Review: Project Mc²

projectmc2

By now, hopefully, everyone has heard of and seen MGA Entertainment’s Project Mc². For those of you who haven’t heard about it, only vaguely remember a commercial, or glimpsed the new toys while strolling past the doll aisle, gather ’round!

The CEO of MGA Entertainment, Isaac Larian, inspired by the success of his daughter, Jasmin Larian, and the continued lack of women at his Alma Mater of California Polytechnic State University, decided to start a STEM-based toy line to motivate and empower young girls at the elementary and middle school levels.

Project Mc² launched August 7, 2015 with a website, original Netflix series, and, of course, the four dolls and several playsets. The four main characters were specifically designed to be ethnically diverse with unique personality traits. The two major things they have in common are their love of science and fashionable beauty; the whole point is, after all, that women do not need to choose between being intelligent and feeling pretty (This kind of sounds familiar, amiright Nerdy but Flirty crew?)

Also, they’re high school spies working for an all-woman organization whose leader is played by real life hyper-intelligent woman, Danica McKellar.

Obviously, Larian and his team at MGA have the concept and vision down. Experts were brought in to keep the science on point in the show; awesome. But how is the actual execution? Is this going to actually empower young girls, or is it spreading glitter on an important issue? In order to answer these questions, I watched the show, played on the website, and loitered in the doll aisle until my boyfriend said, “It’s irrelevant, because all our kids will have are Legos and a computer like what I had.”

I originally wanted to review Project Mc² in three distinct parts: the toys, the website, and the show, but the entire project is so comprehensive and well-knitted that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one aspect without mentioning another. The dolls wear the exact outfits as the girls from the show. The girls star in videos on the website featuring the dolls and experiments. Several experiment sets are taken directly from the show. It’s refreshing to find a well-aligned trio among so many toys that give characters random traits and super powers for the sake of sales boosting.

If you don’t believe me, then walk through your neighborhood Target’s toy aisle and consider these questions: Why does Elsa have an ice-cream shoppe? Why does Rainbow Dash have butterfly wings and passive doe eyes? Why does this Jurassic Park  triceratops have fangs? Because only an adult or really nerdy kid would care about continuity…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the budget to buy all the toys and conduct all the experiments they have to offer. It’s a good thing, then, that the website provides a plethora of videos showcasing the toys to their young audience. After reading every detail on boxes at the store and watching the videos, I have to admit that the toys are really cool. The colors are bright, but not too pastel, with patterns and designs that keep in line with the show’s spy theme.

The experiments are designed to use common household items so kids can repeat them, changing certain variables in order to compare results. One thing to note if you happen to be a parent or guardian considering these toys, “common household items” means a lot of baking soda and liquid food coloring. In some cases, like the Atomic Mixer, you need citric acid, which may not be so common unless you’re a culinary chemist like Adrienne Attoms and her grandmother.

What I love about the play sets is how the science is fully explained. It may be as simple as using baking soda and water to make invisible ink, then tea or juice to make it show up, but the kit and website explain pH balance and how acids and bases react. These sets seem like fun activities that parents can do with their daughters and learn solid science.

The website’s strength is how well it complements the show and toy sets. The site is set up like portal to the spy network, Nov8 (pronounced like innovate), so upon the first visit, it asks for your name. Going to all the different pages and participating in the activities gives points and ranking badges in the spy network. The spymaster, Danica McKellar, is referred to as the Quail, so all the other rankings are based off of birds as well.

Of course, they have a gear menu, which is a list of all the toy sets and where you can find them; some can only be found at Walmart, others Target or Amazon. As mentioned, there are video demonstrations of experiments and supplemental experiment printouts to go along with the sets.

Like any site geared towards kids, there are small flash games. The games stick to the science theme but don’t add to any actual knowledge and are designed more for phones and tablets. I tried out Lab Grab, Circuit Beats Tap, and Word Chemistry on my desktop. They were simplistic and annoying at best, but would probably waste a decent amount of free time if played with a touch screen. The games and app are only available on iOS.

The full app is a mission-based game encouraging the girls to use their science and deductive skills to solve mysteries like the Mc² girls do. If a young girl has both the phone app and the A.D.S.I.N. Journal, they can put the two together and interact with an emoji mascot.

The message board would be neat if it wasn’t made up of prefabricated questions and answers that don’t seem to change. It’s an effort to make the characters more relatable and inspirational, but until it has questions that sound like they come from a real girl, it’s going to fall short. Or maybe I’m expecting too much from a site that’s one huge advertisement.

Last is the show. It is really corny. It was a tween cringe-fest where every adult male was a bumbling oaf and the three non-spy girls probably had to ice their faces after all the cheek cramps induced by giant fake smiles and giggles.

The love for computer science being equated with an obsession with social media is incredibly insulting, along with making texting a “super power.” A real superpower is having the focus and stamina to grind out code for six hours, fix one bug only to create three more all because of one misplaced parenthesis, and carry around a fifteen pound laptop whereever you go, along with a tablet and three different test phones. Or knowing four different programming languages, having enough passion to continuing learning new ones as they come out, and being able to make an application – real applications, not just freemium tap spam – work smoothly across multiple operating systems.

I do like the show’s clever puns and play on words. Nov8 is innovate, which is November eighth, which is their self-proclaimed day of science. Mc² and the Pythagoras theorem are integrated into the character’s names, along with their specific talents. Adrienne Attoms cooks atoms, Bryden Bandweth loves her bandwidth, and Camryn Coyle builds with coils. I’m not sure if there’s a pun for McKeyla McAlister. Maybe she’s an A-lister?

One pun that irks me is how they changed S.T.E.M. to S.T.E.A.M. Steam itself works just fine and adds a cute little chorus to the theme song: “We’re full steam ahead.” What I find hard to swallow is how “A” stands for art. There’s nothing wrong with art on its own, but it’s a field that girls are commonly pigeonholed into.

The first time my high school biology teacher went to college, she applied for a major in biology. Her adviser asked why a pretty girl like her would want to study something like biology. Biology is hard; she’d really be better off getting an art degree. She was adamant that she wanted to learn science, but kept being pressured to change her major. She winded up with an art degree and eventually made her way back to school in order to fulfill her dream of being a biology teacher.

Why give girls an outlet for science only to turn around and say they also need to be artists? Commit to the vision, make “A” stand for astrophysics, astronomy, anatomy, architecture, archaeology, anthropology; just don’t tell them, again, that they should go and color like a good little girl.

Project Mc² is a worthy idea. It’s only been in execution for a few months and three half hour episodes. It’s not perfect – no science experiment is – but it shows great promise and potential. I think it would do great if MGA Entertainment partnered up with foundations, like Girls Who Code, to get a bigger following and really inspire young girls and women to do great things.

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