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Review CornerSoftware
The Magic School Bus Whales & Dolphins Activity Center
Rating: Rating
The Bottom Line
This packed-with-facts activity center brings much of the fun and a lot of the learning of The Magic School Bus to the computer screen. Though it lacks the adventure format that the series does so well, this title does manage to capture some of the show’s enthusiasm for science.
Ages: 6—10  Subject: Science  Brand: Microsoft
Review Sections: Product Overview  Technically Speaking  Skills Covered  Educational Value  Entertainment Value  Design  Replayability  Dollar Value
image Product Overview

Ms. Frizzle and the gang always manage to breathe life and energy into science learning. This activity center software title features activities, experiments, and quick facts all revolving around whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Though it doesn’t offer the adventure storyline format that helps make the show so popular, it does manage to entertain as it educates.

After a fun introduction, children sign in, design a "crew pass," and then meet with Ms. Frizzle inside the school bus. Here, plenty of clickables with multiple responses are available to provide information tidbits, with others leading to the program’s games. Children can assemble "cetacean rotation" puzzles and learn a few facts about the animals they’ve put together. A one- or two-player game of Spout Off plays like a quiz-style game show. Questions include deciding whether a whale or fish (or both!) has fins and choosing, in multiple-choice fashion, which of three items an orca would most like to munch on.

Both experiment-style activities are excellent. A clever measurement activity truly gives children perspective regarding the weight and length of various sea creatures. Many kids won’t quite catch the significance of a statement that a blue whale is x feet long, but show them that a blue whale is as long as five school buses or a whole class of students, and weighs as much as 30,000 cats, and they’ll understand! The Whale-a-Teria activity is really quite fun. This cafeteria’s guests are orcas, belugas, minkes, and the like, and they let kids know exactly which foods they prefer to eat, and which ones turn their stomachs! An animated blue whale, for example, will comically pull away and cover his mouth when a crab is in front of him but will gobble up krill hungrily. Cute!

After electing to exit the bus, players can then explore the ocean. They can click individual creatures, and the little videos that ensue are actually quite mesmerizing–children can watch a humpback whale’s acrobatics, for example. Two fun arcade-style games can be accessed outside as well. Children help a beluga navigate an icy maze to return it to its pod, avoiding nets and enemies along the way in a game that is a nice little exercise in strategy. Spot That Whale is a simple but engaging game. Children need to snap pictures of creatures such as the beluga, bottle-nosed dolphin, sperm whale, narwhal, and more as the creatures emerge from the water before their roll of film runs out. Playing this game long enough will help children quickly distinguish between the various sea animals, though we wished these were named more frequently for extra educational punch.

The information tidbits are rather interesting, and many are not merely superficial spouts. For example, clicking the pull-down poster inside the bus prompts a short lesson about the differences between whales and fish. While not all children will absorb all the facts, those with some interest in the subject will discover much to learn in this program.

There are currently four activity center—style Magic School Bus titles, and this one has been the most popular with our testers. Though each activity center in the series is similarly designed, the puzzles and activities in Whales and Dolphins were considered the most engaging. Which of the available titles to choose will probably depend on individual interest levels in the featured subject matter, but this title was definitely better received and shows the strongest replay potential of the bunch.

Technically Speaking
Minimum system requirements are Windows 95/98/ME/2000, Pentium 166, 16 MB RAM for Win 95/98 or 32 MB RAM for Win ME/2000, 8X CD-ROM, 16-bit DirectX-compatible sound card, 16-bit color DirectX-compatible 2 MB video card. Mac users require a G3 processor 233 MHz or faster, System 8.6 through 9.x, 32 MB RAM (64 MB for OS 9.0), and 8X CD-ROM. Requires 60 MB of hard drive space. A printer is recommended.

Skills Covered
Animal facts, visual discrimination.

Educational Value
An activity center—style software program may not be the ideal framework for children to learn and absorb science facts. Those who lack interest in the subject matter may simply avoid the clickables and too easily bypass informative segments in favor of the arcade games. However, children who possess an interest in the topic will come away from the program having learned quite a bit. Unlike most children’s science programs that favor breadth over depth, this title’s narrow focus works to its advantage.

Entertainment Value
Of the four Magic School Bus Activity Center software titles now available, this one had the highest "fun" factor with testers. The games were considered more engaging.

The program is very easy to use and navigate, and some of the games feature adjustable difficulty levels. There is an option to turn on closed captioning for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

We’re not sure there is enough appeal to keep children coming back to the title in the long term, and we expect average replayability. However, children with a genuine interest in the featured subject will find much to enjoy at least for a few sittings.

Dollar Value
The suggested retail price for this program is $19.99 US.

Released: 2001
Reviewed: May 2001