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The producer of Cyberchase: a Babble.com interview.

When I was a kid, I was so bad at math that my whole geometry class gave me pep talks before tests. (I still failed.) Maybe if I had Cyberchase, things would have turned out differently. The PBS series, in its fifth season, somehow actually – yes, I’m going to say it – makes math fun. The show centers around three spunky kids, Matt, Inez and Jackie, who venture into a wacky world called Cyberspace, using math skills to battle Hacker and his loyal but dim-witted hench-bots, Buzz and Delete. Cyberchase draws five million viewers a week, thousands of whom spend additional hours honing their math skills on the show’s website. I talked to Cyberchase‘s executive producer and editorial director, Frances Nankin, to find out whether Cyberchase will actually make your kid smarter, and what Gilbert Gottfried (the voice of robo-bird Digit) is really like. – Jennifer V. Hughes

I’m always floored by how many kooky ideas you pack into a show – a place called Castleblanca, a thinly veiled parody of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. The writer’s meetings there must be a hoot.

The writer’s meetings are very crazy – they’re also really exhausting. We meet on any given show for an entire day. About twelve weeks prior to that meeting we have two math consultants create a math brief, which is about ten pages written in layman’s terms explaining the basic idea we’re trying to communicate in the show. We just did one on fog and how you make fog. What we’re doing is having kids measure temperatures and the amount of moisture in the air so that they can figure out the dew point. [On the show] Hacker creates some fog and the kids have to create fog themselves so they can rescue the team that Hacker has snuck away with.

So many kids have negative feelings about math; how do you turn that into something positive on the show?

It’s not that you can’t do math, it’s that your way of looking at it is not working. What we do on Cyberchase is we have our characters approach the math problem in different ways. While they’re thinking, Jackie paces, Inez stands on her head, Matt does his yo-yo. Matt is the kind of kid who jumps right in and messes about – and that’s one learning style that sometimes works. Jackie has to get organized; she draws a lot of pictures.

The show’s companion website for parents says I shouldn’t tell my kid how bad I was at math. But I was really bad. How do I avoid passing along my math phobia?

You don’t want to convey whatever difficulties you had, because you want your kid to go into it with an open mind. You can share with your child when you have a frustrating experience – use it as a learning moment. Maybe when you’re balancing your checkbook, you say, “Right now this isn’t working and I’m going to take a break.” You model the ways that you handle those frustrating problems, so when you see your child stuck at a problem, you can say, “Remember when that happened to me?”

How much fun is it to work with Christopher Lloyd (who provides the voice for Hacker) and Gilbert Gottfried?

They are both actually very shy and quiet. Both of them are a delight.

You’ve got an online summer program called “My Cyberchase Summer” where episodes are paired with activities suggested on the web site to help kids keep their math skills fresh. That sounds like kid kryptonite – can you convince me otherwise?

I wouldn’t say it’s to keep their math skills fresh – that sounds like drills. What we’re talking about is helping kids continue to feel confident and fluid in thinking mathmatically. In one episode, Wicked [a witch character who has a love-hate relationship with Hacker] creates these magic brooms and they’re selling like hotcakes. They put a spell on the rider and she’s going to use them to take over Cyberspace. Our activity lets kids ride their own brooms and use time and distance to figure out how fast they are going when they run in a race, straddling a broom. Kids like it, but it’s pretty amazing – they’re using calculus!

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