How a ‘Magic School Bus’ reboot could help nurture girls’ interest in STEM fields


Rendering courtesy of Scholastic Media

Way before the Obama administration pushed to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, we had a crazy, animated, red-headed science teacher who sported dinosaur dresses without a trace of irony and had an infectious passion for learning.

Ms. Frizzle, the wacky doyenne of school field trips voiced by Lily Tomlin on the show “Magic School Bus,” was smart. She loved science and she was fearless about it. She was a nerd and she was a likable one. So often, “nerd” has become synonymous with “hapless, poorly socialized male,” and Ms. Frizzle was none of those things. She busted stereotypes about women and threw open the doors of science to everyone, and that was significant.

The show ended in 1997, but soon, Ms. Frizzle and her reality-defying bus will be making a comeback. Netflix has ordered 26 episodes of a reboot of the popular television show, which it plans to start streaming in 2016.

The timing is good.

In a report for NPR, Shankar Vendentam noted that psychologists found a phenomenon called stereotype threat could have an effect on the performance of women and girls in STEM subjects. Essentially, it works like this:

Steele and his colleagues found that when women were reminded — even subtly — of the stereotype that men were better than women at math, the performance of women in math tests measurably declined. Since the reduction in performance came about because women were threatened by the stereotype, the psychologists called the phenomenon ‘stereotype threat.’

So vibrant examples like Ms. Frizzle, as well as her real-life counterparts, become important. With so much attention being directed at encouraging girls to engage in STEM subjects and getting women to stick with their careers in the same area, a “Magic School Bus” reboot seems especially prescient. Netflix, which already streams the original series, is launching the new version in partnership with Scholastic Media, the company that produced the original series. Scholastic published the series on which the book is based. “The Magic School Bus 360°” will come from computer-generated animation and will feature new technology such as robots and smart suits.

Part of the push to get girls more involved in STEM includes visibility, according to a study on the subject done by the Girl Scouts. “Girls are interested in STEM fields and aspire to STEM careers the study shows, but need more exposure and adult support to carry this interest into the future,” the Girl Scout Research Institute said in 2012.

The news may be adding more fuel to a wave of nostalgia for 90s children’s television. After the success of Levar Burton’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign, NPR had some suggestions of other popular shows that deserve a reboot. Among them: “Wishbone” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

h/t New York Times

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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