Ring, a graduate student at Montana State University's Science and Natural History Filmmaking MFA program, watches shows such as "Sponge Bob" to figure out how to make science information more palatable for children -- particularly older children.
"Children have a natural love for science, but even before sixth grade, kids stop watching educational television," Ring said. "I want to make science (films) that children like to watch, that keeps them coming back."
Ring's passion and talent in children's programming was recently recognized nationally when he was named a winner of a Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship given by the Academy of Television Arts and Science Foundation, the organization that awards Emmys. As one of four winners, Ring received a $10,000 award and will be mentored for a year by professionals in children's programming.
Ring and the other winners received their awards in Los Angeles. Ring met Joanne Rogers, Mr. Rogers' widow. Actor David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," hosted the event.
"The money definitely helps -- I'm a poor graduate student. But the connections and mentorship in the children's television industry may be even more valuable," he said.
Mentoring is something Ring knows a little about -- but he is usually on the other side, mentoring children.
In addition to working on an MFA and working as a cameraman at KUSM, Ring teaches Spanish at Monforton School near Bozeman. Since receiving his undergraduate degree in both biology and Spanish from Lewis and Clark College, Ring has taught science and conservation throughout the world. For example, this summer he was one of four leaders of a National Geographic youth expedition in Costa Rica. He also worked as a leader of a group of Iraqi students who visited Bozeman this summer. He also has received a Tropical Research Institute Fellowship in the Panamanian rainforest and tutored children at the Casa de Acogida orphanage in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was a wildlife-monitoring coordinator with Americorps, an urban bird surveyor in Seattle, a salmon surveyor for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, a research assistant for a chemical and biological analysis of lakes in Alaska, and a research technician for a radio telemetry study of pygmy rabbit populations in northern Utah.
He said his experiences make him believe that compelling science education has broader implications for global conservation efforts.
"My philosophy is that there is not enough science information that gets to people so that they can understand conservation and conservation issues, and I'd like to change that," Ring said.
Ring said today's children are sophisticated visual consumers. Media such as video games, the Internet, music videos and even graphic novels are popular with them. He studies those media and hopes to adapt them to attract pre-teens and teens to learn more about science.
"The integration of different media technology is where I see their interest going," he said.
He points out that kids learn a good deal of information about science outside the classroom. That's why it's important that they are getting accurate information, he said.
Ring said his award will help him test his theories. He has already produced four films for focus groups--a music video and a live action fiction shoot with motion graphics, and both of those genres without motion graphics. The scholarship will fund a final film based on feedback from those initial films and guidance from experts in the children's television industry.
The intersection of Ring's interests in science and filmmaking is what brought him to MSU. His brother, who was once an undergraduate in MSU's School of Film and Photography, recommended MSU's graduate program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking."It was exactly what I was looking for," he said.
Dennis Aig, director of MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, said Ring's award is especially significant because Ring competed against young filmmakers in many academic film programs, not just those in science and natural history.
"The scholarship represents an important recognition for our program by the leading television arts organization in the country," Aig said.
Ring said about two years ago a colleague forwarded him an email announcing the Mr. Rogers competition and suggested Ring's work aligned with the award. He thought about his application for about a year, and when he sent it off, he felt like he "hit all the bullet points" and it was a solid application. Yet, he was pleasantly surprised when he learned he was a winner.
"I was thrilled, of course. This is the direction that I want to take my career and this felt like a door was opening."
Dennis Aig (406) 994-6216, firstname.lastname@example.org