Friday, September 18, 2009

Teach. Kids. Science.

by Dave Lamm

With two Grammys and nearly 25 years of rock experience, the band They Might Be Giants have been steadily recording and performing music. The band has produced such popular song favorites as “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Triangle Man” and a cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Over the years They Might Be Giants have continuously evolved, from the original two member band of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, into the full contemporary cadre including Dan Weinkauf, Dan Miller and Marty Beller. A rock band that originally wrote and performed songs for a more adult palate, they eventually began to write and release music for those very same adults’ kids. Starting with the album, “No!”, “Here Come The ABC’s” and “Here Come The 123’s,” it is only appropriate that this evolution should culminate into their latest release, “Here Comes Science.”

As an exclusive, the album comes as a two-disk set: one music CD and a DVD. The DVD is an animated presentation of the entire album and is hosted by stylized caricatures of band members Linnell and Flansburgh, both members voice their respective characters. The album tackles some very complex scientific subjects, such as cellular DNA, photosynthesis, the periodic chart of the elements, evolution, the solar system and the scientific method. The content from some of these topics would be enough to stump a typically educated adult, but that’s really the point. Instead of taking the repetition approach like the Baby Einstein series, or the Wiggle approach to, well, whatever it is The Wiggles do, “Here Comes Science” dispenses these topics as they would be from a well illustrated science text book. Each subject is dished out with brilliantly animated examples and rich in information that can be gleaned after many, many viewings.

Each song style is as varied and brilliant as is each animation style it represents. From the driving backward bass lines and frenetic colorful style of the title track “Science Is Real,” to the lovely slow ballad round and monochromatic feel of “What Is A Shooting Star?” This disk is also a must see for those who revel in short animation collections. Each piece has been animated by different artists, and as such, employs as many different artistic methods. In today’s consumer animation market, it’s such a pleasure to see a track like “Computer Assisted Design” use both traditional stop motion character animation along side some contemporary CG. “The Ballad of Davy Crocket (In Outer Space)” employs an incredibly fun technique of hand drawn animation using chalk and a traditional slate schoolroom chalkboard.

The ultimate goal of “Here Comes Science,” is not to just be a vehicle for children’s “infotainment,” but to instill an early sense of discovery, problem solving and a passion for finding out why. The project’s very spirit throbs with a beat that is the very nature of science. That is, the conviction to always better oneself, and the world around you, with the acquisition of new information. Consequently, and equally important, is the willingness to prove you were wrong. For example, the juxtaposition of the songs “Why Does the Sun Shine?” and “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” The former song is a rave-up cover of a 1950’s children’s educational tune, and a fan favorite in They Might Be Giant’s live set list. Scientifically speaking, the song is ridiculously outdated. The latter track makes reference to the previous, as John Flansburgh lements;

The sun is a miasma

Of incandescent plasma

The sun's not simply made out of gas

Forget that song


They got it wrong

That thesis has been rendered invalid

After all this reflection on science and discovery, I was inspired to prove my own theory. 'What effects does this DVD have on its target audience?' My subject was a bright kindergartener who lives next door. In this equation, we’ll call her “d”. I added to the mixture, one dvd, and multiplied by one week of time. The attention span of the dvd was shared by “d’s” parents. We’ll assign them” J+J”. During the experiment, it was noted that “d “disregarded her toys, as well as her little brother, “c”.

{ ( (d + dvd) x t ) / J+J } – (toys + c)
Following the experiment, “d” reported that her favorite portion was “The Bloodmobile,” a simplified explanation of the human cardiovascular system. “J+J” reported that the music was very enjoyable, and were even more astounded by the fact you can fit the word “Pachycephalosaurus” into a song. “c” was unavailable for comment, he can’t speak yet. There were multiple viewings.

Based on my empirical data, there will be many more.


Rebecca Shoemaker said...

Excellent article...great insight.