Peep and the Big Wide World – Problem solving’s for the birds

Overview of the show: Peep and the Big Wide World is an animated episodic series that stars Peep the chick, Chirp the robin, and Quack the duck. Together these three friends explore their world and discover how it works.
The primary focus of Peep is to teach basic science in an entertaining manner – each episode the characters face problems and try to solve them using different methods and ideas.
The show is simply but cleanly animated; the characters are all brightly coloured and the backdrops are interesting to look at.
The recurring theme of the show is of discovery, adventure and exploration – all excellent messages for young children to hear.

The Magic Schoolbus – A Reason to Stay Home

Age Levels Targeted:

5-12

Background:
The Magic Schoolbus is an animation version of a successful series of books. I actually discovered the books first back in my days managing a second hand bookstore. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore is that you have first shot at all the new merchandise as it comes in (of course one could also call this a disadvantage as you can find yourself spending your salary in a hurry). In the case of the Magic Schoolbus books I literally had to grab myself any ones I didn’t have yet before putting them on the shelves because parents would snatch them the moment they went on. While the books are excellent, it seems to me that the animated series actually improved upon the books, covering a lot more ground in greater detail than the books while leaving it just as child friendly.

Overview of the show:

The series is based on a very unusual third grade class at Walkerville Elementary school. The students themselves are a perfectly ordinary all-American class such as you might find anywhere in the US. The student body is a cross section of religions, races and colors with a range of scientific knowledge. What’s so unusual about this class is the one who conducts it: Ms. Frizzle.

Ms. Frizzle is the science teacher we all wish we’d had in school for pretty much any subject. While she may often dress and act strangely it’s regarded as being delightfully eccentric rather than laughable. Because what Ms. Frizzle has is a school bus. This isn’t any ordinary bus. The bus is magic and can shrink, grow, change form and do all sorts of other things as necessary to facilitate Ms. Frizzle’s in depth field trips.

The series action all centers on Ms. Frizzle’s field trips. These are hardly state board of education approved or the kind of trips you or I had in school. Ms. Frizzle sees every question her students ask as ‘inspiration for investigation’ (ok I’m not sure she ever uses that actual line but with her tendency to use rhyme exclamations it’s the kind of thing she would say and with the sheer number of times I’ve watched it with my kids just thinking of her has obviously taken its toll on my speech). She challenges the kids by literally bringing them into the process or situation they’ve asked about. Thus they learn about the planets by having the bus become a spaceship and taking a tour of our solar system.



They learn about how honey is made by becoming bees and saving a hive and learn about heat because without it they’ll freeze in the arctic.

The series is highly entertaining as a kid’s science series. However while it is aimed at the 5-12 age bracket, it can be of valuable use for all ages. I’ve heard of it being used in high school and even college and I learn things from it as an adult. The scientific information it imparts is solid without factual mistakes or ‘dumbing down for the kids’ sake’. Kids interested in understanding how the world works will adore this show. My kids are always asking me to get them more. This is an ideal show to get your kid started on understanding their universe.

The Main Characters:
The Bus
Yes, the bus, though it never speaks is a character on the show. It has its own personality and communicates with Ms. Frizzle. It’s not precisely anthropomorphized most of the time but it does often seem to be petlike. In one episode it actually becomes a bear and goes off in the city foraging for food. It is capable of becoming any type of craft necessary as well as some things that have no relation to any kind of machine.
Valerie Frizzle
‘The Frizz’, Walkerville elementary’s star teacher is the teacher we all wish we’d had in school. Quirky and eccentric with her red hair and outrageous outfits, she makes frontal lessons seem an affront. She’s always taking her students on field trips to go investigate phenomena that have arisen in daily life so that, for example, when Arnold wants to know why his hot cocoa has gone cold she takes the class to the arctic to learn about heat and cold and when Ralphie gets sick she takes the class for a field trip inside Ralphie’s body to learn about how the body defends against sickness.
Voiced by veteran actress Lily Tomlin, Ms. Frizzle’s origins are maintained as a teasing secret throughout the series. We do have hints dropped about her past careers here and there such as finding out that she used to work in recycling and that she toured with her own band for awhile. We also learn about her family as she’s regularly quoting them. In one episode we even find out that she had an ancestor pirate who used to take people on field trips on his magic galleon. But she’s clearly not in her first year at Walkerville elementary as we learn when a student from an older grade says ‘she took us on that trip last year’.
Liz
Liz is the class mascot, pet and at the same time Ms. Frizzle’s assistant. She goes on many of the class trips with them and often drives the bus herself and is on occasion left by Ms. Frizzle as the substitute teacher. In one episode she is actually the star as the children learn about lizards.
Outside of that episode Liz doesn’t add much educational value to the series but does provide endearing comic relief which keeps kids coming back (and thus exposing them to the rest of the show) so her value may be more than meets the eye.
Dorothy Ann
Dorothy Ann, whose last name we never learn during the series, is the class brain and resident bookworm. She’s always doing research on any subject that comes up and is often the catalyst for Ms. Frizzles field trips either because she can’t find the necessary information or because the information she finds seems implausible or at odds with someone else’s (usually Carlos’ or Ralphie’s) claim. At this point, Ms. Frizzle tends to decide that the class to discover the truth for themselves. While noone discounts the importance of book learning, the series makes it clear that books can often take you only so far and that books alone without your own experience won’t give you the whole picture. Dorothy Ann finally realizes this for herself in the episode “The Magic School Bus Blows its Top” where she loses her schoolbooks but then is awakened to all the facts she’s managing to learn through experience when she doesn’t use her books as a crutch.



Arnold while often the one whose curiosity is the cause of field trips (such as the trip to the arctic inspired by his dismay over where the heat from his no longer hot cocoa’s gone) is the one member of the class seemingly not too keen on the trips. Yet despite this, he’s clearly happy to be in the class and proud of having gone on the trips after the fact as is clear from the bragging about it he’s clearly been doing about it to his cousin Janet that she reveals to us in the Lost in Space episode. While Arnold’s Judaism is generally not a huge issue in the show it does play a part in the holiday special episode when the class decide to give up seeing the Nutcracker Suite showing they’d planned on attending in order to be with Arnold on the first night of Hanuka.
Phoebe Terese
Phoebe’s rolein the show is to keep reminding us how different Walkerville elementary in general and Ms. Frizzle’s class in particular is from what one would expect at most schools. Throughout the series whenever anything incredible happens Phoebe always notes that ‘in my old school we weren’t allowed to…’ anything from going inside a chicken’s egg to turning into salmon.
Phoebe is an exceptionally shy soul as we discover when she’s given the starring role of the class play in the ‘gets planted episode

Ralphie Tennelli
Ralphie is the class jock which is emphasized by the baseball cap he wears and his constant references to sports. In class he mostly tends to daydream about such things as hitting the winning homerun but he enjoys the field trips as much as anyone else, especially in the episode where the class learns about friction while trying to play baseball in a world in which there is none.

Carlos Ramon
Carlos is the class clown who always has a groaner of a pun or joke for any situation. His corny jokes are always sure to elicit a “Car-los!” from his groaning classmates. We discover in the “going batty episode that he gets this from his father whose similar jokes elicit a “Mr. Ramon!” from his fellow parents. Carlos serves as an antithesis of Dorothy Anne, preferring to use his hands, mind and intuition to come to conclusions as opposed to her research style.
Wanda Li
If Carlos is the antithesis to Dorothy Anne, Wanda plays a similar role to Arnold. The class’ spunky Chinese tomboy is always gung-ho to seek out and make new discoveries regardless of the risks. Wanda’s an interesting combination of soft and hard, loving the ballet and caring about her friends on the one hand, while engaging them in debate and challenging them not to be afraid on the other hand.
Keesha Franklin
Keesha is the sarcastic class skeptic and plays the foil to Ralphie who tends to have his head in the clouds.
Tim
The class artist, Tim can usually be found sketching away at something (usually a picture of one of his classmates engaged in the class’ adventures. He’s a quiet boy who rarely plays a central role of any kind in the series. The one exception to this is the episode in which the class helps him deliver honey from his grandfather’s honeybee farm.

Janet Perlstein

I hesitated as to whether or not to include Janice as a major character. She’s not really a member of Ms. Frizzle’s class and only appears in a limited number of episodes. However she tends to be a major character whenever she is in an episode and she’s mentioned so often even when not there that I figured I’d include her.

Academic skills the show teaches:

The show encourages scientific and analytical thinking, stimulates curiosity and encourages innovative thinking. Although Ms. Frizzle clearly always has the answers to the problems herself, she often lets the kids work their own way out of the situations the bus has landed them in. Thus for example in the episode The Magic Schoolbus gets Planted where Phoebe is turned into a plant and must reason through the process of plant growth in order to grow into a beanstalk on time to do the school play proud


Social skills the show teaches:

The show encourages cooperation among peers. It fosters respect for each others ideas and being willing to consider that one’s own preconceived notions may be wrong or flawed. And of course it encourages kids to consider that their teachers may have a wealth of knowledge and interesting things to teach them which in these days of almost automatic disrespect for teachers is a valuable lesson unto itself.

My Kids Perspective

My kids have all adored this show. Even my daughter, whose been enjoying it in kindergarten and is a real science buff (this is a child who in the 3rd grade created a 41 slide powerpoint presentation on the periodic table on her own initiative and delivered it to her class) still enjoys the show as she approaches her teens and my 3 year old is mesmerized by it as well though he doesn’t really understand what’s going on yet (just enough to say he wants the ‘magic school BUS’ emphasis on last word his). They also enjoy the books of the magic schoolbus which parallel the various episodes so that one could say it inspires reading as well.

Site Review
The Magic Schoolbus is one of the best shows out there for introducing kids to science. It is very in step with a major philosophy of this site which is that even within the school framework children learn best through seeing and experiencing the subject matter that needs to be absorbed. Ms. Frizzle is a teacher who clearly understands this.

One of the show’s major characters, Arnold, is probably best known for his line “I should have stayed home today.” As a kid I remember that there were educational shows, such as The Magic Garden, that I felt were worth staying home for and at times I’d even fake sickness to watch them that were worth staying home for to the extent that I even once skipped a scheduled morning school trip to an ice cream factory in order to have a chance to be home in the early afternoon and watch the show (ok so maybe I wasn’t completely your typical kid).  The Magic Schoolbus is just such a show. Hopefully your kids love of learning will encourage them to want to spend time in school rather than staying at home watching TV. Of course you could have the best of all worlds by just buying the shows. But if your kids are at home for whatever reason this is the kind of show you want them to be watching.

Anecdotal: in my daughter’s kindergarten, part of the birthday party festivities required the birthday child and their parent to provide an activity for the kids. Most of the kids would do some simple activity like reading a story or makinga quiz about the child. Not my daughter! She decided she wanted to have everyone perform the volcano experiment based on the episode the Magic schoolbus blows its top. So the kids all got cups of baking soda and materials to pour into it to try and find what would and what wouldn’t cause an explosive chemical reaction allowing them to blow up a balloon.

Similar shows: Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sid the Science Kid, Cyberchase, Mister Wizard

Bill Nye The Science Guy Who Always Knows Why

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a PBS educational TV program about science that was created and ran on television in the mid 1990s. The show was produced by Walt Disney’s educational division and hosted by scientist Bill Nye, a former assistant of Christopher Lloyd’s when he’d perform his experiments on the animated series version of ‘Back to the future.’ The show is still used in many schools, having been designed as an in-school program to be used by instructors as part of the classroom curriculum. The show is applicable to a wide range of ages.

Bill Nye the Science Guy ran for 100 episodes and has spanned three spinoff science shows (so far) also hosted by Bill Nye: The Eyes of Nye, 100 Greatest Discoveries, and Stuff Happens. The original Bill Nye the Science Guy show covered topics similar to those discussed in Beakman’s World, another science show that I have discussed, that ran at around the same time and even shared a writer/director. Both shows have a great sense of humor and a fast paced method of coming directly at the young watcher and keeping him constantly engaged with the subject material thus keeping him focused.

Overview of the show:
I’ve already noted in the last section, the connection between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World. Another comparison that has often been made is between Bill Nye and Don Herbert, the famed Mr. Wizard, the ‘father’ of science teaching on TV who had two popular series of this sort. Bill onscreen is dressed as a typical scientist wearing a bow tie and lab coat and teaching people, mixing in humor while teaching the science of everyday objects and phenomena. To that extent he is similar to Herbert. But there the similarity between Herbert and his followers end. Mister Wizard is a much more straightforward ‘pure’ hands-on science show which is slower paced and thus very different from his later follower hosts such as Bill Nye and Beakman. I plan to discuss him and his shows in another entry on the site in future.
As with Beakman’s World and the Mister Wizard shows, Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show geared for the elementary school set to teach them scientific topics – and yet it’s very different from either show. For starters, it’s more focused than Beakman’s World. While Beakman’s World would try and give a taste of two or three unrelated topics on each show (for example ‘vaccinations’ and ‘friction’), Bill Nye the Science Guy almost always focused on a single topic which Nye would come at from a wide variety of angles and in a varied selection of places. Location is another major difference. On Beakman’s World, all the action happens inside Beakman’s laboratory. Bill Nye the Science Guy couldn’t be more different in this respect. Bill does spend a fair amount of time in the lab, with most shows starting with him walking onto the set, known as “Nye Labs.” However, large sections of the show involve his getting outside. He won’t just create you a model volcano – he goes out to Mount Saint Helens to show the effects of an actual volcanic explosion.

He won’t just stick on a pair of goggles and pretend he’s flying to discuss flight – he’ll actually spend time in a plane.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is also far less insular than Beakman’s World in the matter of scientific expertise. Beakman’s lab consists of only himself, his assistant and Lester. Even when he brings so-called ‘experts’ to explain the concepts he’s teaching, the ‘experts’ are actually (and obviously) he himself, in costume. Bill Nye, on the other hand, constantly interacts with people of all ages and backgrounds outside his lab. He also works with and interviews people from outside his show, each of whom is expert in fields of study relevant to the episode’s topic of study.

Another nice touch Bill Nye the Science Guy features is the inclusion of parodied spoof song videos, wherein he takes a popular song and changes its words to explain the concept he’s been teaching during the course of the episode. This culminates in an entire episode devoted just to science through song entitled “NTV Top 11 Video Countdown.”

None of what I’ve said above, of course, should be misconstrued as an attempt to criticize either Beakman’s world, a wonderful show unto itself which I have nothing but the highest praise for, or Mister Wizard which is the pioneer of TV science shows. My point is that despite the shows’ similarity they also have a great number of differences and each of the shows, while appealing to many of the same target audiences, may strike more of a chord with different viewers so that the shows all essentially complement each other and are best used together to demonstrate various principles as I’ll note below in my anecdotal section.

The Main Characters
The two main characters on the show are Bill Nye a.k.a. ‘ Bill Nye the Science Guy ‘ and Pat Cashman who is the show’s announcer. We never see him on the show but he often interacts with Bill from offscreen. In addition to this there’s a ‘typical American family’ who appears in several episodes in comic relief. Other than that though, the characters tend to change completely from one episode to the next depending on the topic.
Types of skills the show teaches:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show that teaches scientific concepts and does so in a fun and engaging way that keeps kids attention focused so that they absorb a lot of useful educational material without feeling bored or overwhelmed. The show is appropriate for a wide range of ages. My kids started enjoying it even before they entered elementary school but I recently had someone who goes to one of the top high schools in the US tell me that they used it in his high school as well. I don’t claim to be a science expert by any means but I do find the show personally interesting, informative, and witty. It will stimulate your child to be more inquisitive about the world around him if he’s not already and will answer questions for them if they’re inquisitive already.
Site review:
To my mind this is probably the best science show out there for school level kids of the present generation. The fast pace, different ways of getting at serious subject material, the songs, and the humor all combine to create a wonderful learning environment that kids used to that kind of television can relate to. It’s real people as opposed to the animation style of the magic schoolbus (another wonderful show) which while excellent is likely to be considered babyish around the time they hit junior high. It has a wider range and scope of place then either of the other two shows I’ve mentioned in this review, Mister Wizard and Beakman’s World, which are both in-lab shows. Another major advantage is that the show was designed to be an in-school program meaning that its subject matter is likely to apply fairly specifically to subjects your kids will be taught in class.

My Kids Perspective:
My kids constantly watch and rewatch the episodes of this show and ask me to find out if there are more episodes out there that they haven’t watched yet, This has been true of all my kids at all ages. Even the youngest, who isn’t up to understanding anything in it at this point, still loves to watch it with his siblings because of the catchy music and fast moving action. They’ve constantly drawn upon facts they learned from the show in real life situations and I’ll often hear them debating scientific subjects only to have one or the other of them bring something from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The one time my kids are definitely not free to choose their TV preferences is when they have a test to study for. That is unless it’s a show where TV can help in studying for a test. I’ve found Bill Nye the Science Guy to be one of the best shows for this. Naturally this isn’t in place of their actual study material. But rare is the child who is going to study their test material non-stop before a test. They need breaks. And if they’re willing to spend the break watching TV and the program they happen to watch is an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy dealing with the test topic it can only help. Mister Wizard is also a pretty useful show for study purposes though Beakman, (except when the topic’s a perfect fit) less so. As of the time of the writing of this piece, my children have always received exceptionally high grades in science so I figure it can’t be hurting!

Anecdotal: Two or three years back, my daughter was standing with a parent who homeschools and whose kids are quite advanced educationally and her son (a high school graduate by age 14). As they were standing there a helicopter passed overhead and my friend asked “do you know what’s keeping that up?” to which her son replied ‘the rotors’ upon which my daughter, at the time around 8 piped up “no –it’s lift…and the Bernoulli effect.” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about (though I made a point to look it up afterwards – nothing wrong with learning from our kids even if they’re third graders and what they’re teaching us are principles of aerodynamic theory) but she did because she’d been watching the episode about flight

and my friend apparently did and was clearly impressed.

Another time my kids asked a friend’s father to give them trivia questions. “on what subject?” he asked. “Ask us science questions,” they begged. Jokingly he asked them “ok what’s DNA.” in unison they replied “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” It’s not often you see a man’s jaw literally drop and as he sat there agape they went onto explain to him exactly what it is and how scientists use it.

Similar shows
Beakman’s World, Mister Wizard, The Magic School Bus

Beakman’s World – Inside The Glad Scientist’s Laboratory

Age Levels targeted:
8 and up

Background:
Beakman’s World is based on a comic strip called “You can with Beakman and Jax” created by Cartoonist Jok Church in 1991 for his local paper in Marin California and quickly became syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. The TV show first aired in the 1992 fall season on The Learning Channel and, like its comic strip predecessor, quickly became a hit. Just a year after its premiere, it moved to CBS Saturday morning kid’s television lineup. The program garnered 3 Daytime Emmys during its relatively short stint on television (it ended in 1998) and was nominated for several more Daytime Emmy awards.

Overview of the show:
Eccentric scientist Beakman (played by Paul Zaloom) works in a lab in which he’s constantly performing wild and wacky experiments and exploring scientific concepts. Each show explores one or several scientific concepts through experiments and explanations. Often Beakman will teach his concept by creating ‘the Beakman challenge’ wherein he’ll bet Lester to perform a seemingly difficult feat which he is inevitably unable to do. Beakman will then show him how it can be done using science. The concepts explored come either from Beakman himself or in answer to a viewer letter (read by his female assistant) addressed to him.

The Main Characters
The main character of the show is, of course, Beakman himself, an offbeat scientist with a wild hairdo and sense of humor who fearlessly tackles a range of scientific explorations of his own, as well as those his audience at home writes in to ask him about. Besides being himself, Beakman also doubles as other characters at times in order to get his points across, some of whom can be seen in the montage below.

Aiding Beakman in his experiments is his trusty sidekick Lester, a man in a rat suit. Lester serves as the foil for Beakman’s sense of humor and is all too often the victim of his scientific pranks. Commonly Beakman will challenge Lester to do something seemingly which Lester fails at only to be shown how he could have done it using science. Much comic relief is also provided by personal jokes made by Beakman, and Lester himself, regarding Lester’s personal habits, looks and intelligence.
The other main character of the show is the role of Beakman’s female assistant, taken on in different seasons by different actresses. They served as a counterbalance to Lester, aiding Beakman with the more serious aspects of the experiments he performed and providing other technical tasks such as reading aloud the letters from the viewers at home.
Two other characters that are minor, yet appear in every show, are a pair of penguin puppets, Don and Herb (named after television’s famed Mister Wizard Don Herbert) who appear at the beginning and/or end of the show (sometimes in the middle as well watching the show on their TV at the south pole. They’re Beakman’s ‘biggest fans’ and their purpose of their segments are solely comic.

Types of skills the show teaches:
Beakman’s world is first and foremost a Science show. However mundane or wacky the experiments he performs and the facts he presents are they are all borne out by scientific experiment. The goal of the show is to show kids how to see the scientific workings of the world in virtually everything in their environment and to stimulate their curiosity and wonder about why the world around them operates and functions as it does..

Site review: This is a show that kids can really connect to and get enthusiastic about regardless of the level of scientific interest with which they initially approach it. Kids who are more scientifically minded will get swept in immediately by the varied and often unorthodox and unusual experiments performed on the show.

Kids who are less scientific minded will be so drawn in by the high concentration of humor packed into the show keeping it constantly funny even when serious scientific principles are being discussed that they tend to want to watch more. And of course as with any program you watch, you tend to pick up facts, even incidentally, while concentrating on the humor. I’ve often had my kids wanting to try out experiments they’d seen on Beakman, telling us about them or discussing it amongst themselves.

My kids perspective: My kids are constantly asking me to try and find them more episodes of this show. Unfortunately, the supply appears to be limited. I’ve put everything that I’ve managed to find in the Kiducation Corner but even so I’ve had trouble finding anything from seasons 2, 3, and 5. If anyone knows where I could get ahold of them you’ll have a thankful father here. It doesn’t matter when you see this, let me know as my kids will still probably want to watch Beakman when they’re in their 30s!

Anecdotal:

Just this past week my kids tried a “recipe” Beakman had mentioned in one of the episodes in which he created apple Jello using unflavored gelatin and apple juice. Now I don’t know what exactly went wrong but it came out tasting more like apple flavored rubber than jello. The point is that even though this was just an incidental mention in the Beakman episode in question, the moment they heard we had unflavored gelatin they rushed to try out this recipe simply because they’d ‘heard Beakman mention it’ and they wanted to see if it would taste good. Regardless of whether the failure was theirs or Beakman’s, the very fact that having gelatin in the house caused them to say ‘let’s experiment with it’ already shows a positive influence at work.

Similar shows:
Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mister Wizard