La señorita Lia woos teens to science
By Tim Stoddard
She has the courage of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the quirky intelligence of Harry Potter’s friend Hermione, and a knack for gadgetry that Spy Kids would envy. She’s Lia Montoya, a techno-savvy 14-year-old girl who navigates junior high with cool confidence, using her knowledge of science and engineering to bring mean kids to justice, invigorate her wardrobe, and ward off her annoying little brother.
Lia is the brainchild of Garland Waller, a COM assistant professor of film and television, and Leigh Hallisey, coordinator of marketing and communications at BU’s Photonics Center. Waller and Hallisey are working with colleagues at FableVision, a Boston-based media development firm, to market Lia as a television series, with an interactive Web site, classroom materials, and various retail products.
“We developed Lia out of a concern that children, particularly young girls, unconsciously move away from science and math as they grow up,” says Waller. “We thought an interesting young girl, not a Barbie or a science nerd, would reach this audience.” That group includes some 14 million American girls between the ages of 8 and 14, many of whom are avid followers of pop icons Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. “Our approach is to create someone as compelling as Britney,” says Hallisey, “someone with the outward appearance that girls want to emulate, but who also loves technology and science — and Lia’s cool because of that. In her world, learning and exploration make you cool.”
BU and FableVision recently formed a company called the Lia Project, LLC, which is collaborating with faculty and students at the National Hispanic University (NHU) in San José, Calif., to tailor Lia’s message to Latino viewers. NHU faculty and students will develop media and classroom materials and test them at the university’s high school, the Latino Preparatory Academy. As a Latina, Lia may be able to reach Hispanic kids in ways that Caucasian television characters cannot, says Waller, but she isn’t targeted exclusively for that audience. “We’re not going to make this something that only Hispanic girls are interested in,” she says. “Our central character just happens to be Hispanic.”
Lia’s name is an acronym for “light in action,” which reflects her keen interest in lasers, prisms, holograms, and devices that use light to do things ranging from detecting counterfeit concert tickets to curing sores on her friend’s pet pig. Her clothing, hair accessories, and jewelry interact with light in unusual ways. She wears a pair of color-changing chameleon jeans and totes a talking backpack. Her friend and mentor is a brilliant retired computer science teacher who keeps a “photonics lair” in the school basement that’s filled with fiber optics, lasers, lenses, and all kinds of light-based gadgets (many inspired by real-life technologies at the Photonics Center). Lia is also deft with a Palm Pilot and has considerable clout at school as the publisher of a popular webzine that covers everything from gossip to reviews of the newest MP3 players.
Lia is a unique personality, Waller says, and the Lia Project is a unique collaboration between a university and a media developer. In the late 1960s, the Children’s Television Workshop consulted with professors at Harvard to develop the educational content for the nascent Sesame Street, she says, “but it’s extraordinary in television to have an ongoing collaboration like this. To my knowledge, this has never been done before.”
Like Bill Nye the Science Guy, the Lia Project is in the “edutainment” business, captivating young audiences with science and technology and inspiring kids to pursue careers in technical fields. But the underlying goal of the project is also to boost the number of women choosing careers in science and engineering in the United States, where only 9 percent of engineers and 27 percent of computer scientists are female. “Young girls don’t see any images of female engineers as they’re growing up,” says Hallisey. “They see Bill Nye, which is a quality education show, but in terms of role models, how many eight-year-old girls say they want to grow up to be a crazy professor with nutty hair working by himself in a laboratory?”
A pop iconoclast
Lia came to life three years ago when Hallisey and Waller asked Peter Reynolds, founder and CEO of FableVision, to draw prototype sketches of their spunky heroine. Reynolds designed 16 different Lias, and field-tested them on elementary school kids, who helped him refine Lia’s appearance and optimize her coolness.
The Lia team then received a Provost’s Innovation Award in 2001 to develop a one-minute animated trailer introducing Lia and her posse of creative, hip, and techie friends. Lia gathered further momentum with a grant from BU’s Community Technology Fund to develop a “story bible” for pitching the show to television networks.
The Lia Project is now looking for corporate sponsorship to fund different endeavors. Waller and Hallisey are floating the idea of a musuem and mall tour that would include a laser show, music and dancing, holograms, and kiosks describing Lia’s background and mission. Lia’s Web site, www.liaonline.com, is up and running, and will eventually serve as a venue for the “edu” part of the project’s edutainment. “Education in television is a dirty word,” says Waller. “If you’re going to create programming for kids, you can’t make it heavy lifting for them. The TV show is not going to hit you over the head with education or technology. It’s going to be something where you think, ‘This is a cool story — maybe I’ll go to the Web site and see just how she makes those things.’”
The Web site will also publish Lia’s webzine, and may host chat rooms for kids to discuss what they see on the show. It will offer opportunities to learn more about the Photonics Center and the College of Communication. And don’t be surprised if you start seeing Lia’s face on various products in department stores. Her interest in light opens the door to many merchandising possibilities, Hallisey says, and the licensed products won’t diminish her educational impact. Sesame Street depends in large part on revenues from products such as Tickle Me Elmo, which fuel the show’s educational enterprise. “We want Lia to be part of popular culture and in the kids’ minds all the time,” she says, “but the idea is to draw kids so that they are really interested in this technology.”