Was "Voyage of the Mimi" Effective?

Kim Kastens
Author Profile
published Aug 25, 2009

Today my daughter Dana and I went whale-watching on Stellwagen Bank. This area of shoal water and high marine productivity, north of Cape Cod, is where the dramatic narrative segments of the first Voyage of the Mimi were set. The Voyage of the Mimi was an early (1980's) attempt to combine video, software, and print materials to teach math and science in a manner that was both fascinating and accurate. Half of each 30 minute video was a dramatic narrative set on a research vessel, and the other 15 minutes were an expedition to a science research facility where one of the actors from the dramatic narrative met real scientists researching something germane to an issue that had arisen in this week's narrative.

Voyage of the Mimi was my personal and immediate introduction to reform ideas in science education, and was surely one of the experiences that lured me into geo-ed. I had recently moved from Scripps to Lamont-Doherty to start my first post-PhD job, in an era when women oceanographers were still a novelty. My supervisor, Bill Ryan, showed up at work one day with a far-fetched story: he had met a guy at a cocktail party who was trying to put together some kind of an educational TV program about oceanographers at sea on a research vessel, which had to be a sailing ship so it would be quiet because they were studying whales, and one of the co-chief scientists was a woman and the other was a Puerto Rican guy, and they were trying to flesh out the character of the female co-chief, and Bill had said "Oh you should talk to Kim," and so would I please talk to this film producer about what it's like to be a woman oceanographer.

Photograph of Kim Kastens and Mary Tanner
Filming of "Mapping the Blue Part"
One thing lead to another: I chatted with the film producer, and then with the actress, and then I spent a few days on location on the chase boat and Mimi herself while they filmed, and then finally I became one of the featured scientists in Expedition Three "Mapping the Blue Part."

For the next decade or more, I would rather frequently meet young people who would look at me crosswise, thinking they knew me from someplace, and eventually it would emerge that they had studied Voyage of the Mimi in 5th grade or watched the series on PBS. Usually, they would rave about the experience, describing it as one of the best parts of their science education. Occasionally, I would be invited to visit a school using the Mimi curriculum. Through these encounters, I learned that there was a rabidly dedicated cadre of Voyage of the Mimi teachers, who shared ideas through summer workshops and a fan club, sought out people like me as speakers, and looked forward to teaching this part of their science curriculum more than any other.

In later years, as I learned more about science education and began teaching myself, I looked back on Voyage of the Mimi as a stunningly successful and prescient example of innovative science curriculum development. I am still having Mimi encounters: earlier this summer, a high school Earth Science teacher told me that she had studied Voyage of the Mimi when she was in 5th grade and still remembered it clearly and enthusiatically. This made me feel rather old, but reinforced my notion that Voyage of the Mimi had achieved that elusive holy grail of science education, a lasting education, education that stays with the learner for years, decades, a lifetime. Attributes that could have contributed to this success include situating the science in a (more or less) authentic setting, showing science as contributing to the solution of real problems, showing real scientists speaking in their own voices, focusing on an especially charismatic component of nature (whales), and showing a diverse cast of characters engaged in doing science and solving problems (improbable though it might have been to have a senior citizen, members of two different underrepresented minorities, a woman oceanographer, a deaf teenager, and two children–including the young Ben Affleck–aboard a research vessel.)

Imagine my surprise then, as I browsed the web looking for links for this blog post, to find vitriolic criticism of Voyage of the Mimi, from writers on education, former students, and a star of the show. Neil Postman wrote:

"And, in the end, what will the students have learned? They will, to be sure, have learned something about whales, perhaps about navigation and map-reading, most of which they could have learned just as well by other means. Mainly, they will have learned that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment, and ought to." Postman (1985), p. 154.

And this from a former student:

"Like many schoolchildren, I was subjected to this show repeatedly in elementary school ... Topics included navigation, longitude and latitude, all sorts of incredibly boring facts about whales, and so forth... Lazy teachers liked "The Voyage of the Mimi"... after 15 minutes of drama, and 15 minutes of lecture teachers can give their students 15 days of collaborating on busy work about whales." Anonymous

So what has been your experience? Did you study Mimi as a student or teach it as a teacher? Was it a pioneering tour de force in innovative middle school science education? Or a useless story about "the most boring people ever to sail the Seven Seas on a glorified whale watch" (anonymous)? Or might it have been both at the same time, in different contexts?

Reference:

Revision Note: Photo of Kim Kastens and actress Mary Tanner added Sept 15, 2009.




Was "Voyage of the Mimi" Effective? --Discussion  

In recalling your experience with the "Voyage of the Mimi" project, and the mixed reception that it received, you once again ask us to confront the decades long question about the appropriate use of technology in the classroom. From the days of our youth when television was touted as a potentially important educational medium (in the '50's; how far we've strayed!) to in-class media we variously watched as filmstrips, 35mm films, laserdiscs and CD roms (because image files were too large to reliably be delivered over the nascent internet), videotapes, to our current universal access to websites with animations, visualizations, live streaming, podcasts, virtual reality, etc. (all with teacher guides of some kind) the tension between instruction and entertainment has always been with us.

I think that the answer lies in a clear articulation of the learning goals that are addressed by the production of the instructional resources. If the goals are strictly limited to the conveyance of knowledge, then most of the multi-media outlets may be limited in their utility--do we really need high-cost production to relay information that can otherwise be found in a book (or now, a static website that acts as an archive of information)? But, if the goal is also to inspire curiosity, represent the joys of discovery (i.e. affective components of learning), or to open the world of possibilities to students who might not otherwise consider a career in science then these multi-media productions may provide a real service.

I recall that Bill Kurtis (former CBS news anchor, host of The New Explorers shown on PBS 1991-1997, and late of ATT Internet services commercials) was the keynote speaker at the NSF convocation on Shaping the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education. An excerpt from his presentation (NSF 98-73, page 51; http://www.scribd.com/doc/1002239/National-Science-Foundation-nsf9873) describes how he "sold" his story to audiences about the science topic of the week for The New Explorers: "The New Explorers shows typically have a "mysterious opening", then a quick explanation that tells you what the mystery is, and thus the point of the program. Sometimes it attempts to pique your interest with adventure, then moves on to esablish the mystery...We don't expect that a class or teacher will immediately absorb all the science in a particular topic with the first video showing of a story. The beauty of video is that a trained teacher can use it like a blackboard or slide presentation...it can also be used to make related points, for example, the existence of female scientists functioning as equals with male scientists. In fact, half of the New Explorers are minorities who can potentially become role models, justifying the eries in and of itself...We offer students reality--a real scientist working in the real world, brought into the classroom." Bill Kurtis is a very effective storyteller (the entertainment component), and in working his craft, he (and by extension, Voyage of the Mimi) provides an important service by imparting lessons that go beyond simple content. Entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it necessarily detract from or dilute the underlying scientific content. It does have the ability to make the Science "come alive" to student audiences that might otherwise be disaffected.

I find it interesting that one critic viewed teachers who use instructional media as being lazy. Can this be said of any instructional media that detracts from e.g. rote recitation of the multiplication tables? As with any tool, the key is to use it appropriately. Plug-n-play is probably not the best use of instructional media, particularly if it is used only to take up time, pacify unruly students, or as a substitue for truly engaging the subject. But in the hands of a skilled teacher, instructional media can be an amazing portal to discovery--about Science itself and about personal opportunities to participate in Science.

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This post was editted by Kim Kastens on Sep, 2009
Yeah, I was pretty surprised to come across such strong criticisms of "Voyage of the Mimi." For literally 25 years, I've been thinking of "Mimi" and Mimi's creators as visionary, pioneering, exemplary. I've felt proud to have played even a small role in making it happen, and lucky to have had Mimi open the door for me into science education innovation. Reflecting on the criticisms hasn't actually changed my mind, but it's been a useful reminder that not everyone shares my point of view.

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I found the criticisms entirely unfounded, and even had some of the facts mixed up. I have used the Voyage of the Mimi with grade 5, 6, and 7 students since the early 1990s, and used it again this year. We just completed the unit and I have to say the kids enjoy it just as much now as they did the first time I used it. I haven't met a student who didn't enjoy the voyage, and every year they are very sad when it is over. This year I shared with them the information I had found on the internet about the demise of the actual Mimi boat, just a few months ago. In my experience, students have a very strong reaction to so many aspects of the story line, and enjoy the expeditions as well. I am hoping to share some of their thoughts on this discussion page soon. I am impressed each time I use this resource at how well it carries so many years later. The students relate to the characters and don't seem at all concerned that it is dated. I would love it if the expeditions to could be updated with respect to science, but that said, as I do my own research on the internet to check for current information, it seems the science hasn't changed too much in most of the areas explored. The Voyage of the Mimi is a great resource and I love what it brings to my Language Arts and Science education program.

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Mimi I and Mimi II are part of the curriculum for the Gifted and Talented program in our large school district. I cannot take my students to the Smithsonian or to field and labs where experts disseminate information on their specialty field. The videos are short (15 minutes) with activities for each segment. We also use the questions for Quiz Bowl after each segment. There are experiments involved and interactive activities. My students keep a Mimi journal and write essays weekly on what it is like to work on a whaling boat a hundred years ago. They write about how to catch a whale, what products are made from the whale, how they feel about whales, and the hardships of the life of a child on a whaling expedition. They also create an essay on being shipwrecked and about the captain suffering from hypothermia. They have to describe the symptoms of hypothermia and how to help someone with that condition. Students include the Braille and hand signing alphabets and write/sign messages to each other. The students draw and label the boat and a humpback whale. They use a navigation map to follow the story. The technology is not always up to date but this gives us the opportunity to do research to find out what the latest technology is. I am looking for the computer programs that came with the Mimi set. Has anyone formatted them to a cd? I believe the Mimi would be good for Common Core. I would love to have updated materials! I recommend this program and think it challenges my 3rd-5th grade G/T students. It also has helped to get them excited about Science.

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The lessons from The Voyage of the Mimi seem to resinate decades following exposure. Perhaps they were indelibly imprinted on an impressionable young mind. Conversely, the characterological corniness is unforgettable along with the contrived flute pounding privateer anthem that served as an opening theme song. What a score!

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I was one of those middle school students from the 80s who experienced the Voyage of the MiMi program and I LOVED IT! As part of the year long academic theme of Humanity and the Environment, Voyage of the MiMi was part of the Charleston County SC Gifted and Talented fall curriculum. Living in a coastal town in the Southeast, my understanding of maritime culture certainly had a low-country perspective, e.g. shrimp boats, crabbing, the Intercoastal Waterway. The MiMi series exposed me to the maritime culture of the Northeast which I recall being so different, yet relatable. I learned to read maps, use the nautical slide rule, and turn saltwater into potable water through evaporation. It was so cool! To this day, I credit the Voyage of the Mimi series for my ability to read longitude and latitude coordinates.

I never became a scientist, yet the series still has a lasting impact for me today. I work in digital media programming for international broadcasting and I've been thinking about pitching a modern day equivalent to Voyage of the MiMi for foreign audiences. I wish there are more interactive, multi-platform learning programs like Voyage of the Mimi. Today's equivalent would be a video series available on the TV or online with an accompanying web site and/or a mobile or tablet app tied in to the series.

Thanks for believing in this long shot of a idea for an educational program. IT WAS WORTH IT! I know there are people out there like myself who have been positively influenced by the series!

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