VENICE, Calif. — PBS KIDS and PBS SoCal touted their new animated series, "Ready Jet Go!," with a first-look screening, live musical performances and a conversation about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education here at Google's Venice office last month.
During the Jan. 20 event, panelists discussing STEM learning included series creator Craig Bartlett; executive producer Dete Meserve; astrophysicist Amy Mainzer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (who stars in "Ready Jet Go!" interstitial pieces); Google software engineer Kim Swennen; Diana Skaar, Google's head of business innovation for robotics; and moderator Linda Simensky, the vice president of children's programming at PBS.
"Ready Jet Go!" focuses on three kids who befriend an alien family. It aims to educate children about science and the solar system. One of the main themes of the show — which premieres tonight (Feb. 15) on PBS KIDS — is that science is constantly changing as people learn new things. [Our Solar System: A Photo Tour of the Planets]
"We're teaching kids some pretty bleeding-edge planetary science," Mainzer said. "When I was growing up, it wasn't so easy to find out new information. So we're hoping to get that into kids' hands as quickly as we can."
Simensky said that the show is up to date with the latest Pluto information gathered by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which performed history's first flyby of the dwarf planet in July 2015.
"What happens if they reinstate Pluto?" she asked, referring to the International Astronomical Union's contentious 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet." Will the show need to be re-edited?
"There will probably be a massive fight among astronomers," Mainzer said. "It's gonna be like the Hatfields versus the McCoys. It got a little ugly in 2006 when they made a decision. That's one of the really cool things about the show is, we were able to hold off on doing the Pluto episodes until we got the results from New Horizons literally that day."
Mainzer also commended PBS and the "Ready Jet Go!" group for being committed to getting the science right. She says she hasn't gotten many questions because the people behind the show have done research on their own.
"It's really impressive to me how solid the science is with the show and how much opportunity we have for feedback on the science," Mainzer said. "And we really try to get it right. And if it's not, it's on me. Because I've had plenty of chances, and that's really wonderful and special."
Simensky also broached the subject of STEM.
"What are the barriers to girls getting into science, or even lower-socioeconomic-status kids who aren't being exposed on a regular basis to scientific topics — what are the barriers to getting them interested in these areas?" she asked.
Google has done some research and found these barriers to be both psychological and logistical, Swennen said. It would help if the media brought role models in these fields to kids' attention, and if low-income families had access to computers or computer-science education, she said.
"Seeing other portrayals of women and other people who look like you who are doing science and going 'Oh, I could do that too,' are some of the contributing factors," Swennen added.
A stereotype the show would like to break is that scientists work alone in a dark room.
"It's very much about teamwork and partnering up with the people who you work with and depend on and trust to solve really hard problems and figure things out," Mainzer said. "That's fun. That's basically what kids do when they play … In a lot of ways, we're like big kids playing with the other big kids trying to solve really hard problems."
Bartlett saw parallels between Mainzer's group working together to get big space projects approved and his group trying to launch "Ready Jet Go!"
"It's about collaboration and a large group of people — the sum-is-greater-than-the-parts thing that goes on in this kind of work," he said. "And both fields are creative and use imagination."
The imagination topic led to a discussion about "Ready Jet Go!" characters. Jet, the alien character, was created first, and then the team came up with Sean and Sidney. Sean is the practical, scientific-method guy, whereas Sidney is a science-fiction fan who embodies imagination. Mindy was added last to ask questions that 4-year-olds might ask. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]
Bartlett also discussed some of the songs in the show. One called "Scientific Method" teaches kids the principles of the scientific method, and another, called "Try Again Ditty," is about the importance of perseverance.
"The Bortronians [the aliens in the show] are all about failure," Bartlett said. "Cartoon shows are a perfect place to repeat themes and songs played over and over again."
People at Google are told that, if they don't fail, they're not trying hard enough, Skaar said.
"You really have to push yourself. That's great that's a theme and concept that you are pushing with these young kids," she said.
In an interview with Space.com after the panel, Mainzer said that she had a narrow view of what real science was like when she was younger, so one of her goals with the show is to "expose kids to the different career options in science and engineering and give them a little glimpse of the future so maybe they can see some things and get some ideas of their own that they would like to try some day."
How does the astrophysicist fit into the show's writing process? Mainzer said that the writers come up with some principles, and then there's a process of generating a premise. The premise gets developed to an outline, then eventually to a script, then to the animatic stage (pre-animation stage), and then to the final product.
"There's been an opportunity for me and my counterpart, who is an early-childhood-education specialist, to offer feedback," she said. "So we're really trying hard to get the science right. There's a really great commitment to quality to the show which I really appreciate."
During the panel, Bartlett said the show is always just an email away from the answer to anything, because he can contact Mainzer so easily. "Amy!" he exclaimed, by way of example. "What's a good moon that's the right distance from Saturn?" [Photos: The Rings and Moons of Saturn]
He went on to share his favorite factoid from Mainzer: 15 percent of near-Earth asteroids have a little friend orbiting around them, sometimes even two.
If kids want to have a job like Mainzer does, what advice does she have?
"Take the math and science classes. Even if it doesn't go your way the first time you try it, try it again," she said. "Keep at it, stick with it. It gets better with time and it keeps getting better — that's the thing I think is so cool about science."
Bartlett and composer Jim Lang performed the show's theme song earlier in the evening, as well as songs with titles like "Night of a Bazillion Stars," "How Come the Moon Has Craters?" and "Tiny Blue Dot."
"Tiny Blue Dot" was inspired by Bartlett's interviews with 26 astronauts who had been to space; they told moving stories about looking back at the Earth forever changed them.
"There are no borders up here," Bartlett said. "This is our one spaceship that we're all on, and this is all we have. It makes things like climate change vitally important, and it's because we went into space. Going to space makes a better Earth citizen than if we didn't go into space."
That's also Bartlett's main objective with the series: "To make kids good citizens and when they grow up, to vote for NASA funding."
Julie Ann Crommett, program manager for Google's computer science education in media, and Andy Russell, PBS SoCal president and CEO, also provided remarks at the beginning of the evening.