"Digital Shenanigans": A Day with WGBH Boston's Digital Kids Teams

With the school year's start there's always a feeling of newness and excitement. The pace of life seems to quicken. No matter where you live, the start of school seems to bring with it a sense of freshness. But at WGBH Boston's Digital Kids unit, it's always like the start of school. Their watchword, "Educating and Entertaining with Digital Shenanigans of All Kinds," isn't flip. The wildly thoughtful and creative teams who populate this division make every day feel like the catch-your-breath wonder of a new year's start.

I spent a day this past summer with some of the Digital Kids teams. I sat in on a seminar given by an educational consultant about defining the issue of global competency with the Design Squad team; I participated in a brainstorm dump with the team working on an interactive game and app that are being deployed through Ruff Ruffman, Humble Media Genius; I listened in on a meeting some of the designers had with a team of researchers about various projects under the heading of "First Generation Science." These were no boring meetings. Each one was illustrated by colorful video examples. Enthusiastic team members who are the epitome of diversity in terms of age, race, gender and national origin bantered about ideas. People participated via Skype from South Africa and called in from California. The atmosphere was electric, the excitement, palpable. They are working on some very cool projects on the cutting-edge of digital media and education.

When you get off the elevator at WGBH's children's media division, posters of Arthur and Curious George greet you with broad smiles. A large paper mache statute of Ruff Ruffman stands amid a sea of open cubicles. Balloons festoon the space. Everywhere white boards with markings in many colors, punctuated by many exclamation points, suggest intensively creative minds at work.

"How do kids in Johannesburg and Boston understand their worlds and how can we know that?" asked Design Squad Nation Executive Producer Marisa Wolsky. "Our premise is that engineering is about manipulating environments. But when we recognize that there are intercultural differences - that kids in the U.S. and in South Africa don't always process their environments in the same way - how can we design programming that will meet both of their realities?"

Wolsky was posing the kind of question that the creative teams at WGBH Digital Kids grapple with quite regularly. Their collaborative approach pairs writers, designers and developers with a variety of educational consultants to hash out what best practices might be based on the latest research. They also pose ideas about how these practices can be baked into the digital programming that ultimately gets designed and produced.

Design Squad, the Peabody award-winning PBS television series, aired from 2007-2011. It brought together teams of high school kids working on engineering projects that ranged from constructing a 20-foot bridge to designing a device that would cook, flip and serve pancakes. After its television run, this show spawned Design Squad Nation, a series of videos, games and activities. One member of the creative team referred to it as "an interactive community." Indeed, it is a place where kids from around the world can go and share ideas. In 2014, supported in part from a grant by the National Science Foundation, WGBH launched an initiative that has teams working with partners in southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland) to design engineering activities and a digital presence that bring together middle school students, teachers and museum educators in several countries.

Because the focus of this project is not only getting kids to understand engineering principles by doing interesting projects and participating in fun activities, but also the question of what constitutes "global competency" in the 21st century and how this can be deployed cross-culturally, the teams were convening on this summer day to meet with one of their key advisors. Bill Guadelli is a professor at Teacher's College, Columbia University, where he focuses on global citizenship education. In this meeting, Guadelli fielded a variety of questions from the Design Squad Nation creative teams in Boston and Johannesburg.

When one of the WGBH team members questioned how recent events like the controversies over removal of the Confederate flag in Charleston might affect their work, he paused. "Look, it's important to keep these things in mind because they give context to our work," he mused thoughtfully. "It's not about engineering, but it is about perspective. But we also have to find ways of introducing kids to the idea that the U.S. isn't necessarily a player in everything. We want to keep finding and developing projects that will get kids to seek out and apply different perspectives and form opinions that are based on exploration and evidence."

The ensuing discussion affirmed these principles. The designers, writers and producers set to work thinking about how to digitally embody their goals in ways that teach kids about engineering, globalism and perspective - and that are both fun and innovative.

At WGBH good shows don't ever really die when their funding dries up. They often just have other incarnations.

Fetch with Ruff Ruffman was another award-winning 'GBH production that ran from 2006-2010. Thanks to the creative genius of Senior Executive Producer Bill Shribman and his team, Ruff is alive and well in a series of web videos, apps and games that address issues of media literacy for kids. To date they have streamed over 20 million videos across various platforms.

When I spent the day at WGBH the Ruff team was busily at work on a project they're doing in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Transportation's Highway Safety Office about distracted driving. What in the world might this have to do with their mission of imparting media literacy to children aged 6-11? After all, their target audience is far below the age at which they could even procure a learner's permit!

Shribman admitted that Connecticut's transportation department was "an unusual partner for us." But the idea that kids could be effective "co-pilots" for their parents who are driving them about by urging their parents not to text and drive, as well as teaching kids about safe practices, made this a logical fit. Senior Producer Gentry Menzel explained that the scripts are written with the premise of presenting Ruff with icons representing things he should and shouldn't be concerned about when he's driving, "but we didn't want to do the obvious thing that demonstrates how hard it is to text and drive." So the team has worked to come up with, shall we say, unusual barriers for Ruff to encounter. These include everything from billboards to elephants. And the creators' usual blend of humor and information is abundantly evident in the demos for this series I got to see.

As with any WGBH project, this one uses a team-based approach that includes educational consultants as well as writers and designers. They use formative testing with kids to make sure that what they are designing works they way they think it will when children view or use their programs. Because Ruff is deployed on several different platforms, the creative team has met a number of challenges to rescale the visuals so that they will work - ironically, even, on a phone. "Everything is a negotiation," said Shribman. But the negotiation brings results: the Ruff distracted driving videos will launch later this month.

Jillian Orr and Melissa Carlson are a dynamic duo who have their hands in many of the WGBH Digital Kids projects. Throughout my day at 'GBH I saw both of them innumerable times in different meetings. They are both experienced digital producers, with a wealth of creativity. Carlson, the Executive Producer of Plum Landing, a "cross-platform digital property," includes web videos, web games and interactive apps designed to teach children about environmental science among her projects. "We're trying to make games more intuitive," she said. Their new "Creaturizer" app launched at the beginning of September, and has already been listed on Apple's Best New Apps. The WGBH analytics show that kids took about 300,000 photos through the app in just a few days. (You can find the app for free at iTunes or Google Play).

Orr's current projects at 'GBH and First 8 Studios include numerous apps, games, videos and blogs for their Next Generation Preschool Math and Science Projects that are in various stages of production. These projects are part of a four year NSF-funded grant. The math apps, which came to be known as Gracie and Friends, have received rave reviews and top ratings from teacher's organizations and Common Sense Media for their "precise focus and superb scaffolding."

The day I was visiting 'GBH I watched as Orr and her collaborators excitedly spoke via conference phone with their educational consultants to discuss ways of making "the game mechanic mesh with the educational goals," as Orr stated. This particular game involved shooting a ball down a ramp across differently textured surfaces. The goal was to get kids to predict how fast the ball would move, to teach them something about physics. The animated discussions involved periodic checks on YouTube videos about how a ball would travel across fields of ice or grass, talk about how to simulate this in their game, and conversation about how the developmental levels and perceptual acuity of different aged children would converge on this particular project.

Because they really believe in learning by doing, this development team has documented the creative and iterative "participatory design" process they use in a series of videos and blogs. Or, as Orr put it, "We invest in team members." That's as clear from the quality products they produce as it is from the incredible feeling of camaraderie you get walking through the floor that houses WGBH Children's Media.

There's no doubt but that the teams at WGBH Digital Kids are doing some of the most exciting and educational media production out there. I left their offices feeling energized and engaged. And very, very encouraged about the ways in which digital media can and is being used to deliver powerful messages to children on an enormous variety of topics. Their "digital shenanigans" are fun and often funny, but they're no joke: they are bringing some of the most entertaining and educational materials to kids across many media platforms.