Programmers Make STEM Fare a Class Act

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This summer, a recent high-school graduate from Georgia named Craig Owenby visited the set of USA Network’s Burn Notice.

He met with show creator and executive producer Matt Nix, as well as cast members. He got an on-air shout out and special recognition in an online spot featuring series star Bruce Campbell.

What did Owenby do to earn such high praise and esteemed company? He created a laser communications device that utilizes fluctuating brightness to transmit messages from more than 100 feet away and around walls as part of the “Burn Notice Science Challenge.”

The competition, developed in concert with a panel of science teachers from around the nation, asked highschool students to design a spy device to help the show’s characters communicate with each other covertly.


The Science Challenge is part of NBCUniversal-owned USA’s initiative to encourage learning in science, technology, engineering and math. Known to most as “STEM,” the education buzzword of the moment, it’s a popular cause among cable operators, including Time Warner Cable with its “Connect a Million Minds” campaign.

“This is the first time we’ve done a high school competition for one of our shows,” USA Network senior vice president of public affairs Toby Graff said. “We do a lot of outreach tied to our ‘Characters Unite’ campaign. This one was purely to use the show as a backdrop. The idea is really to use the power of entertainment to get kids thinking creatively and use their STEM skills, to encourage them that there are fun ways to learn.”

Burn Notice is home to more than just explosions and beach babes. And with summer just about over, the kids are going back to school — and cable programmers are going with them.

Heading into this school year, a number of cable networks are launching classroom-ready initiatives providing students with some entertainment along with their education.

For Discovery Communications, STEM learning is a high priority. The programmer launched free STEM summer-camp material online this spring under a multi-pronged initiative called “Connect the Dots,” designed to help students link science and math with their everyday lives.

Discovery Familia today (Aug. 26) is set to launch Matemonstruos, an animated education series aimed at inspiring kids to develop a love for math, at 5 p.m. daily. The Spanish-language network’s back-to-school programming also includes such series as Artzooka!, Mister Maker and WordWorld, aimed at preschoolers.

Networks are working to engage students on social issues as well. This fall, USA will partner with Cox Communications and an anti-bullying campaign called “Flip the Script” to throw a special concert called #UniteLIVE: The Concert to Rock Out Bullying. Featuring Carly Rae Jepsen of “Call Me Maybe” fame, it will take place at an as-yet unannounced location on Oct. 3 to coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month. Middle- and high-school students can enter a national sweepstakes to win a free trip to the concert.

Next month Hallmark Channel premieres The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which will run on Friday, Sept. 20, just a few days after the 50th anniversary of the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The Civil Rights-era feature film is the product of a partnership between Hallmark and Walden Media.

Like Hallmark, National Geographic Channel is also producing content related to civil-rights era history. In November, it will air the feature film Killing Kennedy along with robust online teacher-student resources related to the film online on National Geographic’s education landing page.

This year National Geo Wild will continue the “Big Cats Sister School Initiative,” which partnered U.S. students with schools in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. The program uses letters, essays and virtual assemblies to connect students from all four countries in a discussion about big cats and their ecosystems.

Also this fall, National Geographic Channel and Cable in the Classroom plan to bring educators to Washington, D.C., for a day-and-a-half conference on the network’s upcoming classroom-ready programs. The event will also focus on how teachers can implement online resources into their classes and feature some of the network’s talent.

“Something we do that we think is important is engaging teachers and educators in a conversation,” National Geographic senior vice president of communications Chris Albert said. “We want to know what works for them, what do they need. How can we be a resource?”

Online video and interactive content are areas of potential growth and collaboration between schools and content providers, programming executives said.


History is bringing digital content to the classroom in a big way. The History website now contains more than 4,000 videos used for research and projects., also in the A+E Networks camp, has added more than 500 mini video bios to its website in the past year and a half, quickly boosting the amount of information available on figures ranging from abolitionist Frederick Douglass to fashionista Coco Chanel.

History’s online “The Civil War Today” app allows students to follow along with the happenings of the Civil War on a daily basis, while the “History Here” app geolocated content to more than 7,000 locations around the country. Pretty cool for a digital age field trip.

In the last few years, teachers have moved away from using History and Biography simply for documentaries and instead made short-form content a more prominent part of their lessons, according to Libby O’Connell, chief historian and senior vice president of corporate outreach for A+E Networks. “That’s made a huge difference in terms of how flexible they are for class usage.”


Cable networks are looking to entertain while helping schools educate this fall, with classroom initiatives tied to upcoming programming.