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Lights, Camera, Science! 3 Weeks at CBBC Scotland

18 Mar, 2013
BBC Scotland

BBC Scotland

How much care goes into children’s TV? A lot more than you’d think and we can learn much from their endeavours, writes Stephanie Sinclair.

Hands up if you’ve ever wanted to work in TV? Personally, I once wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter (although I’d have probably settled for a Blue Peter badge). But I have always wanted to know more about the children’s TV industry and how it operates, particularly since working on the Wellcome Trust’s Informal Learning Review, which explores science learning outside of school in places such as museums, science centres, games and, yes, TV. At the Trust, we know from our Wellcome Monitor survey that TV is still one of the most influential ways of disseminating information about medical research. So, with my Blue Peter ambitions still glowing somewhere inside me, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to spend a three-week secondment at Children’s BBC Scotland, where they are working on a number of science programmes.

If you have young children you may be familiar with Nina and the Neurons on the CBeebies channel. In the programme, Nina and her five sense ‘neurons’ answer questions such as “how do divers breathe underwater?”. Every episode children pose a question to Nina and she invites them to her workshop to take part in experiments and find out the answer. I was impressed by the level of science tackled by Nina and the eagerness to cover even complicated concepts such as electricity for 3-6 year olds.

The Nina team were working on the upcoming series, so it was all hands-on-deck researching interesting scientific facts, looking for exciting film locations and testing out experiments. The topic of the next series is still top secret so you will have to guess why our research included one particularly surreal moment involving exercise balls, basketballs and lights!  It reminded me of one of my previous jobs producing science shows at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle. I’d experienced similar challenges in terms of researching simple yet effective experiments, but this came with the extra challenge of needing it to work on camera.

Another programme I worked on was Super Human Challenge, an action-packed show for 8–12 year olds. Every week presenter Tim FitzHigham meets a different person with ‘super human’ abilities and puts their powers to the test – against himself. From swimming in freezing cold seas to pulling a bus full of  rugby players, the challenges push the body to the limit and the show explores the physiology of how this is achieved. Series one is being broadcast now and we were exploring ideas for a possible second series. I’d really like to see some super children featured next time, and I also researched possible ‘super humans’ with prosthetics, combining amazing feats in technology and biology.

Nina and the Neurons logo

Nina and the Neurons logo

One thing that struck me about Children’s BBC Scotland was how much interaction all the staff have with children. It may sound obvious but children really were at the heart of everything they do. In my short time there I spent an afternoon in a primary school talking to pupils about Super Human Challenge, observed a nursery group in the office for ‘storytime’ (literally a group of children visiting the BBC to have a lovely story told to them) worked with a group of deaf young people on ideas for Nina and the Neurons and saw school glee clubs singing for their place in the Comic Relief Does Glee Club Final. OK, so the last one isn’t about science. But it is about making TV with children, for children which I think is the key to the success of children’s television.

When it comes to reaching young people, a distinct advantage that broadcasters have is that children, parents and teachers are all generally enticed by the allure of TV. It appeared relatively simple for BBC staff to arrange visits to schools or to fill a studio with children during school hours, whereas I know from my Trust perspective that it can be challenging for other informal learning providers to contact teachers or to persuade them of the merits in taking part in their activities. It must help that the brands are so well recognised and trusted – CBeebies reaches half of all 0-6 year olds in the UK. But I did wonder if museums, theatres or science centres could ever be seen as ‘magical’ in the same way that TV is, or if there may be ways for broadcasters to work collaboratively with other providers in order to bring exciting science content to bigger audiences.

On one of the “Stepping Out” sessions, where BBC staff visit schools, we asked a class of P6 pupils (aged 9-11) what they would be doing at 5:45pm (the time Super Human Challenge is on TV). The majority of them said they would be on the computer. Although not a statistically significant sample, this is still an insight into the changing way in which young people are exploring the world around them. And it explains why some of the other projects I worked on with the Children’s BBC Scotland Development team are multi-platform endeavours, with the aim of allowing users to access content when they like, how they like. Speaking to the Learning Team at the BBC, they know that teachers are also keen to access this content and use it more in the classroom. This would help to bridge the gap between formal and informal learning, something which I hope to see more of in the future.

Before I knew it, my secondment was over. Leaving behind lots of inspirational Wellcome Trust resources from the Wellcome Trust, such as our Big Picture Little Book of Fast Facts, I left with the promise to stay in touch and  came away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the care that goes into children’s TV.

Stephanie Sinclair

Stephanie Sinclair is a Project Manager in the Wellcome Trust Education and Learning Team, where she works on the production of educational resources and manages the focus area on informal learning.

Image credits: Stephanie Sinclair; BBC Scotland
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