As first published in Amberly Magazine, June 2020 with additions on May 31st, 2020
When I used to work for PBS, one of the most anticipated events was the launch of a new TV series. On June 1st, coming to your airwaves, iPads, and living rooms is Hero Elementary, a new show that combines science and literacy. Hero Elementary features a set of five main characters and their teacher, all taking place in the learning environment known as Hero Elementary. Four students (Lucita, Benny, Sara and AJ) have been accepted into a new class with Mr. Sparks and the class pet, Fur Blur. Each of the students has a superpower of some type, with a catch. They are still LEARNING how to use their gifts of flight, teleportation, bubble making, and gadgetry. In addition, their trusty teacher is always helping them solve big problems with their own “superpowers of science.”
Filled with cute (and memorable) songs and short clips in each episode, called “How to Hero,” showing real-life kids doing science at home. Hero Elementary has two very unique elements for a PBS series. First, there hasn’t been a show since Sid the Science Kid that has taken place in a school. Imagine how powerful this is…to have a teacher and surroundings that your kids can immediately put into their imaginations about how to go to school and use their own superpowers of science. It exposes us – the audience – to how inquiry-led scientific questions can happen and how to help our children be inquisitive and let their curiosity lead their learning. If you’re four years-old and about ready to enter Kindergarten soon, this show can help get your kids excited about the transition.
Second, AJ Gadgets is a character whose behavior sits on the autism spectrum. Only a handful of TV shows have a main character who lives with autism. AJ’s sensitivities (he doesn’t like to be wet) and self-care (he always has his backpack and earphones) are only one aspect of his personality as a gadget inventor and vital part of Hero Elementary, a win for diversity and inclusion in what media our kids consume.
As parents might note, there are Black, Brown, White and Asian characters at Hero Elementary. Mr. Sparks is Hispanic and the show’s assets (educational materials and more) are translated into Spanish. There are numerous advisors and staff on the show who, like me, have a focus on equity in their daily work and the show’s research and outreach (prior to the TV show debut) has focused mainly on low-income children, a place where TPT and PBS are devoted to making an impact.
And what does it take to make a show like this? I’ve been an advisor on the show for almost five years now along with a wonderful team from diverse education, research and media backgrounds. From idea to production, it’s likely a minimum of 4 to 4.5 years. Animated episodes, which run 11 minutes and are done in pairs, take about 40 weeks to produce, from idea to script, animation to voice over, captioning and distributing to a national platform like PBS. So, each episode of Hero Elementary has been carefully crafted, created by teams who love and are inspired by science, envision the games, characters and curriculum your kids love from some of the best producers, game makers, educational researchers and media talents in the business. You’ll find a full complement of games, a science journal, podcasts and, of course, the TV show at PBS Kids as well as on the Twin Cities Public Television website.
I wanted to add a little about the extensive set of 10+ games created around the show. The first game to be showcased is about seasons, and more are coming about animals, early physics, nature and science journaling. PBS Kids will likely rotate games on the site just as they do videos. Games tend to be one of the most used educational tools of any PBS show and Hero Elementary’s online gaming is super for early learners.
I encourage you follow the show on Facebook/HeroElementary or Twitter @HeroElementary to find out more. If you are an educator reading this, you’ll also be able to access curriculum resources either for the summer or for next school year already on http://www.pbslearningmedia.org.
Hero Elementary debuts on PBS on June 1st! Sparks Crew to the Rescue!
Originally published in Authority Magazine, Medium and Thrive Global in April 2020. How Jennifer Stancil tackles the extreme work life balance of being a woman in STEM during COVID-19, an interview with Penny Bauder, from her series about executive women across STEM disciplines.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Stancil
Jennifer Stancil is an innovative and visionary C-Suite executive, sought after national speaker, and founder of The Hello Studios. As a specialist in start-up non-profits, particularly those aligned with museum environments, she excels by leading teams to not just strive for, but establish transformative practices in informal education. An Emmy-winning media producer and educator, former advisor to the Obama White House’s Women and Girls Council, and long-time advocate for equity in STEM, Jennifer Stancil is currently the Board Chair of the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a scientist and catalyst, I use my experience to transform the way we see STEM – as a literacy, as a value, as a pathway to a future that’s unknown and unknowable. I help others value how STEM makes a real difference in their lives while advocating that STEM is accessible to everyone. Thus, I’ve spent more than 15 years of my career in museums, building and sustaining these cultural institutions where millions walk away inspired to know more. I was fortunate to have a five-year detour working in media, where I was able to understand far more about the importance of early childhood education, especially since I was at WQED, the home of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. It also prepared me for this disruptive time in the educational industry, ensuring that we are always looking toward new technologies, platforms to express our voices, ways to tell our stories, and inventing new methods of learning for the 21st century.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company? Over the last 18 months, I’ve been involved in the world of media as it crosses over with learning. So, from helping with the education and marketing of a new PBS TV show focused on STEM (Hero Elementary launching in the summer), to working with the Lyda Hill Philanthropies IF/THEN project to promote girls going into STEM careers, I’m really working to aid girls’ perception of who can be a scientist. In my favorite case, I worked with Amazon Studios as they released the movie, Troop Zero, which focuses on a girl whose moxie to get her voice recorded by NASA and shot into space is a treasure. I was thrilled to be able to be in the Rose Parade on their float promoting the movie in my first public act as Board Chair of the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP). What a moment!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? Absolutely. I’m really focused on an educationally rich summer for kids across the nation. I’ve just been reviewing grants to give to high school and college girls who teach CS in their community through the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). We are also, as a part of NGCP, working with the World Science Festival on innovative STEM programming for the summer months. Both organizations are already wildly successful leveraging online learning, and we’re working on solutions for middle school kids to get some really high quality science learning this summer after not being in school.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In my first real job in a museum, I had just moved to the South. I had lived my entire life – college, grad school – in my hometown, Lincoln, NE. All of the sudden, I was in my own place, with a job, running a small museum, writing grants, and helping design the experiences for a new museum about to open. In those moments, my boss, Dwight Downs, was incredibly generous. I was creative yes, but also arrogant. I was eager, yes, but I was also really naive as to how office cultures worked. I was ambitious and passionate, and I seemed to need to always be right. In those several years, I was treated like a plant taking root, nurtured beyond belief, able to allow my imagination to guide me, but also gently to learn how to be a better colleague and boss, while not shying away from innovation. Now, I really make an effort to replicate that to others that I mentor – giving them a chance to grow into their own voice so they can lean in to their own unique contributions.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges? I find it easy to write curriculum and have been sharing free, quality resources on my social platforms. So, I wrote a curriculum for my daughter, but soon found out how my daughter’s learning style isn’t always a great compliment to my open-ended, project based approaches. So, with a teen in the second half of her 7th grade year, life is a negotiation. But listening is essential to good negotiation, and I’ve tried to do a LOT more listening. It was an important moment in her own self-advocacy to share what she needed. It wasn’t hard to make adjustments that she advocated for, like working on a subject all day long and with focused intent, instead of over many days. It’s her having to own her school work, not me.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic? Managing the unknown can derail your day. How long will we be out of school? When will museums open again so I can be instrumental in building them back to their capacity and possibly join a new company in the fall? When can I let my child hug her friends and family and not just FaceTime them?
I believe that gratitude short-circuits many of the catabolic feelings that sap your energy to even begin to focus your mind – on your latest blog, helping a neighbor, moving forward a business proposition. That means using apps like “3 Good Things,” listening to a favorite song, or just stating “I’m so thankful right now for….” really helps.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges? Noticing is such a superpower. Noticing, being aware and present in the moment, means that the smell of that newly blooming azalea isn’t lost on you, or how the sun is coming through your window makes you remember that summer vacation at the beach . . . We’re relishing our memories too and calling up a lot of old videos of our family, to great effect.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family? Our top priority the entire time has been to give ourselves a lot of grace. This is an unprecedented time, one that will have a noticeable before and after. Change is happening so rapidly that we first prioritize ourselves. . . if we need to read a book, take a walk, or call a friend, that overrides our agreed upon schedule. I am also taking a step back from my impatience. I’m really trying to give everyone – work, home, school, family – the space they need to adjust to this time of sequestering.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family? We are audiophiles around here. We center ourselves with music and sound. . . our records, sharing songs and making playlists for one another, listening to podcasts, and my absolute favorite, listening to the 2019 compilation “America’s Best Short Stories” on Audible.
My secret weapon is if I’m really off kilter, I will ask my daughter to take her shower during the day, so I can hear her sing while I do my work.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
My top five:
This disruption in education will absolutely accelerate our thinking about how to teach everyone. I watched an entire school district on video, Franklin Regional in Pittsburgh, describe how they turned into a 1:1 laptop district in 10 days. It was nothing short of extraordinary.
2. I’m seeing systems right now being more nimble than ever before. In the chaos, small and local is working beautifully, but so are larger systems that are willing to pivot. If Dyson, best known for vacuums, can engineer a portable ventilator in under two weeks, that is simply a remarkable feat and a great use of STEM talent.
3. People are finding out how to be useful in a new way – they are rethinking their ability to contribute to a larger movement and society with their own passion. While I’m privy to a lot of communities of makers and their manufacturing of PPE out of homes, businesses, and with academia, I am most blown away by the high schooler who taught himself to code and created a tracker for COVID-19 that was a truly reliable global tracker that rivaled trackers of many governmental organizations.
4. Your nap game is strong right now.
5. We’ve had to all exercise our resilience and think of technology in a different way, serving a different and essential purpose in our lives in order to keep us strong. It’s that kind of imagination that will catapult us forward. . . whether it’s about how we gather to talk, celebrate birthdays or even meditate on Zoom, rely on the collections of museums to inspire us through an VR tour, or use games in both soothing and social ways. And that this call for our resilience is happening, not in one place, not in one country, but around the entire globe, means to me that our resilience is going to be revolutionary to our world as we know it.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain? Because of my work in the education space, I naturally blur the lines between formal and informal education. My number one recommendation is that the whole day is an opportunity to learn. So identifying the flora and fauna (and maybe even logging it on a citizen science app) during a walk in the woods is as much a science lesson as a worksheet you downloaded from school. Likewise, letting your child appropriately engage with the pandemic as much as they want is an exercise in geography, visual and mathematical literacy, and civics. This may be a time when you see your child flourish in pushing their own learning and having agency over themselves via their curiosity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This quote really speaks to me, today and always. It’s a great time to reconnect with what’s truly important to you.
Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.
How can our readers follow you online? I’m at www.jenstancil.comfor my blog, and I post all the time on Linked In (/jenstancil) and twitter (@jenstancil).
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!