Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson work on some innovative projects.
Cham has a Ph.D. in robotics and Los Alamos High School graduate Whiteson has a Ph.D. in physics.
On their own, each is impressive.
Together, they have created the PBS animated series “Elinor Wonders Why,” which premieres at 11:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 7, on New Mexico PBS.
The show encourages children to follow their curiosity, ask questions, figure out the answers, and learn about the natural world around them using their science inquiry skills.
In the premiere, Elinor, the most curious and observant bunny rabbit in Animal Town, plays hide-and-seek with her friends and finds out how animals hide in nature, investigates a strange nighttime sound made by an owl and realizes many fascinating creatures are doing interesting things at night, makes “backyard soup” with vegetables from her family’s garden, and sells lots of cupcakes by learning how flowers attract bees, through color and smell, and applying those concepts to baking.
“‘Elinor Wonders Why’ helps give parents the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know the answer. Let’s explore it together,’ ” Whiteson said. “Asking questions and investigating the answer are at the core of scientific discovery, and we designed the series to model and encourage children, parents and educators to do just that together.”
Cham and Whiteson began working on the project in 2017 when PBS approached them.
“They were looking for new voices for children’s TV,” Cham said. “They found my work online and asked if I was interested in pitching the idea. I reached out to Daniel, and what inspires us beyond science is our children. They are curious, and it motivated us to create the show.”
Cham is the cartoonist behind the popular online comic “Piled Higher and Deeper.” He is a former instructor and research associate at Caltech, though he now works as a researcher focused on Biomimetic Design and Neural Implants.
Meanwhile, Whiteson balanced his day job as a professor of physics at University of California, Irvine, with being a fellow of the American Physical Society, all while co-creating the series with Cham.
Whiteson grew up in Pojoaque and Los Alamos. His parents worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
He earned his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley and is an active researcher, using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to search for exotic new particles.
“The series is helping people understand that science isn’t owned by scientists,” Whiteson said. “They can do science anywhere, and curiosity belongs to everybody.”
Cham and Whiteson created the series. Yet during the production process, they had a writing team for each episode.
“We want parents to think of their kids and of all their questions,” Cham said. “Having questions is normal. It’s the guiding principle to the series.”
Cham and Whiteson want children to feel confident in asking questions.
“It’s not just about teaching kids nature facts,” Cham says. “The series is solely trying to train them to be good question askers and give them the confidence to ask those questions. Observation is key, and that’s one of the main messages.”
The series is one of PBS’ most anticipated shows for the fall season.
“We’re so excited to invite audiences nationwide into the fascinating world of Animal Town and introduce them to Elinor and her friends as they ask questions and explore the remarkable ways that our everyday lives are connected to nature,” said Linda Simensky, head of PBS KIDS content. “Kids learn best when their parents and caretakers are engaged in their learning. ‘Elinor Wonders Why’ will spark preschoolers’ curiosity with an innovative science inquiry curriculum and will encourage the adults in children’s lives to help them answer their questions by exploring together.”