If you want to get more girls interested in STEM education, then you need to give them female role models at an earlier age.
Mainzer is an astrophysicist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, where she researches asteroids and comets. As Dr. Amy on RJG’s live-action interstitials, she explains basic astronomical principles with hands-on experiments and takes kids on visits to places like JPL’s Mars Yard and the Endeavour space shuttle at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
She also serves as a science curriculum consultant for the series, which focuses on ages three to eight. Each 30-minute TV episode includes two 11-minute animated stories and a live-action interstitial, while a website and cross-platform app (available on any device) includes those along with interactive games, activities, music, and streaming video that cover such concepts as constellations, planets, gravity, tides and moon phases, and live-stream from the International Space Station.
“Science is a universal language,” says Mainzer. “We want kids to come away with the idea that science is for them, regardless of their background, and the science community needs them. We can’t afford to be turning away smart people for arbitrary reasons. Our future is going to take the combined efforts of everyone to figure it out. It can be a wonderful career or just make your everyday life more interesting.”
Ready Jet Go! is part of PBS Kids’ ongoing push in STEM education, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, targeting younger, at risk and low-income children, who are less exposed to math and science. It joins a roster of similar shows teaching children about paleontology (Dinosaur Train), math (Peg + Cat and Odd Squad) and engineering (Curious George). A show about oceanography (Splash) is coming out in the fall.
The idea is the earlier a child engages with science and math, the more encouraged she might feel to pursue them. It also teaches kids how to ask a question and develop and support hypotheses, which have applications beyond STEM.
“The U.S. lags behind most other developing nations in science education,” says Lesli Rotenberg, PBS’ general manger of children’s programming and SVP of marketing and communications. “Engaging very young children in science lends itself to science learning and achievement later in life. Women are underrepresented in the science fields. Amy is a role model in the sense of if you can see it you can be it. It’s about breaking down stereotypes.”
In true Hollywood fashion, Mainzer was “discovered” when RJG production company Wind Dancer asked a JPL astronomy lab manager for a science consultant referral. She mentioned Mainzer, who had done adult science outreach and mentoring, but leapt at the chance to reach pre-schoolers.
“I got into science when I was very young,” says Mainzer. “I always felt that if kids could get hooked on science when they’re little, they’d have grounding by the time they got to middle school and it wouldn’t get extinguished when they grew up. This is the kind of show I would have wanted to have when I was a little kid.
“Because we cover the fundamentals of physics, Earth and space sciences, a lot of it never goes out of style, but we do incorporate current topics, like New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto last year,” adds Mainzer. “We also talk about what it’s like to work in the field. It’s never boring, it’s constantly changing, and it’s people united for a common good.”