The Message Is the Medium

October 25, 1995 9 min read
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Next year, Scholastic will celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Magic School Bus. Nearly a decade ago, the first installment of the award-winning book series introduced children across the country to Ms. Frizzle, the beloved character known as “America’s favorite science teacher.” Since then, more than 12 million copies of the seven original series titles have gone into print--translated into seven languages and distributed in 11 countries.

What’s more, the popular series has spawned a successful PBS animated television show and an interactive CD-ROM software package, not to mention a traveling museum exhibit, filmstrips, and audiocassette recordings.

Although teachers do not use The Magic School Bus as a traditional textbook, the series and its popular spinoffs are widely used as supplemental materials in many elementary school classrooms and homes. Each of the different media--the book, the TV show, and the CD-ROM--offers teachers and parentsa different way of presenting the same information and students a different way to learn that information.

To find out more about how different media can cater to different learning styles, Education Week went straight to the experts--the people at Scholastic behind The Magic School Bus book series, television show, and software program. Here’s what they had to say about making science fun for children.

In many ways, The Magic School Bus was a first for Scholastic. As an informational storybook, it was a combination of fact and fiction--with a healthy dose of humor thrown in. Editors wondered if the mix would alienate teachers and librarians, who usually like to keep the genres separate. It was also one of the few times that author and illustrator were allowed to meet in person at the outset and throughout the collaboration. Generally, in making picture books, the editor serves as intermediary.

The risk in innovative publishing paid off. From the publication of the first book, it became apparent that this unusual format was indeed attracting youngsters to science, learning, and reading. Children from all around the country send the books’ author-illustrator team letters about their favorite stories. Teachers and parents write to tell them about how the books have motivated their children to learn science and helped them feel comfortable teaching science. University professors have even written to tell them that their introductory geology students are reading the book. And countless requests have come for The Magic School Bus to expand its explorations into the study of humanities and the social sciences.

After extensive research and consultation with specialists, author Joanna Cole began the creative process with a dummy book that featured narrative presented in a traditional format, reports in the margins (because she loved writing reports as a child), and speech bubbles, another way of presenting more information and including more jokes. She modeled the classroom after her elementary school (circa 1950s), which was way ahead of its time in emphasizing experiments, group projects, and writing. She modeled the teacher after her own teacher. But in The Magic School Bus classroom, the teacher would also be wacky in some way, and the students would tell readers what they were really thinking about school, their teacher, their class trip.

The illustrator for such a book would also have to be willing to do incredible amounts of research to tackle a text-laden, 48-page book (most picture books are 32 pages) and still find room for the pictures. The book would have to be designed with ample space for both text and art but visually still function as a seamless whole. Bruce Degen met the challenge. He successfully translated the author’s words into intricately designed paintings that combined technical accuracy, dramatic interest, and visual jokes of his own.

And so, in October 1986, children’s book readers made the acquaintance of a schoolteacher with red frizzy hair. She was the strangest teacher in school. She wore strange clothes and strange shoes and strange earrings. But the way she acted was strangest of all.

Because she loved science and loved to teach science, she made her students read five science books a week. She asked her students to grow mold from old bread and make models of garbage dumps. She had them collect 10 interesting facts about water. (Surely there weren’t more than four and a half.) She took her class on field trips, too. But while other kids were going to the zoo and the circus, Ms. Frizzle was taking her class to see the waterworks, from the water’s point of view. Her students would turn into raindrops, become part of the water cycle, and enter into the reservoir and water-purification system.

As Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen continue to create new titles in The Magic School Bus series, Ms. Frizzle will continue to share her love of science with students as they embark on each journey of scientific inquiry.


About four years ago, Scholastic began work on an educational science television project that would bolster science education for children. The result: a groundbreaking PBS science TV series called “The Magic School Bus.” Based on the book series of the same name, the program first aired in fall 1994.

Guided by suggestions from practicing scientists, science educators, and media specialists, Scholastic designed the television series to reach elementary school children--particularly girls and minorities--before they are “turned off” to science.

As in the books, Ms. Frizzle steals the show. The inquiry-based elementary teacher sees the world as her science laboratory. Whether it’s through an exploration of a student’s digestive system or a field trip through the water cycle, she enables her class of eight students to experience science firsthand. Rather than talking to them about science, she gives them the chance to experience science. In doing so, her students model attitudes, strategies, and actions that young readers can turn into successful science learning.

Each episode of “The Magic School Bus” focuses on a single science concept with a deliberately limited set of science ideas. These concepts come to life through plot, action, and dialogue grounded in science-inquiry teaching and learning methods.

But for any educational television series to win over children, it must also have entertainment value. Scholastic’s strategy for translating The Magic School Bus books into television was animation, the medium most loved by elementary school children. But the show’s animated environments have to be more than typical cartoon backdrops; the series requires complex, detailed visuals that communicate science information richly. So Scholastic provides its animators at Nelvana Ltd. with a “science bible” of film footage, videotapes, and photographs to make sure the show’s animated animals look and move as they do in nature and the environments Ms. Frizzle’s class visits exhibit the color, texture, and diversity they do in real life.

The character-driven shows zero in on the personalities, talents, and learning styles of each of Ms. Frizzle’s students. The creators have also taken care to make sure leadership, assertiveness, and intellectual ability are equally distributed in the class. And two new characters, Keesha and Carlos, add a consistent multicultural mix to the classroom. Each of these developments underscores the message that science is for everyone.

Another addition to the television series is “The Producer,” a character who appears at the end of each episode and provides a “visual reality check” by answering questions from hypothetical viewers. The Producer reassures children that buses don’t really fly and children cannot get swallowed by a classmate. This part of the program shows children actively asking questions--often challenging an adult--and encourages young viewers to engage in critical thinking for themselves.

With colorful animation and star power--Lily Tomlin as Ms. Frizzle and dozens of stars in cameo roles--"The Magic School Bus” on television reaches millions of children every day. From every indication, the series has earned its own special place in kids’ hearts and minds.


When Scholastic teamed up with Microsoft Home to create “The Magic School Bus” software, the designers faced an exciting creative challenge: How to do justice to this successful and well-known Scholastic book and television property and maximize the advantages presented by the multimedia format?

It was clear that the educational goals of the software should be consistent with those of the book and TV series: to present simple science concepts, appropriate to elementary school children, in a captivating way. Although the goals were the same, the multimedia format presented project designers with some unusual opportunities.

Interactivity was perhaps the most interesting part of the job. After all, that’s what makes multimedia different from print and television: The software demands direct participation from the user to keep the experience going; children are consistently called upon to make choices that direct their own path through the product. A well-designed software product should be different for every user and even different for the same user each time he or she sits down to play. That means the science information must be presented in a nonlinear way--a real challenge when conveying key science concepts to the target group of children between the ages of 6 and 10.

In beginning the design process, Scholastic and Microsoft Home brought in an educator who specializes in teaching science to young children. This teacher outlined the major science concepts to be presented in each area of the product. The intention was not to simply present factual information, nor to present science concepts in a linear fashion, but to establish important concepts that were reiterated throughout the software. Since we could not control how the child would ultimately use the product, our strategy was to use repetition and reinterpretation as a means of reinforcing important information.

The outcome is best demonstrated by how children interact with the CD-ROM. Whether it’s finding which planet Ms. Frizzle is on or locating the ocean treasure, “winning” involves acquiring knowledge the child uncovers through interaction, either by exploring “The Magic School Bus” environment, conducting science experiments, or by hearing, reading, and seeing multimedia reports. Learning and discovery are the key elements in playing “The Magic School Bus” software.

The first two software titles, Scholastic’s “The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body” and “The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System” have received the Software Publishers Association Codie Awards for Best Elementary Education Software. The third title, “The Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean,” has just recently been released.

Scholastic hopes that teachers and parents will use “The Magic School Bus” software to complement its book and the television series. But, ultimately, the designers hope the software will support the central theme behind each of Ms. Frizzle’s lessons--that science is for everyone.


A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1995 edition of Education Week as The Message Is the Medium


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