August 3, 2011

Animated video will teach students physics behind superconductors

Most young people have chatted on a cell phone, but how many of them know how energy relates to matter to make that phone call possible?

Now, researchers and educators at the University of Kansas are producing an animated video for upper elementary and middle school-aged youth to boost their understanding of superconductors and nanotechnology.

The project, funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is led by KU physics professors Judy Wu and Alice Bean, along with Teresa MacDonald, director of education at the KU Natural History Museum.

“We know from the research that there’s a really poor understanding of how electricity works overall,” MacDonald said. “People have a general idea that if you stick a plug in the wall, electricity comes out. But this video is intended to provide a basis of understanding of how electricity works, and how nanoscale engineering and material science can really improve the conductivity and efficiency of electricity.”

Superconductivity is the reduction or elimination of electrical resistance in materials.

The video project, titled “Nanoscale: Adventures in Superconductivity,” will feature young characters and their alter egos representing subatomic particles, whose adventures will teach concepts of electricity throughout a fun and engaging plotline. The characters will be frustrated when they can’t get a cell phone signal, because the closest cell phone towers lack efficient transmission.

“Video is very accessible,” said MacDonald. “People will look at things in a short video on a website or mobile phone, where they wouldn’t necessarily read a document or a book. It’s intended to be educational, but it also has a visual appeal and an entertainment value, which is important for reaching people.”

The project aims to better students’ ability to conceptualize energy and nanoscale, which can be difficult to grasp.

“It’s not just children — the research shows that people’s misconceptions of scale and energy persist well into adulthood,” said MacDonald. “It makes it difficult for people to reconcile the science with what they think about in everyday life. These seem to be difficult concepts, in part because you can’t see them. It’s a challenging subject, so one of the things we want to do with this video and a related NSF EPSCoR outreach project is to change the way that energy is typically taught.”

Bazillion Pictures in Kansas City, Mo., will create the animation after the KU team storyboards the educational content and tests the appeal of the storyline and characters with focus groups of students. Richard Varney, associate professor in the department of design, will serve as the animation and production leader.

Once completed, the video will be available online at two websites and air between children’s programming on KTWU, a public broadcasting station.

“The use of a story is a powerful connector in a lot of science education,” MacDonald said. “If you can engage people with a story — either with what you’re telling them or through a story they can put themselves into — it’s a powerful way of making a personal connection. If you can make a personal connection, they’re more likely to take that into their own point-of-view and maybe pass that along to other people.”

The new video also will integrate with “Quarked!” — an NSF-EPSCoR funded physics education website that drew 55,000 unique visitors last year.