Like many bleary-eyed teenagers heading back to school after the long summer, Cassie needs to catch up on her sleep.
But rather than trying to hit the hay earlier, she rounds up her friends and organizes a protest to demand that classes start later in the morning. Despite the teen stereotypes, Cassie's rebellion is not inspired by laziness but by science.
Cassie is the main character in a new episode of a television show created by John Pollock, associate professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University, to improve science literacy among school students. Mr. Pollock is founding director for the Partnership in Education, which conducts multimedia science education projects. The new episode is about the hazards of not getting enough sleep.
"We want our children to learn, but we don't let them get enough sleep," Mr. Pollock said, citing research that links a good night's rest to better grades. "Kids who tend to get A's in school tend to get 15 minutes to a half-hour more sleep than kids who get B's," he said. "And kids who gets B's tend to get 15 minutes to a half-hour more sleep than kids who get C's."
On Sept. 4, a long-running debate about school start times was reignited by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said starting class later was backed by "lots of research and common sense."
Mr. Pollock chose sleep as the focus of a new episode of the "Scientastic!" television show because he felt that people underestimate the importance of sleep. "We need to sleep because our brains process information all night long, and it helps us to learn about the events of the day," he said.
"Scientastic!" is produced in partnership with David Caldwell of Planet Earth Television, and it follows the adventures of a sister and brother trying to solve everyday problems with the help of local experts. In the new hourlong special filmed and edited this summer, Cassie researches the effects of her family's chronic sleep deprivation by talking to professionals from the Pittsburgh Zoo, Phipps Conservatory, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and a sleep lab at UPMC, among others.
"There's also a fair bit of silliness," Mr. Pollock said. Several musical interludes are sung by students from the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School.
The sleep special of "Scientastic!" is only the second episode produced after the pilot -- on bone regeneration -- aired on WQED back in 2010. A visual artist and adjunct assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, Patricia Maurides, is a creative partner in "Scientastic!" Material from the pilot episode can be found at www.ScientasticTV.com.
"Powers of minus ten," an app that was developed to accompany the pilot, was downloaded more than 600,000 times, Mr. Pollock said, after it was featured in an advertisement for the Apple iPad Mini. An app for the sleep episode is currently in development.
The new episode is being considered for distribution to public television stations, and Mr. Pollock expects that it will have a national release in 2014. His long-term goal is to produce an entire "Scientastic!" series, but he has not raised enough funding to do that yet, he said.
In the meantime, he hopes that the new show inspires children to ask questions and talk to real people to find out the answers, and that adults and children start to recognize the importance of a good night's sleep.
Cristy Gelling: email@example.com.