Cyberchase – Math Cyberspace

Age Levels targeted:

5-12

 Background

 Cyberchase is one of the top shows out there focusing on teaching math to kids. Also, unlike such shows as ‘Square One TV’, Cyberchase is perhaps the only show with a consistent set of characters and plot.  Cyberchase is an animated adventure series produced by Thirteen/WNET in New York, that first aired in 2002 with the aim of teaching mathematical principles and ideas in a lively enjoyable way that elementary school kids could comprehend. The characters are regularly involved in fast action mystery plots only solvable through the application of mathematical solutions thus drawing kids in and necessitating that they grasp the math to understand how the case is being solved. In my opinion it’s not far-fetched to make the analogy that Cyberchase is to math what The Magic Schoolbus is to science.

 

Overview of the show:

The guardian of cyberspace, Motherboard, employs three Earth kids from real space, Jackie, Matt and Inez, who, teamed up with their friend Digit the cyboid (a cyborg bird), work tirelessly to foil the plans of the evil Hacker. Aided in his evil plans by his cyborg sidekicks Delete and Buzz, Hacker is constantly scheming to defeat Motherboard and take over cyberspace. The series action occurs in Cyberspace on places called ‘cybersites’. These cybersites often are strongly based on present or historical earth places and cultures or from popular earth fantasy. The virtual characters that live on these cybersites help the heroes  in their fights to save cyberspace in general, and often their cybersite in particular, from Hacker’s latest evil plan.

The kids main weapons in their fight against Hacker is their logical reasoning and mathematical abilities. Each episode revolves around specific mathematical concepts and principles developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The key to solving the mystery and saving Cyberspace depends on their ability to successfully employ mathematical concepts for practical use.

In addition to the main, animated, show, there is also a live-person segment called ‘Cyberchase for Real’. In this segment, two teenagers named Bianca and Harry demonstrate how useful mathematics can be in solving real life situations.

The Main Characters

Over the course of their adventures in the vast reaches of Cyberspace, Cybersquad meets up with many of its inhabitants

Motherboard

Motherboard, who resembles a mainframe computer, is the guardian of Cyberspace. She resides at the Control Central Cybersite. Her main antagonist, and former assistant, Hacker is always attempting to destroy her and take control of cyberspace. Before leaving her employ he tried to hit her with a virus which failed but has left her weak.

The Hacker

The Hacker (often called ‘Hacker’ though you risk his wrath if you do so to his face) is the series main villain and is generally the one the cybersquad needs to defeat to keep the inhabitants of Cyberspace safe. He is voiced by longtime actor Christopher Lloyd remembered well by parents from such series as 1970s’ “Taxi” and recognizable to kids from the movie and series Back to the future. He is green faced, black haired and has a jutting chin of which he is vainly proud. Dr. Marbles, Motherboard’s technician, created Hacker in order to help Motherboard. When Hacker rebelled he was exiled to a place called the Northern Frontier from which he managed to escape. He travels about Cyberspace in a ship called the Grim Wreaker.

Hacker has two cyborg henchmen named Delete and Buzz, who are of limited dependability. Often Hacker ends up having to do the jobs he assigned them himself though at times they come in useful in dealing with his hated archrival Motherboard and her Cybersquad of kids. The Cybersquad is a constant thorn in his side and it’s rare that he refers to them without attaching an (often alliterative) expletive.

Digit

Digit is a parrotlike creature originally created by Hacker to be one of his evil henchmen with Delete and Buzz. Ironically though Digit ends up abandoning Hacker to join the other side, the Cybersquad much like Hacker himself abandoned his own (and Motherboard’s) creator Dr. Marbles to set himself up against her. Upon realizing how evil Hacker was, he switched sides, taking over Hacker’s old job as assistant to Dr. Marbles before eventually being assigned to Cybersquad.

Digit works alongside the kids to defend Motherboard and Cyberspace against Hacker. Although he is able to fly using his tail feathers in a propeller fashion (and occasionally with his wings), and does so in many episodes, he prefers to walk due to acute acrophobia. As a cyboid he is able to carry items with him in his chest which can at times prove invaluable to Cybersquad.

Jackie

Jackie is an athletic African American girl with an artistic side to her. Her tendency towards order and meticulousness are usually key tools in enabling the Cybersquad to efficiently solve problems. On the other hand she also has a tendency to freak out at times when the Cybersquad are in a crisis, a trait which leaves her open to teasing from Matt

Matt

Matt is a hands-on kind of problem solver who’s best at dealing with a problem when he can touch it with his hands. If he can’t grasp a problem physically, he often holds and plays with a yoyo instead which helps him think. He’s somewhat of a packrat, collecting all sorts of useful items in his knapsack. It is hinted at in the series that he may have feelings for Inez (and she for him) despite (or perhaps evidenced by) his teasing of her and his tendency to be protective towards her.

Inez

Inez (‘don’t call me Nezzie!’) is a bespectacled nine year old Hispanic girl with a high level of diction that brings Matt’s teasing down on her frequently. Though the youngest of the kids, she’s also the most knowledgeable. Her school smarts, however, are not as useful in solving as many of their cases as Matt is with his natural talent. She tends to be a bit of a worrier, often exclaiming that a situation is ‘not good at all’ only to have it subsequently worked out by the other members of Cybersquad. Inez is the glue that keeps the Cybersquad a cohesive unit, being the one best at facilitating compromise among the group when they disagree on anything.

Buzz and Delete

Buzz, a small spherical cyborg with thin limbs and a big mouth, and his skinnier, taller comrade Delete, who’s marked by his canine snout, are Hacker’s henchmen in his evil campaign to take over cyberspace. Neither of them are as evil as Hacker and show a kind side now and again although Buzz likes to fancy himself a tough guy. Neither of them are particularly smart (Buzz can at best be described as ‘not quite so dumb as Delete’) and are generally quite easy for the Cybersquad to outwit when necessary) leaving Hacker to do all the brain work (and often the legwork as well when they botch the original assignment). On the other hand they don’t have Hacker’s overbearing ego either and often recognize that Hacker’s about to walk into a blindingly obvious trap or commit an obvious mistake that the much smarter Hacker fails to notice (or heed their warnings) out of sheer hubris. This serves as a valuable lesson to watching kids that no matter how obvious something seems or how sure one is of one’s abilities it’s important to always check one’s assumptions before blindingly rushing to a bad decision.

Other repeating characters worth mentioning are Motherboard’s technician Dr. Marbles, Wicked, another villain with a love for shopping who at times teams up with Hacker and at times opposes him, and Slider a Cyberspace inhabitant the squad helps on whom both Jackie and Inez appear to have a crush.

Academic skills the show teaches

Cyberchase teaches children firstly that there are practical uses for math all around them and secondly that anyone can understand and apply it. The show encourages kids to consider these applications in their own lives and to use math to help them with their daily real life problems. As mentioned above, the shows have been designed to support the curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics thereby allowing parents to let their kids watch the show as a complementary educational supplement, assured of the fact that it is supporting and strengthening the math material their child’s getting in school.

The series stimulates a love for math at the crucial stage in which all too many children’s interest in math wanes; often as a result of a lack of confidence in their ability to grasp and use the subject matter. By showing the practical and fun application of math in the series, and showing the advantages of understanding it for daily life usefulness in the ‘cyberchase for real’ segment, it instills kids with a positive attitude towards mathematics. Kids who watch the show regularly will gain greater motivation for math and a greater confidence in their ability to solve mathematical problems. The experience they get from working through mathematical challenges as part of helping Inez, Jackie and Matt solve problems in the show is transferable to solving problems in the classroom and math workbook framework.

 

Social skills the show teaches

The show constantly emphasizes the importance of teamwork and mutual respect for other’s abilities, teaching this from both a positive and negative standpoint. Despite their occasional disagreements, the cybersquad members respect each others skills and abilities and pool those talents together in order to solve their case or thwart their nemesis. On the flips side, The Hacker’s tendency to dictate his plan of action to his henchmen while sneering at any input they might have to offer as coming from inferior minds and not worth paying attention to, ultimately ends with his being thwarted by the Cybersquad’s teamwork.

The ‘Cyberchase for Real’ segment follows this theme as well as Harry and Bianca tend to have greater success when working together on a project than when they compete.

 

Site review

Cyberchase is simply an excellent show for kids. What’s more, while I usually advise parents to watch TV with their kids in order to help support the kids maximum absorption of the show’s material, in this case the parents may find that they have some things they can learn as well.

Both children and parents will find themselves drawn in by the action and suspense in each show. Kids see the episodes as mysteries and the interesting math tricks they learn along the way to the solution as being cool and useful. The humor helps make what’s all too frequently dismissed as a ‘dry subject’ fun and approachable. More advanced kids often try to solve the problems ahead of Mattie and his friends while the rest are absorbed in making sure they understand the solution as it unfolds because they care about understanding it.

 

My kids perspective

My kids have loved Cyberchase ever since they first saw it and come back to it again and again. In fact, even as I type this review my 5 1/2 year old is watching it (along with, I suspect, his 11 year old sister, who should be doing her homework. But, as its an educational show and it is a vacation day for them, I’m not going to get preachy with her). Will he get all the concepts being taught yet? No, probably not (though he’s quite advancd) but he enjoys the story and is stimulated by it to ask questions about those things he doesn’t understand. Is his sister too old for it already? Possibly, but the stories are still good and sometimes even with an older kid, even with a solid A mathematics student ideas get triggered by something they see there and they find a new use for a mathematical concept they hadn’t thought of the first time around or get a deeper understanding of something they’ve learned in school that until then had only been theory and are now seeing put to use in practical application on the show.

Anecdotal:

My kids like to use the ‘tricks’ they learn from the programs they watch and apply them in real life. But it got a bit much when they saw the Cyberchase episode Ecohaven CSE which taught body proportions math. Apparently some body parts are consistently proportional to others so that by measuring one part you can predict the lengths of others.

Suddenly they were measuring themselves, us, and their friends and giving people information about themselves based on their calculations. It was ages before I got my tape measure back!

 

Similar shows: those who liked this show might also like

Square One TV, Magic Schoolbus