PBS Kids’ new series WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! premieres Monday, February 6, on the PBS Kids Prime Video Channel. For those unfamiliar with the animal, a wombat is an Australian marsupial mammal that looks a little like a woodchuck. Except, in the case of WORK IT OUT WOMBATS!, the wombats are animated siblings who live with their grandmother in the Treeborhood (that’s a neighborhood in a tree). The program is designed to help children ages three through six begin to understand computer coding.
If this ambition sounds like a tall order (especially if you’re an adult who still doesn’t understand computer coding), consider this example from executive producer Marcy Gunther: “Sequencing is something we all use in our daily lives, trying to figure out which order am I going to do my errands in. Am I going to go to the grocery store first, or the drugstore? On the show, the kids use skills like sequencing.”
Gunther created WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! with her producing partner and fellow WOMBATS executive producer Marisa Wolsky, as well as Javier Lopez, Luis Lopez, Kathy Waugh and Robby Hoffman.
Additionally, married couple Dr. Kareem Edouard PhD, and Dr. Darlene Mortel Edouard are creative producers on WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! Dr. Hakeem Edouard is assistant professor of learning technologies and co-director of the Information Learning Linking Engineer Science and Technology Laboratory at Drexel University, as well as a researcher in issues of culture and inclusion in children’s media.
Gunther is a multi-Emmy award winner, whose previous credits include the PBS children’s shows ARTHUR, SESAME STREET, ZOOM, DESIGN SQUAD, MOLLY OF DENALI, and THE RUFF RUFFMAN SHOW.
Together, Gunther and Dr. Kareem Edouard sit down for an interview about WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! during PBS’s portion of the Winter 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, CA.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you come to make an animated TV series designed to help small children understand computers?
MARCY GUNTHER: We knew there was an urgent call to start teaching kids about computational thinking, and the precursors to coding. The educators of the government put out a call, and our first thought was, “We need to be doing this. How on Earth do we create a show about thinking? How do you create a visual show about thinking?” [laughs]
WGBH has a long history of creating curriculum-based content for kids, and being one of the first to create a certain kind of show, or a certain kind of media. We created DESIGN SQUAD, which was the first engineering game show for kids eight to twelve. ARTHUR was the first animated series on PBS. So, we always like to set a really high bar for ourselves, and take on really big, meaty challenges. And we knew this was a big, meaty, and important challenge.
So, we started with the curriculum, thinking about how could we create a show that was, first off, entertaining and engaging for children to teach them this curriculum. We were lucky enough to spend a lot of time in development trying to figure that out.
We worked with one of the foremost experts in the country on computational thinking, Dr. Marina Bers. And then we got lucky enough to work with Dr. Kareem and Darlene Edouard as creative producers, to help us figure out how to translate that show into reality.
AX: How did the two of you come together on this project?
DR KAKEEM EDOUARD: My mentor worked with Marcy and Marisa many moons ago, and said that, “I think it’s time for you to take the work that you do as a professor with young folk in STEM spaces, and apply it in this [television] space.” So, we were able to connect two years ago
And what’s fascinating is that we met through Zoom, and we met in person –
GUNTHER: [laughs] This morning! Two hours ago.
DR EDOUARD: But that’s kind of its own metaphor, where this technological space, this Zoom screen, still allowed us to build this connection, and develop a beautiful product, and that’s where we are now.
AX: How would you describe what WORK IT OUT WOMBATS is about?
GUNTHER: This show is really about thinking and problem-solving. Computational thinking is really about creative ways of thinking and problem-solving, using a toolkit of skills from computer science.
DR EDOUARD: The show does a very good job of referencing technology, and computational development, and skills that are necessary, but at the same time, taking an unplugged position, where technology is not the only thing that drives [the episodes]. [So does] actual [interpersonal] connectivity, which is a nice reference point to using technological devices, such as a cell phone. So, it’s all part of this. There are the tenets of computer science, and the platforms that are used, and then applying them in a real, physical world context.
AX: How did you come up with wombats as your central characters?
GUNTHER: We knew we wanted to make this an animal-based world, and we looked at all different kinds of animals. Dogs and cats get a lot of play in children’s animation, and we decided, “Hmm, what’s an animal that we haven’t seen a show with? I don’t think anybody’s ever done a show with wombats, to the best of our knowledge.”
DR EDOUARD: A few videogames, but never primarily an animated show.
GUNTHER: [laughs] Yes. And we wanted these characters to be energetic, and always on the go, and full of excitement, and when we started researching animals, we saw that wombats like to run and roll and go twenty-five miles an hour.
DR EDOUARD: Which young children love. The other thing is the communal aspect of wombats in the [wild], where they’re working in group collectives. You see this also play out in the Treeborhood.
AX: Do you ever show live-action footage of wombats?
GUNTHER: No. We really keep the show as in a fantastical world. We have a tree, where all animals from all different species live together. We’re using animals with different attributes, different species, who speak different languages, have different family structures, to really reflect the diversity of the kids and the families in our audience.
AX: When you are not working on WOMBATS, what is the focus of your work?
DR EDOUARD: So, I’m a professor of learning sciences and STEM education at Drexel University. My primary work is really focused on computational thinking and making skills, primarily for Black and brown students in underserved communities in West Philadelphia, PA. A lot of that work mirrors with the work that we’re looking at [in WOMBATS], in which we share STEM computational thinking and making frameworks. So, this project was right up my alley, and something that I felt that would be wonderful to share some of the work that I do in my own research.
AX: Apart from WOMBATS, is your work primarily targeted at somewhat older people?
DR EDOUARD: It’s actually a spectrum. A lot of my work is very intergenerational, I would say ages four to twenty-five. I used to be a kindergarten teacher, I used to be a high school teacher, and even now, as a college professor, my lab is very specific in bringing in elementary, middle, and high school students to work collectively on STEM-based projects. But in the media work that I do, I primarily look at early childhood development. As a young child, I looked for work like this in the ‘80s, and I didn’t find it, so this is an opportunity to give back to my former self in creating content and access to this type of technological discussion, particularly in the animation form.
AX: Is WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! something that you would have liked to have had when you were between three and six years old yourself?
DR EDOUARD: One hundred percent.
AX: How able are both of you to get in touch with your younger selves, and ask, “Does this make sense to me, is this what I want to watch …?”
GUNTHER: Very much [laughs]. I feel like my inner child is very much a lot of the one who does this job. Is this making me feel excited, is this making me feel joyful, playful? Is this funny and engaging? Is it colorful? Again, nothing like this existed for me when I was a child.
Something I love about this show is, it’s really about a community. And it’s about a community of animals from all different species, who speak all different languages, all different kinds of family structures. We have the wombats, who live with their grandmother, we have a character, Louisa [voiced by Claire Mackness], who lives with her two moms, we have a Philippine eagle family, with Junjun [voiced by Roman Pesino], who I think Darlene and Kareem created, who speak Tagalog. Our hope is there’s something here where every child will see themselves. Young Marcy, young Kareem [laughs].
AX: Are there subtitles for the different languages, or will children understand what’s being said from the context?
DR EDOUARD: We’re looking at how diverse this viewing population is, across the board. You get an opportunity for the context in which characters are sharing dialogue, and you quickly get a better understanding of what they’re saying. And a lot of the multilingual families that are going to watch these shows get an opportunity to hear something that’s being said in their own homes, but at the same time, students who aren’t familiar with these languages, they hear it in the playground, they understand it. We live in a very global, connected world where they’re hearing and exposed to these cultures.
In WOMBATS, we were able to bring these diverse perspectives to the table. As a young kid, I would have loved to have seen multiple languages being presented in the show, or multiple cultural framings and nuances. And I think that’s what this show provides, particularly what PBS is doing across its platforms, is centering multiple cultures and reifying them as being part of an American culture. My wife being Filipino, having characters who speak Tagalog, that’s something that all young folk who have a Filipino friend, or in the context of being able to hear something that Junjun says with his Lola [grandmother], and then instantly make that connection, that to me is the value of what we’re bringing culturally to the show that I’m happy to be a part of.
AX: Do we figure out the characters’ cultures from how they speak?
DR EDOUARD: We made sure that we found voice actors who share commonalities as far as culture, so even in inflection and the way they speak, there is that nuance. Because not all Spanish is the same. So, that becomes very important. We also think about the animals themselves. We have Sammy the Snake [voiced by Baeyen Hoffman], who’s Puerto Rican. We have a character who’s a moose. But Ellie [voiced by Tymika Tafari] is not a moose who’s from North America, Ellie is Jamaican. It’s very important to understand this one key thing – animal [species] are not a proxy for race and culture. We’re making it clear that we’re looking at the diversity of animal ecology, so that we are able to make those little nuances on the show.
AX: So, the wombats don’t have Australian accents?
DR EDOUARD: No.
AX: Do you have actual three-to-six-year-olds that you test the episode premises out on?
GUNTHER: We did as part of the development of the show. It’s called “storybook testing.” In collaboration with PBS, as part of the grant that we got to produce this show, we created very simple, bare-bones storybook versions of the episodes, and we showed them to kids. It was a subset of the stories, it wasn’t all of them, but we learned about how they were comprehending it, where they were getting really engaged, what might be confusing, and then we went back and made changes to those stories, based on the testing results.
AX: What were the things that were easiest for the children to understand?
DR EDOUARD: I think the easiest thing that they could walk away with was the family dynamic. Seeing the grandmother with her grandchildren, they understood that. They also understood how communities collectively maneuver and engage with each other. So, for us, as adults, when we engage in writing and creating these worlds, we tend to really process how movement, as far as characters navigate through their relationships, and the young folk, as they were looking at some of the testing, they gravitated to that very quickly. That made us feel very comfortable with trying to explore the relationships between not only the home environment, but at the same time, how they intermix together with the rest of the members of the Treeborhood.
GUNTHER: I think one thing we learned was that sometimes you need to show the same concept in multiple contexts. I remember when we were doing a story about one of our characters, Zeke [the youngest wombat, voiced by Rain Janjua], and he wants to build these little fairy houses. It was all about breaking down a big job into smaller parts, to build the fairy house. One thing we changed with that script is, we added another scene at the beginning of the script, where they were trying to make fruit kabobs, and they had to learn what are the elements of putting together a fruit kabob, and that they all needed to have one job, putting together the fruit kabob, so, “You’re going to do the strawberries, and I’m going to put on the pineapple, and Kareem’s going to put on the cantaloupe, instead of us all trying to do the same thing at once,” and the importance of reiterating different things across different contexts.
DR EDOUARD: Yeah. The mantra of the show is “breaking it down, stepping it out.” These are very important cognitive development processes for young folk, and it really was something we found, through testing, that they were getting. This idea of computational thinking can be complex. But then you find it’s not so complex for young folks, once you break it down for them.
AX: Are you coming across any adults who maybe don’t understand computational thinking, who are finding WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! helpful?
GUNTHER: Yeah. And it’s funny. Working on this show, you really reflect on how much we use computational thinking in our lives, every day.
DR EDOUARD: Just by another name.
GUNTHER: One example we like to use for debugging is when you’re trying to figure out why your remote for your TV doesn’t work. Is it the button’s stuck, is it the batteries are dead? That’s right from computer science, which is really about trying different things in a systematic way, until you find the answer to the problem.
AX: Did you have a variety of things you wanted to put across with the show, or did you have a large primary goal?
DR EDOUARD: I would say, it’s being inquisitive married with creativity, which is very important for us. The wombats go on these adventures, and they’re always seeking these opportunities where they can demonstrate their found skills. So, every episode, there is something of the seven principles of computational thinking of the seven principles. They always carry over within WOMBATS, not necessarily sequentially through an episode, but once they learn something, now they have it in their toolkit to be able to apply. We really wanted the audience to take a journey with the wombats, so that they were given an opportunity to be very creative, and to be very inquisitive, to see how they could solve the next problem that they find.
GUNTHER: I absolutely love that. One of our mottos is, “Create, test, improve.” So, you’re going to try something, you’re going to see how it works, you’re going to test it, and see did it work or not, and then you have to improve it. And I think we try to apply that motto to the creation of the entire show. Making something is an iterative process, there’s a lot of failure [laughs]. And you’ve got to get really comfortable with failure. I think that’s one of the messages we want kids to take away from the show is, don’t be afraid to fail. It’s part of the process, and as long as you learn from it, and you take something from it, and apply it, like Kareem is saying, that’s what’s important.
AX: And is there anything else about WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! that you would like people to know?
DR EDOUARD: WORK IT OUT WOMBATS! is really about community, and really thinking about how communities come together to solve problems, using computational thinking at the forefront. That’s what we’re really proud of, that’s what I’m really proud of.
GUNTHER: I’m right there with you, Kareem. I think it shows an optimistic community that is working and living and playing together, and modeling for children that we can solve problems. There are a lot of problems in our world that are going to need solving, and we’re going to need these creative problem-solving skills, and learning how to work together. And also, one thing that parents have said they love about the show that just brings me so much joy is that it models problem-solving while managing your emotions. Because we know problem-solving brings up lots of emotions, it’s hard! [laughs] And we can model that for children. That’s exciting to me, that we can give kids some skills that we know they’re really going to need.
Follow us on Twitter at ASSIGNMENT X
Like us on Facebook at ASSIGNMENT X
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview: WORK IT OUT WOMBATS: The Creators Dr. Hakeem Edouard PhD and Marcy Gunther talk about their new animated PBS kids series