Homer Simpson's nuclear family helps children grasp science

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The Independent Online

He may not be the smartest employee at Springfield's nuclear power plant, but Homer Simpson is inadvertently lending a hand to teachers struggling to explain abstract areas of science to their pupils.

Research by the Science Museum found that the few children not baffled by the "mysterious" force that powers their computers and video games, gleaned their understanding from the Simpsons, the dysfunctional cartoon family.

Emily Scott, who has devised an exhibition on energy for the museum, said popular culture seemed to be the only way children absorbed anything about a subject often regarded as dry and dusty, even by teachers.

"The kids, particularly at the bottom end of the age group, couldn't identify how we power our lives," she said. "Energy is around us, but it can't be seen or touched so this makes it a difficult subject to understand, especially for children."

Energy to many seven-year-olds simply meant Lucozade and Mars bars, they discovered. "We had to move away from the 'energetic' analogy," Ms Scott said. "What came back from the research team was that the words they did know were always tied up to a pop culture reference such as The Simpsons."

But most had little understanding of words crucial to generating energy such as "fossil fuels," which they linked to dinosaurs, and "nuclear power", which prompted comments on weapons of mass destruction.

The museum is contacting the producers of the cartoon, which shows Homer working at the power station, to tell them about the exhibition. But other than illuminating the thinking processes of children, the only involvement of The Simpsons in the show is the language used in one of the interactive exhibits where a wrong move is greeted by a Homer-like "Doh!". The exhibition, for children aged seven to 14, addresses issues of global warming, sustainable energy and the second law of thermodynamics through games and artworks. In one game, children can play at being the Government's energy minister and make decisions about such areas as environmental protests and power surges after major sporting events.

The show also has a truly shocking way of getting its point across. A work by the artist Christian Moeller is based on an electric fence used to control cats, and administers a small electric shock if visitors disobey the signs and reach through the bars to touch it.

Hanna Redler, another member of the exhibition team, said: "Invariably, children are preoccupied with what energy does for them rather than how it is created. They need a lot of interactivity to help explain what happens so we created an 'energy playground' that conveys the concepts in a language children relate to."

Energy - Fuelling the Future opens on 23 July