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.