A Pop of Learning: Mike Watanabe ’91

To help kids understand the coronavirus, Mike Watanabe ’91 recently invited Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to participate in an episode of BrainPOP, a popular online series that teaches elementary students about science, social studies and current events. For the playful segment, the sought-after National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director explained what role kids play in combatting COVID-19 and what steps they can take to protect themselves and their families.

It was just one episode in BrainPOP’s extensive library of short, animated videos that break down complex subjects – everything from cells to civil rights – to help children learn important things, like in this case, how to stay healthy and not spread the virus.

BrainPOP was founded in 1999, when Avraham Kadar, a pediatric immunologist in New York City, sought a clear, lively way to explain to a young patient what happens when she has an asthma attack. Kadar hired Watanabe, a sculpture artist newly graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, to animate a video. “Part of his real idea there is that if you don’t understand something, it can be scary,” Watanabe said. “Helping kids to understand some of that stuff can counter all that fear. It can really be empowering for kids.”

As chief creative officer, Watanabe conceptualizes BrainPOP’s style and animates most of its main characters – all from Honolulu, where he works remotely and his two children (Ian ’23 and Benjamin ’26) attend Punahou. He remains the voice for the main character, Tim, and his robot friend, Moby, beginning most episodes with the now famous line, “Dear Tim and Moby.”

With a global reach of millions of students, including Punahou students, educators are now tapping BrainPOP as a go-to resource for distance learning. This spring, as a public service, BrainPOP offered its content free to all schools and parents affected by the pandemic, leading to a presence at 70% of K – 8 schools in the country. The company also created built-in assignments into episodes and provided support for co-teaching. “Online education is something that I think was becoming part of a balanced education diet, and now that it’s the main course. There are a lot of challenges, even for digital platforms like us,” Watanabe said.

Events this past spring, like the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, also spurred the
creation of BrainPOP News, which included the Fauci episode.

“Everyone was looking to us and asking what we were going to do,” Watanabe said. “Because we have a voice, we can talk directly to kids and help them to understand what’s going on. We try to look at what a kid might actually ask about this and figure out what the most important context a child needs in order to make sense of a situation like this.”

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