education, gender equity, girls, media, science, stem

This heroic new kids show focuses on science and diversity

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

Hero Elementary debuts on PBS on June 1st!  Sparks Crew to the Rescue! 

art, gender equity, media, science, stem

STEM+ART resources to combine creativity and science during quarantine

Interview originally appeared in Magnet Byte with additions on this blog

Jen, tell us a little about you and your unique background?

For almost 25 years, I’ve been involved in the world of out-of-school time education, primarily leading science centers and children’s museums, as well as working with PBS and its producers. My volunteer gig for 2020 embraces my advocacy for equity, as I’m the Chair of the Board for the National Girls Collaborative Project. 

How do art and STEM intertwine?

I personally have always seen them as integral to one another. And I think that design thinking is a perfect application that leverages the best of both worlds. Science is inherently painting a canvas over time with experimentation, failure and knowing. 

Why now, especially?  

I am constantly reading and as the Coronavirus struck, the entire museum industry and all of our out-of-school time partners (like scouting organizations, robotics clubs) and PBS started to find ways to communicate to kids. 

But the communication to adults was all about calm – sharing beauty, art, photographs, and videos – and that then became a strategy we used at home. The Louvre and other art museums stepped up to make their collections available through digitally. And then, music and people playing music across the world with each other using technology. It was a universal salvo and it has become both our immediate and sustaining response to the pandemic.  

So, as we find ourselves here today, among kids who thrive at their Digital Magnet school and learn design thinking and utilize technology, it’s important to talk about the inspiration of art fueling that. 

What are your recommendations for other parents not only now, but for the summer?  

Here are some of my favorite apps, video compilers, You Tube channels, and other resources.  They aren’t in any particular order so explore as you wish! 

  1. I’m really a fan of the video compiler The Kid Should See This.”  Every week I get the top five videos of the week emailed to me. So whether it’s a time lapse of Jeff Koons new Play Doh sculpture, a slo-mo of a beetle taking flight, silly Rube Goldberg set ups and hilarious DIY’s, there are 4,500 videos that will knock your kids socks off. 
  2. I am enamored with Vi Hart, who started publishing her math doodles as a teen. Her YouTube is full of great videos like the Hexaflexagons (folding and geometry) or a video called Spirals, Fibonacci and being a plant.  Sure to captivate.
  3. You might already love Garage Band, but I love the super easy Chrome Music Lab to do your music experiments and composing. You can also use tools like OIID from that also specializes in an App called Groove Pizza.  I’m in!
  4. Close to home, the North Carolina Museum of Art has been putting out an amazing weekly meditation on a piece of their art. A holistic curriculum approach through the lens of one piece in their collection, it’s world class. 
  5. Before we started back to online curriculum, our Art and Imagination day involved watching videos from the PBS of Japan, NHK. Check out Design Ah! by starting with “Chairs” and go from there as you learn exactly what we mean by a “designed world.”  
  6. Two great new apps we’ve just started using – AR Makr (free) and Procreate ($10) for drawing and creating.  

Our good friends in Pittsburgh stream a wonderful music show every Saturday called the Saturday Light Brigade. Puzzles, music, stories – all for kids and often performed by kids – pepper this internationally award-winning broadcast.

Here is a graphic to download and share on your social media from this article!!!