Family Matters

Can Elmo Inspire Your Kid to Become a Scientist?

Sesame Street is debuting a new curriculum this season, and it's designed to help tots build essential skills in science and math

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TIME / PBS

Ambitious parents know it’s never too early to set the stage for high-achieving kids. That’s why pregnant women play classical music to their baby in utero, parents read board books to weeks-old infants, and educators conveniently schedule story times in local museums.

It’s also why Sesame Street, the doyenne of preschool screen time, has decided to put a cheery and kid-accessible spin on a pretty serious group of subjects collectively known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have to plant the seed now for scientists, mathematicians, technologists and engineers,” says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president for education and research at Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.

The urgency comes from on high: President Obama has said that emphasizing STEM subjects is critical to U.S. competitiveness. In 2010, he debuted Change the Equation, a CEO-led campaign to enhance the quality of STEM education in schools; U.S. students typically trail those in other countries when it comes to science and math scores. Compared to other countries, the White House noted, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math.

Tailoring these subjects to tots might be a first step toward improving that ranking. Sesame Street has created 26 new shows that incorporate various STEM aspects, particularly science. Episodes labelled “Let’s Find Out!” will introduce preschoolers to key scientific skills such as devising experiments to solve problems and using critical thinking to understand complex topics. New episodes and re-runs will air until the next season begins in September. “Science is a wonderful area for us to explore because children are natural scientists,” says Truglio. “They come into this world wanting to know how the world works.”

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Programming incorporates various science experiments — how to catch a bubble so it doesn’t pop, how to design a rocket so it travels far. Kids learn about the properties of ramps, levers, wheels and pulleys.

Super Grover is Sesame Street’s friendly metaphor for the scientific inquiry: he’s motivated to help but often fails in the process. Likewise, science is often about failure, at least initially. It’s important to stick with the task, kids learn, until trial and error yields a solution.

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Take Elmo, for example. His little baby, David, is floating in an inner tube in a basin of water. Zoe comes along with her pet rock, Rocko, and she tells Elmo she wants Rocko to float too. Elmo informs her that most rocks sink. Enter the requisite adult, Leela, who invites the characters to experiment and figure out how to make the rock float.

Elmo and Zoe try various techniques that fail — they put Rocko atop some pencils, and try placing it on a piece of paper. Why don’t you act like an engineer and design something for Rocko to float on?, suggests Leela. Ultimately, they develop a tin foil boat that does the trick.

(You can try it tonight with your kid in the tub.)

Traditionally, Sesame Street has tried to prepare kids for kindergarten and life beyond, laying a foundation for academic and social-emotional skills and promoting healthy lifestyles, such as exercising. Typically, STEM education doesn’t really begin in earnest until middle school, but Truglio says that’s too late. “Sesame Street feels obligated because we are such a powerful educational brand to reach these children early on,” says Truglio. If the program is as successful with science as it has been with introducing preschoolers to language and other skills, that should bode well for the future of America’s doctors, engineers and astronauts.

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