The consultants took their $36 million assignment seriously — for 15 minutes. Then one yawned. Another began yanking on his shoelaces while his neighbor chewed her hair. A particularly frustrated expert started banging his head into a pillow.
Squirming is expected when your focus group consists of first- and second-graders who haven’t had their afternoon snacks.
But when it came to creating the cartoon series “Hero Elementary,” the most ambitious project in Twin Cities Public Television’s history, these youngsters at St. Paul’s Rondo Center helped save the day.
The weekday show, which premieres nationwide Monday on PBS, revolves around four unusually gifted young students who discover that science can be just as useful as their own superpowers.
During the past two years, researchers in the Twin Cities, Boston and California’s Silicon Valley recruited groups of 6- to 8-year-olds for storytelling sessions that tested potential plot lines. Their suggestions — from enhancing the role of the class hamster to insisting that the young protagonists clean up their messes — were incorporated into scripts before being transformed into cartoons.
At the Rondo session early last year, the researcher finished reading from her illustrated book and asked for feedback from her audience.
“I like momma and their babies!”
“They were scared by some silly possum!”
“What about a virtual reality headset?”
How many of you enjoyed the story? she asked. All but three of the 27 kids stood up.
Despite the helping hands, “Hero Elementary” faced hurdles a lot more challenging than fidgety kids.
The U.S. Department of Education announced back in 2015 that it was giving TPT a $36.7 million grant to make the series. Funded by the federal Ready to Learn initiative, which develops media to help young children do better in school, the money was to be spread over five years to create at least 40 episodes, along with interactive games and other supplemental material.
The show’s STEM-driven mission fit perfectly into PBS’ current programming, which includes “Dinosaur Train” and “Ready Set Go.”
“When I got to PBS [in 2003], there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on science,” said PBS Kids’ head of content, Linda Simensky. “They were saying that preschoolers could learn about problem-solving, but that they were too young to understand science principles.
“I thought that was interesting, because my son was 3 at the time, and he was obsessed with science. My goal was to make shows parents wanted for their preschoolers, so science became a big goal of mine.”
A superlong process
TPT, which had already produced the science-driven PBS shows “DragonflyTV” and “SciGirls” (nominated last week for a daytime Emmy), predicted the new show would air by 2018. They were off by two years.
It was Joan Freese, TPT’s senior director of educational and digital media, who came up with the concept of a series loosely based on Aaron Reynolds’ 2009 book “Superhero School.”
“Basically, we had a great idea, but it just wasn’t developed,” said Freese. “We had to learn how long it takes.”
The greatest challenge: teaching science through characters who have unscientific abilities.
Kids in test groups got so obsessed with the heroes’ superpowers that they weren’t hearing the educational piece.
“We kept battling superhero fun with legitimate takeaway lessons,” said Carol-Lynn Parente, who came on board as executive producer two years after the grant was approved. “That piece of the puzzle was really hard for us to crack.”
Parente, a former executive producer for “Sesame Street,” finally figured out that the solution lay in the heroes not being able to complete their missions until they grasped some basic scientific principles.
Gathering a runaway collection of squeaky dog toys only becomes possible after the heroes learn about the difference between pulling and pushing. They can only salvage a birthday party by discovering the power of wind currents.
The catchphrase “Superpowers of science!” became the characters’ mantra.
The writers also realized that the “missions” had to be relevant to children.
“There’s a meltdown when the popcorn machine at a move theater goes haywire and a frenzy when a yogurt machine melts,” Parente said. “To kids, those are emergencies.”
Hero on the spectrum
It also took ample time to shape the Sparks’ Crew’s four members, who come from different ethnic backgrounds. Those making the cut include Lucita Sky, who has the ability to fly but is afraid of heights, and Sara Snap, who possesses superstrength despite her tiny build.
The breakout star might be AJ Gadgets, who happens to be autistic.
The character wasn’t originally created with that in mind, but as the writers started to talk about his obsession with other superheroes, head writer Christine Ferraro noticed similarities with her brother, who is on the spectrum.
“It just seemed like that was who that character was,” said Ferraro, who also worked on “Sesame Street” before coming on board. “We don’t make a big deal out of his autism and, in a way, that sends a powerful message. He’s just one of the gang.”
Another fan favorite is bound to be Latino teacher Mr. Sparks, who encourages his students to make mistakes.
“At first we thought the teacher would be female, because that’s more common. But we kind of wanted to go against that,” said Ferraro, who like Parente, is based in New York City. “We wanted to show that there are male teachers in elementary schools who are passionate about what they do and have him teach in a way that elicits responses rather than have him just telling them the answers.”
Mr. Sparks’ lessons go beyond each 11-minute episode.
TPT is just as committed to complementary tools, such as online music videos shot in Oregon, digital games developed in Madison, Wis., and e-books from Capstone Publishing, based in North Mankato, Minn.
“This whole project is really like a TV show on steroids,” Freese said.
The fact that the show is premiering during the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t make the creators nervous. In fact, the timing might just work in its favor.
“The word ‘hero’ is very relevant right now,” Parente said. “Everyone wants to save the day. That doesn’t mean saving the world. It can mean saving one person at a time.”