Sorry about last weekend’s lack of a theme song, but this should more than make up for it: a double feature! It’s like chocolate plus vanilla. Or in this case, Bill Nye the Science Guy plus The Magic School Bus. They’re both über-educational PBS shows that got me into science at an early age. Both shows’ main tactic was to prove to kids that, as Nye would say, “science rules!” I’m so grateful to have grown up in an era when educational initiatives were filling the airwaves. Every time I turn on PBS now, it’s nothing but Caillou and Clifford. I have nothing against those shows, but they’re indisputably missing the je ne sais awesome that defined my pre-preschool weekday mornings.
Just look at Bill Nye, for example. The show ran from 1993-98, with a total of 100 episodes, but no amount of Bill Nye could be enough. The man was a born TV personality – wise, trustworthy, and believable – as well as an honest-to-goodness scientist with a BA in engineering from Cornell. He could poke fun at himself, make science-themed song parodies, and point out all of science’s cool everyday applications, but still retain a veneer of serious authority. He coupled funny sound effects with real, repeatable scientific experiments like no one else ever has. The intro, with a theme song by Mike Greene, showed kids all the trappings of science – from telescopes to dinosaurs – before any of them had a chance to change the channel.
The Magic School Bus had a similar mission, to teach kids fun science and real science at the same time. But instead of doing it directly through flashy tutorials and montages, its technique was somewhat more… immersive. I.e., it made its cast of third-graders participate in whatever scientific phenomenon was being discussed. They turned into bats, lizards, and salmon; they traveled across the solar system; they delved quite literally into the specifics of the human digestive system. Basically, MSB was the narrative counterpart to Bill Nye’s didacticism. But the show wasn’t just about learning through magic-enabled experience; it too had an authority figure in the form of Mrs. Frizzle, or “The Frizz,” voiced by the wonderful Lily Tomlin. Eccentric and lovable, she was without a doubt the teacher every kid wanted to have.
I should also mention an awesome recurring feature of The Magic School Bus, in which “The Producer” (voiced by Malcolm Jamal Warner) would field phone calls and admit which parts of the episode were scientifically inaccurate. Not only was the show a fantastic blend of fun and education, but it also pointed out its own inconsistencies! And I could listen to that theme song, performed by the great Little Richard, until I wear out the YouTube video. Both of these shows were perfect introductions to the world of science, using quirky characters to teach kids that science does, in fact, rule. Did you know that? Well, now you know.