Daniel Whiteson: Equipping Kids to Answer Their Own Questions

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Daniel Whiteson: Equipping Kids to Answer Their Own Questions


Jeremiah O’Mahony, 2019 SPS Summer Intern and SPS Member, Sarah Lawrence College

Daniel Whiteson. Image courtesy of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.We all know a curious kid. They have the world to discover, and they can’t help but ask questions. Today Dr. Daniel Whiteson is a high-energy particle physicist at the University of California, Irvine, but when he was younger, he was one of those kids. “I wanted to access the joy of science,” Whiteson told Radiations, but he could only wonder about the things around him. He didn’t have the tools to actively examine them.

Whiteson hopes that Elinor Wonders Why, a new TV show he and longtime collaborator Jorge Cham have developed for PBS, will give curious children those tools. It all ties into Whiteson’s philosophy for answering children’s questions, which he admits is a little unorthodox. “This is going to sound paradoxical, but try not to answer their question,” he said. “Help them to answer it themselves.”

In the show, Elinor and her friends will do just that. For the most part, they aren’t going to rely on adults to help them figure things out. Instead, they’ll take notes and form testable hypotheses about the phenomena that interest them. They will, in short, do science.

“We’re hoping that kids are encouraged to think curiously,” Whiteson said, “and that their parents and caregivers are more comfortable with that.”

Even though the show is for kids, Whiteson and Cham, a cartoonist and former engineer, also have adults in mind. One goal for Elinor Wonders Why is to clue in parents and other caregivers on how to help kids refine their inquiries. That means “reflecting [kids’] questions back at them” and encouraging them to puzzle out answers for themselves.

“[T]his is an incredible opportunity not just to tell fun stories but to help encourage a generation of kids to be curious and be confident about asking questions,” said Cham. “With all the challenges that we face, it can only help to have citizens that are actively curious and are not afraid to ask questions.” 
Elinor and her friends on a walk through the forest. Photo courtesy of Pipeline Studios, SHOE Inc.

While conducting research for the show, Whiteson and Cham found that, along with parents, preschool teachers consistently felt unprepared to answer kids’ scientific questions. Like most PBS shows, Elinor Wonders Why is meant primarily to educate, and Whiteson hopes that Elinor’s adventures will become teaching tools in the classroom. 

 A Guide to the Unknown Universe, and their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe.The duo is particularly excited to bring their brand of science communication to PBS for the network’s reach—specifically, to the children of low-income families. “PBS Kids plays an important role in the way [parents] raise their kids,” Whiteson said. “It’s an honor for us to be part of that process.”

Elinor Wonders Why will teach children some science facts, but for Whiteson, it’s more about showing kids how to productively grapple with their queries. “It’s about science, but it’s also about the process,” Whiteson said. He notes that science is often considered a body of facts, when really, it’s just as much about utilizing tools of inquiry to explore the world—the tools he was looking for when he was a young child. “It’s equally important to teach them that science is a way to answer their own questions,” he said.


About Elinor Wonders Why

by Samantha Staskiewicz, 2019 SPS Summer Intern and SPS Member, The College of New Jersey

Many networks have inspired young people to get involved in science through television shows featuring rocket ships, fun chemical experiments, outdoor adventures, and lots of math and facts. Elinor Wonders Why takes a unique approach, sparking scientific interest by starting at the root of science—curiosity. The show aims to inspire young people to ask questions about the world, express their wonders and problems, and use scientific skills to acquire the answers to their questions. Co-creators Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham use their backgrounds in physics and knowledge of research processes to shape the structure of the show.

Elinor Wonders Why follows a young rabbit, Elinor, through Animal Town, where she’s accompanied by friends Ari the bat and Olive the elephant, as well as several other characters they meet through their adventures. When the crew of animals comes across something they don’t understand, they work together to solve the problem, showcasing a variety of science and engineering principles. Along with the show’s focus on science, Elinor Wonders Why delves into important aspects of community, such as diversity, respect, teamwork, and environmental awareness. Children can meet Elinor on the show’s premiere date, Labor Day 2020.

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