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Can A New ‘Magic School Bus,’ With Help From Netflix, Make America’s Kids Love Science?

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"Can A New ‘Magic School Bus,’ With Help From Netflix, Make America’s Kids Love Science?"

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Early concept art for "The Magic School Bus 360°." Arnold is SO wishing he'd stayed home today.

Early concept art for “The Magic School Bus 360°.” Arnold is SO wishing he’d stayed home today.

Seatbelts, everyone! Brand new episodes of The Magic School Bus are coming soon to an internet near you.

Netflix ordered 26 episodes of The Magic School Bus 360°, a new original series based on the classic children’s show, from Scholastic Media. The CG-animated half-hour episodes will be on Netflix in 2016 (no word yet if they’ll go up week-by-week or, as is the usual Netflix way, all at once). Netflix spokesperson Jenny McCabe told me that the original Magic School Bus “is one of the most popular educational shows we have.” After the success of both Magic School Bus and Clifford the Big Red Dog (also a Scholastic property), Netflix realized they’d hit on a sweet spot: Scholastic programming was connecting with the kids (and nostalgic twenty-somethings and parents) who watch shows on the site. “This is an opportunity to build on that relationship [with Scholastic],” said McCabe, that will be “a new, updated version of [the show], keeping the same principles of making learning fun and having a female science teacher.”

The Magic School Bus started as a book series and quickly expanded into television; the series premiered on PBS in September 1994 and went on to become the longest-running children’s science program, eventually going off the air (by this time, on Qubo) in 2012.

This news, coming on the heels of LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter, sure makes it seem like the children’s educational entertainment world is catering to the nostalgia of the world’s twenty-somethings. (In accordance with New York Times Styles Rules, it takes three to make a trend, so I can’t call this official yet. But we’re almost there! If I may humbly make a bid for the return of my personal favorite, Wishbone, so this wave can commence in earnest?)

To get the backstory on this Magic School Bus revival, I spoke with Scholastic Media President and Executive Producer of The Magic School Bus 360° and the original Magic School Bus series, Deborah Forte. She talked about the strengths and limitations of television as an educational tool, the casting of Ms. Frizzle—Lily Tomlin took a little arm-twisting to get behind the wheel of the bus—and the urgency of getting kids, especially girls, passionate about science.

Why is now the time to revive the Magic School Bus in episodic form?
We all know is that the United States is falling behind more and more when it comes to rankings in terms of science and math. At the same time that that’s happening, we’re seeing that, because of more rigorous standards in the schools, the teachers have less science backgrounds—many of them don’t have any science background—and with the new standards, they’re putting a real emphasis on literacy, because they really have to, and there’s not as much time available to teach science. STEM is so important to our future as a country, a country that has depended upon innovation and entrepreneurialism and leadership.

All of these teachers have told us that kids are more able to understand and retain information if it’s actively engaging them. And the Magic School Bus—we saw this when we did it originally—in addition to the fact that it has real science information in it, does something television does really well. Television is maybe not be the absolute best way to introduce facts, but television for children is a really powerful way to introduce behavior, through narrative. And one of the keys to learning science is doing science: it’s the behavior of experimenting and collaborating. So the scientific method is illustrated so beautifully in these rousing adventures. They’re one part fantastic but the other part real science.

Another thing that’s really important about the Magic School Bus is that kids learn better when they can be social, and science is social. In all of these stories, friends get together and go out on these incredible adventures that allow them to experiment, discover and explore together. And that’s what the process of learning and science is for real scientists.

Did you get more feedback about the Magic School Bus after the old episodes initially became available on Netflix? Did you notice a heightened interest in the show?
I think every time we put it out as something new, in a new environment, we always see an uptick. But that said, there has been a very consistent demand for this show and kids love the show. When you talk to kids about Magic School Bus, they regard it as a really fun adventure series. And we’re proud of the fact that it has a female teacher hero at its core, who is also a scientist. Kids love it because it’s fun: the bus transforms, Ms. Frizzle is wild and enigmatic. And kids learn by doing, and in the Magic School Bus, no one is telling them the answers. They are experiencing the process of finding the answers for themselves.

But it’s always been available in some form. It was on TV for 18 consecutive years, it’s been on home video and now it’s on Netflix.

How do you see the show needing to adapt to 2014 audiences? Some aspects of entertainment and education are universal, but the way kids consume content has changed so much since the show premiered.
The way in which kids consume entertainment and content, that’s different, [and that’s] made possible by services like Netflix [which] allow kids to be much more in control, and to watch television the way they like to watch it: when they can and when they want to.

I think that, Magic School Bus, certainly in terms of the characters and the conceit, does not need to be reinvented. However, a lot has happened in the field of science and technology since we did the original series 25 years ago. And we would really like to take this opportunity to be able to incorporate a lot of that into the topics, into the design of the show. Our bus can take on all sorts of new designs. And the way in which the kids can use technology, not as an answer, but as a tool to help them in the process, is very relevant to the way that people are learning now and the way that scientists can both share information and enhance information.

How much of your fan base is millennials? Is a lot of this interest in the show coming from young parents who grew up with the show and want to have it for their kids, as opposed to children just finding it for themselves?
We have a huge fan club of millennials. There’s a hilarious, a comedy troupe of millennials who did this sort of mock Magic School Bus movie trailer, a parody, and it is absolutely hilarious. Something that I found really fun about it and rewarding is that every signature phrase of every single character was incorporated. These kids must have been absolute devotees of Magic School Bus.

Talk a bit about the origin story of the Magic School Bus.
The Magic School Bus, like all of the shows that I produce, has been born out of a perceived need… When we originally did the show, we were hearing a lot from elementary grade science teachers that said there wasn’t really a lot for kids… and they were seeing that particularly girls and minorities were opting out of science by the third grade. And they didn’t really have a lot of content available that was motivational, that was inspiring, that was turning kids on to science. And so we decided there was a wonderful editor there at the time, who has passed away, Craig Walker. And he really came up with the original idea to do a project like Magic School Bus, really to fill that need. Because in the book space in particular, most of the science books were fairly dry, non-fiction. So we sort of combined the idea of a teacher hero that was one part Mary Poppins, one part astronaut-physicist-scientist, and to inject and element of magic with the bus, and really package that around basic science concepts and the scientific method: that each story would be about kids doing science.

We did a few books and then we decided to do the TV series, which was at the time a much bigger enterprise. We got support from the National Science Foundation so we could do some research. Most of what we were exploring was: is there a real need for this, can television help to address that need, and if we did outreach that corresponded to the television, could we make a difference? The answer was yes to all.

So the choice to make your hero a female science teacher, that was a very conscious decision on your part, because young girls weren’t sticking with science?
Yes, indeed. There was a need to make an elementary grade teacher a hero, because many elementary grade teachers, we all know, are the people who inspire kids. So many of them are so dedicated and make such a huge difference in the lives of kids. And we looked around and said, no one is making these teachers really heroes, particularly in animated programming for kids. And wouldn’t it be fun to have that teacher hero a scientist? And female?

How did Lily Tomlin become the voice of Ms. Frizzle?
That was sort of interesting. She is a supreme talent. She is one of the pioneers in the advancement of comedy and certainly women in comedy, and a smart comedian, and we very much wanted her to play Ms. Frizzle, and it took a lot of convincing. I remember going to her house at one point, trying to convince her to do this. And she finally said yes… She understood far beyond the performance and the show itself, the kind of impact and benefit this show could have.

Lily Tomlin, the voice of Ms. Frizzle and also one of our nation's funniest humans.

Lily Tomlin, the voice of Ms. Frizzle and also one of our nation’s funniest humans.

CREDIT: Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP

What were her reservations?
I don’t think she’d ever done an animated show before. I don’t think she’d done a children’s show… She had never done anything quite like this. And I think once she saw how passionate we were about her, we were very, very fortunate that she said yes.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the Magic School Bus would take off with kids. But were people expecting the series to be so successful?
I have this expression: we dig when others drag. If you do something that’s somewhat unique in the landscape, and you really feel that there is a need for it, it has a purpose. We’ve been very successful with that approach… With Magic School Bus, everyone told us you couldn’t combine real science, factual information, and have it work in a cartoon. Those two ideas were at odds with each other, and that was not true at all.

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