said that “first they try to put hot air in different size plastic bags, but when the plastic bags melted, they decided to make balloons with the tissue paper. They made baskets and added pennies to see if the balloons would go up still.” And 54 percent understood that balloon size was measured in order to calculate volume, which they expressed as follows: “They measured the tissue paper to see how big the balloon was and how much hot air would go into it.”

Overall, almost all of the viewers (93 percent) picked up the main point: balloon size must increase to lift more weight. One viewer expressed this idea as follows: “Make the balloon bigger and bigger volume for more passengers.”

What Features of the Show Helped Students Learn?

One of the goals of the study was to try to figure out which storytelling devices were the most successful in facilitating learning. Apley considered the pace of the episode, its visual appeal, the presentation of the inquiry question, and the use of graphics.

Students noted that they liked “Balloons.” because the segment “did not go too fast.” Students also said that they enjoyed the boys’ approach to the problem, characterized by their decision to follow a sequence of tests, adding a new variable at each stage. Perhaps one reason viewers liked this approach was that the experimental procedure was repeated several times, giving them an opportunity to participate and watch as the drama unfolded. At the same time, the episode stayed interesting because a new variable was introduced with each new trial. The segment concluded with a recap of the relationship between balloon size and the weight it can lift—a summary device that helped solidify learning.

One lesson to be learned from this study is to pay close attention to the way the inquiry is presented. A clear explanation up front, an interesting question, followed by a logical sequence of investigations, with some repetition to reinforce the main ideas, are storytelling devices that have proven to be effective. A straightforward conclusion, in which the ideas are recapped and summarized, also is helpful. “The trial-and-error approach was engaging for kids,” says Apley. “The kids could follow along with each trial, participating in the drama. It made sense to build a balloon, measure it, and then watch it fly.”16

This case shows that while television shows (or films) cannot use true interactivity to support learning, they can be designed in ways that successfully support learning. In the DragonflyTV example, the compelling narrative and the viewers’ potential ability to imagine themselves in the role of the boys carrying out the investigations kept viewers engaged. The step-by-step unfolding of the investigation probably helped viewers to think actively about what was happening and reflect on the results. One important point: although the specific design options available across different settings and experiences may vary, the underlying principles of how people learn do not change fundamentally.

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