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PBS launches math series for kids in ‘Odd Squad’

Math problems get animated, more engaging in new series

PBS-mathConsider this math problem: PBS leaves the train station headed west under a full head of steam to find a new series to teach math to youngsters. Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman leave a train station at top speed headed east with an idea for a show that features an agency run by kids who use math to deal with oddities in their home town.

What is the sum when they meet?

The answer can be seen Wed., Nov. 26, when “Odd Squad” joins the PBS morning lineup. The quirky live-action series follows two young government agents who use math skills and collaboration to investigate weird and unusual phenomena.

McKeon, who sidesteps a question about his own math abilities when he was younger, explains the primary factor that went into making the show was to teach that math doesn’t have to be boring.

(Next page: Boosting kids’ math confidence)

“I feel like I have become quite passionate about math. A lot of people say math is boring but there are really exciting and funny ways to teach math,” McKeon says.

The solution was to focus on strong storytelling, something McKeon and Peltzman have done in past shows such as “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” “The Backyardigans,” “Wallykazam,” “The Electric Company” and “Adventure Time.”

In one episode of “Odd Squad,” the team helps a local basketball team that has a problem with the number 13. Along with talking about addition, the story ends with a member of the team getting to live out wish.

Making the show starts with a long list of math topics that include addition, subtraction, temperature, time and basic geometry. There’s also a list of crazy and odd things. Items on the two lists are matched up to become an episode.

Sometimes the matches are easy, such as using the efforts to capture a Blob as a way to teach liquid measurements. An idea about how the adults in town spontaneously break into song took a little longer to find a math match. The answer was a story about patterns.

When McKeon and Peltzman first pitched the idea for the show, they were asked if it could be animated. The simple answer is yes. But McKeon is certain the show is better as a live-action production.

“I love animation. You can draw anything. But, to have something odd happen isn’t so spectacular because it’s like you could just draw it,” McKeon says. “To actually have the odd thing happen in a real world, it just sort of pops a lot more, and it’s just more interesting.”

The world they’ve created is a place where kids run the show, often coming to the aid of adults, and are equal and not judged by race or sex or financial status.

“We hope kids will see themselves in this show,” McKeon says.

The series creators took a page from the TV show “The West Wing” to make what the agents are dealing with seem more important. This is done by having the actors walk and talk a lot while the cameras whooshing around the set. The constant movement creates a sense of urgency.

Story lines, character development and humor are important, but at its core is the emphasis on math. The team received an extremely detailed spreadsheet from PBS on what needed to be covered in the 40 half-hour episodes.

To make sure they stick to that outline, a former first-grade teacher consults in the writing room.

“She’s there to help us weave in the curriculum. A lot of our writers have never done educational writing. We are more interested in people who can writer funny, character stories,” McKeon says. “We always start having the two–the math, and then, also, something odd has to happen. The combination of that created amazing stories.”

(c)2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.). Visit The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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