Acting goofy is a popular way to make science appealing to kids.
But Nadya Mason, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) physics professor, took a whole different route on a recently released web series. “I and Brian Demarco (another physics professor) came up with the basic concept of a scripted series that focused on the process of science,” she says.
With more than 30 peer-reviewed journal publications and several awards to her credit, Mason knows a thing or two about the process of science; her work at the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) focuses on the electronic behavior of various materials.
But Mason needed a film person to turn her script concept into reality. Enter John Isberg, a UIUC University Housing videographer and photographer who also does a variety of commercial and creative work.
“Isberg and I decided we wanted something inspired by ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Weird Science,'” Mason says. “Then John Isberg and members of the MRSEC (including me and Pamela Pena-Martin) developed the script.”
The result was Magnetic Fields, a four-part series centered around Jana (Neenah Williams), a high school student trying to complete a science project with a group of friends while dealing with teen struggles.
Jana lives in the shadow of her older sister Maria (Jessica Limardo), who is pursuing a PhD at — where else? — the UIUC physics department, and she is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of their father, Dr. Balika (Pete Barrett), who was also a physics professor.
Jana’s class takes a field trip to — where else? — MRSEC, where they view a presentation by Maria and her research partner, Paul (Raffael A. Sears). One of the kids, Andy (Dema Evans), swipes a potent magnet that was used in the presentation to give the group’s science project a boost … and then strange phenomena start to happen.
So Jana and her friends try to figure out the science behind these phenomena, while Maria and Paul frantically try to locate the missing magnet in time for a crucial demonstration for a deep-pocketed Silicon Valley guy.
The writers seem to have dropped Weird Science as an inspiration as the script developed, but they picked up a reference so obscure most people probably wouldn’t even catch it: The Bloodhound Gang, a segment in the first five seasons of the 1980s PBS show 3-2-1 Contact in which three kids used their science knowledge to solve mysteries.
Magnetic Fields has a total run time of about 33 minutes, and the first three episodes end with MRSEC faculty and researchers-in-training talking about what set them on this career path and what keeps them going. In case there was any doubt, Mason says “this series was designed to inspire a wider audience of future materials researchers,” adding that “[t]he target audience is middle-school aged kids.”
The cast, made up of actual area students rather than professional actors, has a natural charm that helps make the characters relatable, and the group’s race and gender balance makes a subtle statement about inclusion — another topic that’s dear to Mason, who previously served as chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Minorities.
But what if you’re not a kid and don’t care science? If you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, Magnetic Fields may still be interesting to watch, thanks to its use of area locations. It’s not every day you get to see drone footage of the UIUC campus or eerie scenes shot at Allerton Park, and there are several scenes that will have you asking, “wait, is that where I think it is?”
Although the fourth episode resolves the series’ central conflict, the last scene introduces a twist that leaves the door open to another season of scientific explores that actually seems much more intriguing that what we’ve seen so far.
“We are still discussing what to do about another season,” Mason says. “We would definitely like to resolve the “cliffhanger”, but we also want to make sure that this series has the effect we want (in turns of click-throughs, showings in schools, etc.) before committing to another full season.”
The Magnetic Fields team has been in contact with area teachers about the possibility of setting up classroom screenings, and they hope to be able to set up screenings elsewhere down the road. Meanwhile, you can support this local film and science initiative just by watching Magnetic Fields and boosting the view count. The first episode is below; go to the MRSEC YouTube page for the next episodes and a behind-the-scenes video!