Bill Nye The Science Guy Who Always Knows Why

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a PBS educational TV program about science that was created and ran on television in the mid 1990s. The show was produced by Walt Disney’s educational division and hosted by scientist Bill Nye, a former assistant of Christopher Lloyd’s when he’d perform his experiments on the animated series version of ‘Back to the future.’ The show is still used in many schools, having been designed as an in-school program to be used by instructors as part of the classroom curriculum. The show is applicable to a wide range of ages.

Bill Nye the Science Guy ran for 100 episodes and has spanned three spinoff science shows (so far) also hosted by Bill Nye: The Eyes of Nye, 100 Greatest Discoveries, and Stuff Happens. The original Bill Nye the Science Guy show covered topics similar to those discussed in Beakman’s World, another science show that I have discussed, that ran at around the same time and even shared a writer/director. Both shows have a great sense of humor and a fast paced method of coming directly at the young watcher and keeping him constantly engaged with the subject material thus keeping him focused.

Overview of the show:
I’ve already noted in the last section, the connection between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World. Another comparison that has often been made is between Bill Nye and Don Herbert, the famed Mr. Wizard, the ‘father’ of science teaching on TV who had two popular series of this sort. Bill onscreen is dressed as a typical scientist wearing a bow tie and lab coat and teaching people, mixing in humor while teaching the science of everyday objects and phenomena. To that extent he is similar to Herbert. But there the similarity between Herbert and his followers end. Mister Wizard is a much more straightforward ‘pure’ hands-on science show which is slower paced and thus very different from his later follower hosts such as Bill Nye and Beakman. I plan to discuss him and his shows in another entry on the site in future.
As with Beakman’s World and the Mister Wizard shows, Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show geared for the elementary school set to teach them scientific topics – and yet it’s very different from either show. For starters, it’s more focused than Beakman’s World. While Beakman’s World would try and give a taste of two or three unrelated topics on each show (for example ‘vaccinations’ and ‘friction’), Bill Nye the Science Guy almost always focused on a single topic which Nye would come at from a wide variety of angles and in a varied selection of places. Location is another major difference. On Beakman’s World, all the action happens inside Beakman’s laboratory. Bill Nye the Science Guy couldn’t be more different in this respect. Bill does spend a fair amount of time in the lab, with most shows starting with him walking onto the set, known as “Nye Labs.” However, large sections of the show involve his getting outside. He won’t just create you a model volcano – he goes out to Mount Saint Helens to show the effects of an actual volcanic explosion.

He won’t just stick on a pair of goggles and pretend he’s flying to discuss flight – he’ll actually spend time in a plane.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is also far less insular than Beakman’s World in the matter of scientific expertise. Beakman’s lab consists of only himself, his assistant and Lester. Even when he brings so-called ‘experts’ to explain the concepts he’s teaching, the ‘experts’ are actually (and obviously) he himself, in costume. Bill Nye, on the other hand, constantly interacts with people of all ages and backgrounds outside his lab. He also works with and interviews people from outside his show, each of whom is expert in fields of study relevant to the episode’s topic of study.

Another nice touch Bill Nye the Science Guy features is the inclusion of parodied spoof song videos, wherein he takes a popular song and changes its words to explain the concept he’s been teaching during the course of the episode. This culminates in an entire episode devoted just to science through song entitled “NTV Top 11 Video Countdown.”

None of what I’ve said above, of course, should be misconstrued as an attempt to criticize either Beakman’s world, a wonderful show unto itself which I have nothing but the highest praise for, or Mister Wizard which is the pioneer of TV science shows. My point is that despite the shows’ similarity they also have a great number of differences and each of the shows, while appealing to many of the same target audiences, may strike more of a chord with different viewers so that the shows all essentially complement each other and are best used together to demonstrate various principles as I’ll note below in my anecdotal section.

The Main Characters
The two main characters on the show are Bill Nye a.k.a. ‘ Bill Nye the Science Guy ‘ and Pat Cashman who is the show’s announcer. We never see him on the show but he often interacts with Bill from offscreen. In addition to this there’s a ‘typical American family’ who appears in several episodes in comic relief. Other than that though, the characters tend to change completely from one episode to the next depending on the topic.
Types of skills the show teaches:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show that teaches scientific concepts and does so in a fun and engaging way that keeps kids attention focused so that they absorb a lot of useful educational material without feeling bored or overwhelmed. The show is appropriate for a wide range of ages. My kids started enjoying it even before they entered elementary school but I recently had someone who goes to one of the top high schools in the US tell me that they used it in his high school as well. I don’t claim to be a science expert by any means but I do find the show personally interesting, informative, and witty. It will stimulate your child to be more inquisitive about the world around him if he’s not already and will answer questions for them if they’re inquisitive already.
Site review:
To my mind this is probably the best science show out there for school level kids of the present generation. The fast pace, different ways of getting at serious subject material, the songs, and the humor all combine to create a wonderful learning environment that kids used to that kind of television can relate to. It’s real people as opposed to the animation style of the magic schoolbus (another wonderful show) which while excellent is likely to be considered babyish around the time they hit junior high. It has a wider range and scope of place then either of the other two shows I’ve mentioned in this review, Mister Wizard and Beakman’s World, which are both in-lab shows. Another major advantage is that the show was designed to be an in-school program meaning that its subject matter is likely to apply fairly specifically to subjects your kids will be taught in class.

My Kids Perspective:
My kids constantly watch and rewatch the episodes of this show and ask me to find out if there are more episodes out there that they haven’t watched yet, This has been true of all my kids at all ages. Even the youngest, who isn’t up to understanding anything in it at this point, still loves to watch it with his siblings because of the catchy music and fast moving action. They’ve constantly drawn upon facts they learned from the show in real life situations and I’ll often hear them debating scientific subjects only to have one or the other of them bring something from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The one time my kids are definitely not free to choose their TV preferences is when they have a test to study for. That is unless it’s a show where TV can help in studying for a test. I’ve found Bill Nye the Science Guy to be one of the best shows for this. Naturally this isn’t in place of their actual study material. But rare is the child who is going to study their test material non-stop before a test. They need breaks. And if they’re willing to spend the break watching TV and the program they happen to watch is an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy dealing with the test topic it can only help. Mister Wizard is also a pretty useful show for study purposes though Beakman, (except when the topic’s a perfect fit) less so. As of the time of the writing of this piece, my children have always received exceptionally high grades in science so I figure it can’t be hurting!

Anecdotal: Two or three years back, my daughter was standing with a parent who homeschools and whose kids are quite advanced educationally and her son (a high school graduate by age 14). As they were standing there a helicopter passed overhead and my friend asked “do you know what’s keeping that up?” to which her son replied ‘the rotors’ upon which my daughter, at the time around 8 piped up “no –it’s lift…and the Bernoulli effect.” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about (though I made a point to look it up afterwards – nothing wrong with learning from our kids even if they’re third graders and what they’re teaching us are principles of aerodynamic theory) but she did because she’d been watching the episode about flight

and my friend apparently did and was clearly impressed.

Another time my kids asked a friend’s father to give them trivia questions. “on what subject?” he asked. “Ask us science questions,” they begged. Jokingly he asked them “ok what’s DNA.” in unison they replied “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” It’s not often you see a man’s jaw literally drop and as he sat there agape they went onto explain to him exactly what it is and how scientists use it.

Similar shows
Beakman’s World, Mister Wizard, The Magic School Bus