Is This the End of The Magic School Bus Era?

Children's science media is shifting away from books, but it can still be effective as long as it hinges on narrative.

Early concept art for The Magic School Bus 360 degrees, an original new animated TV series from Scholastic Media, launching on Netflix in 2016. (PRNewsFoto/Netflix)

I recently came across a copy of a relic from my childhood: The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body. In it, Ms. Frizzle, the “strangest teacher in the school,” shrinks down her class (and their bus) so they can travel through the human body. They see the digestive system hard at work, blood cells up close, and muscles in action, with quips from characters in the comic book format. On Amazon, where the book has 4.5 stars, mom Melissa Skordoulis wrote, “My daughter is 3 1/2 years old. I got this book and wasn't sure if it would be to [sic] complicated for her. She loves it!...She even drew a picture of her Daddy's red blood cells!” When I was a kid that’s how I felt, too. I even feel the same way now, reading it again.

Behind the colorful illustrations and goofy jokes, books like The Magic School Bus are packed with real science, and kids who read them come away with a better understanding. But “old-school” science media like The Magic School Bus is being phased out of today’s classrooms; the way young students are engaged in science these days doesn’t look at all like it used to. iPads are pervasive in classrooms, and field trips are replaced with webcams.

The new technology has many parents panicking about the quality of their kids’ learning. But they might find comfort in knowing that, despite the shift toward digital devices and computerized instruction, the heart of science communication still hinges on narrative.  That could mean that today’s children receive science information just as effectively as—perhaps even more effectively than— their parents did when they were children. It’s just that they’re probably not receiving as much of that information through reading.

Though disputed, some research suggests that distracted, plugged-in kids today absorb the world differently, that activities requiring undivided attention—like reading—happen less often. A report released earlier this year compared how frequently American kids of different ages spent time reading over the course of several years. In 2006, children ages four through six spent an average of 42 minutes per day reading or being read to; by 2013, average daily reading for a similar cohort—children ages five through eight—had dropped to only 32 minutes per day. Seven out of every 10 13-year-olds in 1984 read once per week or more; in 2012, that number had dropped to roughly five out of every 10 kids that age

Communicating complex scientific information clearly and concisely may sound less important now that Google and Wikipedia are just a few clicks away. But those values are still integral to effective children’s science media; when done right, such media is carefully crafted and executed. Like many other forms of science communication, an ideal children’s science book logically walks students through fundamental information and leads them to the main point. To achieve that, the creator has to make difficult editorial decisions about how much information to include and how in-depth descriptions should be. “When you’re writing about a science subject you have to take a step back and ask yourself, ‘In order for students to comprehend this story or science topic, what background knowledge do I have to make sure they have?’” said Patty Janes, who oversees the math and science publications at Scholastic, which also publishes books for students and lesson plans for teachers. Subjects that require a lot of contextual information, like chemistry, are harder to craft into a good story.

Whether or not reading is a popular pastime among today’s children, other forms of media are increasingly driven by narrative, such as video games, movies, and websites. Narrative is what resonates with students and their parents, said David Dockterman, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Our fundamental draw to find out what happens is part of what makes narrative compelling,” he said. It makes the difference between, say, a student who learns about the digestive system courtesy of Ms. Frizzle’s imaginary class field trip through the mouth and esophagus to the human stomach and one who has to do so by analyzing a textbook diagram or reading a straightforward description. Narrative isn’t a particularly efficient way to transfer information, but at least it helps kids retain it well—and allows them to have some fun while they’re learning.

It would seem, then, that narrative helps draw more people to science, and this is noteworthy particularly as it pertains to groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Girls in particular are captivated by stories, including those that involve science. But their tendency toward strong verbal skills means they often pursue careers outside STEM, such as those in communications or the humanities. By integrating STEM and narrative literature, educators hope that more girls will stick in those fields.

Dockterman developed a program called Math 180 (also put out by Scholastic) that’s designed to re-engage teenagers who are lagging several grades behind in math. Science and technology, according to Dockterman, are key to achieving that mission. For example, one video lesson about fractions takes place in the cooking class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, where students must figure out how much of each ingredient to add in a modified recipe or what size to cut certain vegetables. “Science seems more engaging because it’s applied—it’s real—and math is often not perceived that way,” Dockterman said.

Books and movies can’t always replace hands-on science experiments. But as kids get older, new forms of media can help students better understand abstract scientific concepts. “A lot of chemistry and physics is invisible, so things like apps give kids mental models to better visualize it,” Dockterman said.

Like good teachers and parents, quality science media exposes students to new information without overwhelming them. And the best way for parents and teachers to help kids absorb this new information, according to Dockterman, is by “giving [them] the right mindset.” When equipped with that mindset, kids don’t get discouraged when they try something new that seems hard; they don’t call it quits when learning new material and instead rise to the challenge.

Scholastic’s Janes advises parents and teachers to remember students’ inherent curiosity about the world and to use both digital and traditional forms of media to help them explore it. “I think no matter what direction educational publishing takes, the heart of it will always be the same,” she said. “That’s the solid nonfiction component, getting that good story no matter the medium.”