaggeration, but maybe not. The act of collaboration is sometimes driven by food. You know?

I. Okert: In the end, what is also notable about 3-2-1 Contact, is that the CTW actually recruited 15 scientists, who were, again, from very different communities, to be on their staff. They worked hard. We talk a lot about the ways that people who are trying to put together conferences need to be actively recruiting people, right? Who, again, are not just white men. But 3-2-1 Contact, they really took it to heart. CTW actively sought out women and men who were Latino, Puerto Rican, Asian American, Asian, African-American. I remember reading a letter where they couldn't find a Latina woman who was an astrophysicist and they really wanted to find someone. They were like, "We're combing the index. We just can't find any. There's someone who could do it, but she's busy this week, so what are we going to do?"

I. Okert: I think, again what really impressed me with the construction of 3-2-1 Contact, was the sincerity to which in every step of the way they're committed to diversity, in a way that is really pretty special and pretty unique for the mid-1970s. But of course they are, because it's the same people who put together Sesame Street, right?

I. Okert: The show comes out in 1980. It's one of a bunch of different shows that come out in that year. 1980s a big year for si-com. And again, it's an interesting show. It's about basically three teenagers, who are played by people who are actually in their mid-20s, early 30s because that's the way it works on TV. They have adventures about science, and that's the show.

Anna: I guess by way of wrapping up, I want to return to what we talked about at the beginning of our conversation, about how the collaboration between people who make TV primarily as their work, and people who do science as their work, comes together in places like this? In the case of 3-2-1 Contact and The Children's Television Workshop, there was a very specifically negotiated collaboration, that a scientist would offer something as an idea for the show, and The Workshop people would be like, "Well, that's not going to work for TV." Or The Workshop people would have an idea and scientists would say, "That's not science."

Anna: I'm interested in this collaborative writing atmosphere, where you say that The Workshop didn't let the scientists take over stuff, but that it was a really good back-and-forth about, "We all have different kinds of expertise here. How are we going to create good science television, good science good television?"

I. Okert: Totally. Yeah. And again, I think what's interesting is ... Yeah. I mean, I think, again, the people who were on the creative team came up with amazing visuals for a program like this, right? They were tasked with coming up with things that were entertaining, and also visually just, wow!

I. Okert: I think the one that I remember reading, was something where they came up with a visual where they were like, "Well, there are no letters. Everything's just bright lights and color." It was very-

Anna: Oh, yeah! That was like an acid trip, reading that description.

I. Okert: Literally.

Anna: Can't show that to kids.

I. Okert: Nope. Nope. Exactly. No. That was nuts. They had another one where they were like ... Well, they had one they were pretty serious about, where it was all going to be about Green Peace. It was all going to be this whale thing, where they had these kids on a boat, and they're trying to save the whale. And actually, that becomes an inspiration I think for another series, called The Voyage of the Mimi, which is done by one of the same people.

I. Okert: But I think that-

Rebecca: God, I love that these guys were all crazy hippies.

I. Okert: They are.

Rebecca: It just makes me so happy.

I. Okert: Again, they're all sincere. I remember listening to one of them talking about, again ... Well, there was one of them, Lloyd Morrisett, who was at a conference a few years ago, who was very much involved in Sesame Street. He was talking about the Civil Rights Era, and how they really wanted to help inner-city kids. He was literally tearing up as he was talking. He was like, "We just wanted to help children." And he was crying. We were like, "Oh my God! You started Sesame Street, you did it. Don't worry. Everyone thinks you're great."

Rebecca: Right. Right. You did more than most of us ever will.

I. Okert: Right. Well, you guys are doing your own part by Lady Science, so props to you.

Rebecca: Aww.

I. Okert: Seriously though.

I. Okert: To return to your question. Yeah. Again, I think there were moments where the scientists would really want a ... The scientists wanted this coherent depiction of the scientific method. That was the most important thing to them. And the science people they were working with, the communication folks would say, "No. That's really boring. We're not going to do it that way."

I. Okert: And so, their compromise was this format, where they had ... It was a daily program, it was a daily science program, which is really intense, but again, what they did for Sesame Street, where they would have a different principle. They came up with this idea that for kids, it would be cool to have a series of contrasts, like you had a whole week where you look at dark and light. So, one day you're looking at the stars, and you can have an astrophysicist tell you what the star's on. The astrophysicist is someone who is Latino, and so he can talk about the ways that Spanish is a great language, and people who speak Spanish can be scientists too.

I. Okert: And then the next day, then the kids will go and meet somebody who designs the sets for a KISS concert, because that's cool. Right? You know?

Rebecca: Yeah.

I. Okert: And so, yeah, there's this way in which the scientists were definitely ... But again, everything is vetted by a scientists and the scientists are totally on board. Again, there's this way in which the ways that they decided to expose kids to the concepts of science actually ended up being much more abstract than the scientists involved would have liked. But they would have particular segments where they would introduce experiments, and they would have something that looks very much like, what we would think of as traditional science communication.

I. Okert: Yeah, so that's what I would say, in terms of the ways that the two sides really worked together.

I. Okert: I think my regret, in terms of what they didn't do, was that they had an idea in the mid-'70s, again in the era of such amazing programming for children, and for adults as well, like The Muppet Show. They seriously considered having a show that was about Muppets in Space, and it would be about this group of alien Muppets who would go around the galaxy. I remember reading the script idea for this going, "Why didn't they do this? I wanted this? Oh my God!" Muppets in Space ends up being a really great movie in the '90s that I love. Yeah, no. But the whole idea was that again, you have a space crew, and you have a crew that would go through space.

I. Okert: Actually, there was a version of this, where the aliens at one point would crash land on Earth, and they encountered Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan was the only one would could talk to them because he knows how to talk to aliens. I mean, again, I loved, loved, loved, loved, the ideas they came up for during this one very hot summer in New York City.

I. Okert: But actually, again in terms of things that really did have an impact, in the ways that we wouldn't expect in science communication, this is why I keep going back to this tension between science and science fiction, is that there is this one moment where Keith Mielke, Milton, and Barbara are taking a lunch break and they're walking outside ... Those are the content researchers as well. They're the researchers for the show. They're taking a walk outside in Central Park, and they're walking around, maybe they're near Columbus Circle. They see a big billboard up, and it's a billboard for a movie called Star Wars. Keith Mielke looks at it, he points to it, and he says, "Okay, guys. That's the competition. That's what we're working against."

I. Okert: Again, there's a very serious way in which CTW was very smart, and they recognized the ways that Star Wars really impacted young viewers. I highly recommend, if you haven't seen it, watching the episode of Sesame Street where C-3P0 and R2-D2 is a ... George Lucas was apparently totally into it because he had young kids at the time. He was like, "I love Sesame Street. Sesame Street is the best."

I. Okert: That was my favorite part, of also going through the correspondence for CTW, as they were talking about people they could bring in for the show. They would literally just write to them, and usually the people would write back saying, "I love Sesame Street. Let me help."

Anna: Yeah. I saw something, just this week, on Instagram or something, where some people I follow from Texas or something got to meet Elmo or something. Everybody was crying, and just losing their minds.

I. Okert: Yeah.

Anna: I can't imagine being asked to be on Sesame Street and saying no. Can you even? I can't.

I. Okert: No. Exactly. Nobody would say no.

I. Okert: One of the highlights, dude I got to go into the archives in Sesame Street, right? A couple of times, and that was amazing.

Rebecca: So cool.

I. Okert: I was like, "Oh my God. Are they actually here?" I was very lucky. I had to go view the tapes in one of their viewing rooms, which was just a giant computer server room. It was very cold ... The very nice archivist I was working with was like, "Would you like a blanket?" I was like, "Sure." And so, she gave me this giant Elmo blanket to sit with. I'm wrapped in an Elmo blanket right now watching Sesame Street, life goals.

Anna: I think that's a good place to ...

I. Okert: That's a weird place to end.

Anna: Wrap up. It's a weird place, but also good, I think.

Anna: We started with Sesame Street, we ended with Sesame Street.

Leila: That's going to do it for us today. This episode's music, the PBS Nature theme song, comes courtesy of PBS via Internet Archive. If you have questions or comments about the episode today, you can tweet us at @ladyxscience or #ladyscipod. And if you like this episode, be sure that you subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts.

Image credit: NASA Associate Administrator for Education and former astronaut Leland Melvin teaches the ABC's of living and working in space to Sesame Street's Elmo at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, 2011 (Internet Archive | Public Domain)

Bonus: Behind the scenes of the BBC series 'Gentleman Jack' with Anne Choma

Bonus: Behind the scenes of the BBC series 'Gentleman Jack' with Anne Choma

Episode 22: Science Education on TV

Episode 22: Science Education on TV