The Magic School Bus goes buggy

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Toronto Computes, May 2000

Scholastic?s The Magic School Bus Explores Bugs
Microsoft Corporation
Requires: Pentium 133, 16 MB RAM, about 15 MB hard drive space, 16 bit colour video. Mac version also available

Ms Frizzle and her class are at it again, in the eighth in Microsoft and Scholastic?s popular Magic School Bus series. Having previously taken the bus through the solar system, under the Earth, and more, they?re exploring bugs.

While some of us may feel like bugs are a yucky topic, they will appeal to many of 6 to 10-year olds. And by continuing its combination of learning and fun, this Magic School Bus package will help to teach?certainly any child who tries all the activities will know more about bugs than most of their parents!

The program looks and feels like the rest of the MSB series?any child who has used another MSB title will feel right at home. Like the others, it starts off in the classroom, where the kids in the class tell bug jokes, and proudly display their bug reports. But we discover that a bug is missing from each of four terraria (terrariums?), and Ms Frizzle wants to herd everyone into the bus to find the missing bugs. Of course, in order to get a bugs-eye view of the world, the kids have to shrink to bug-size.

The back of the bus offers activities?a game machine where you can morph kids and bugs or play the games from the environments you?ve visited (none to start off with?a subtle prod to leave the bus and go exploring), an experiment machine where you can set up bug-species fights, find compatible fireflies, and more, and a bug-song jukebox. Itsy-bitsy spider, anyone?

But to find the missing bugs, children have to get out of the bus, into each of four bug-filled environments?meadow, forest, pond, and jungle. Each has offers a poster to decorate, and its own activity? such as an ant maze, and the Bugs Are It! trivia game show. Children can click on the bugs in the wild, to learn a bit about each, or to add them to a field guide. But what they?re supposed to do is to try to figure out which bug doesn?t belong in each environment, so they can be restored to the proper terrarium.

While some children will happily go along with that task, others will blissfully ignore it?and can travel from environment to environment looking for the games. As a teacher I would have preferred to see the software do a better job of integrating the learning and the games.

As well, children may be a bit puzzled at the tools they?re given in the various environments. There?s a magnifying glass, for example, that claims it will provide more information about ?some? of the bugs?but did nothing at all, as far as I could tell, even after using it to click on everything in the meadow. Similarly, is there any point in adding bugs to the field guide? And since (like in other MSB games), you have to click on the tool again for each bug, it can be frustrating and time consuming to check out all the insects.

Despite this grumbling, many children in the grade 2-5 range will find MSB Bugs engaging?whether just for the games or as a way to learn about the fascinating but much maligned insects, spiders, and other bugs that surround us.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan