On “Sesame Street,” a distressed cow has a big problem. She made it up the stairs to the beauty parlor but now, her bouffant piled high, she’s stuck. Cows can go up stairs, she moans, but not down.
Enter Super Grover 2.0. Out from his bottomless “utility sock” comes an enormous ramp, which, as the cow cheerily notes before clomping on down, is “a sloping surface that goes from high to low.”
Simple ABCs and 123s? So old school. In the last four years, “Sesame Street” has set itself a much larger goal: teaching nature, math, science and engineering concepts and problem-solving to a preschool audience - with topics like how a pulley works or how to go about investigating what’s making Mr. Snuffleupagus sneeze.
The content is wrapped in the traditional silliness; these are still Muppets. But the more sophisticated programming, on a show that frequently draws an audience even younger than the 3- to-5-year-olds it targets, raises a question: Is there any evidence that it is doing anything more than making PBS and parents feel good?
Officials at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization that produces the show, believe the new approach has succeeded in introducing children - at least, the target-age audience - to scientific ideas and methods.
“This is working,” said Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president, curriculum and content. Still, they acknowledge there are challenges in measuring a young child’s scientific understanding, and experts are only just beginning to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Each new season of “Sesame Street” starts with a curriculum, drawn up by educational consultants and a research staff, laying out concepts and ideas to be taught. The show’s writers incorporate these into scripts acted out by the beloved Muppets. The science curriculum began in 2009 with new programming that tried to capitalize on children’s natural interest in the world around them, an effort inspired by Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Truglio said.
Bigger words, like “pollinate,” “hibernate” and “camouflage” were added to the “Word on the Street” rotation.
After the program’s educational consultants requested more emphasis on urging children to investigate, as opposed to simply explore, the show introduced the “Super Grover 2.0” segments. A blue Muppet known for confidently getting things wrong, Grover uses magnets, springs and “superpowers” of investigation, observation and reporting to solve problems through trial and error. Before settling on a ramp for the stuck cow, for instance, he tries a trampoline.
Elsewhere on the show, Murray Monster conducts mini-experiments on the streets of New York with real-life children, discovering what bridge design holds the most weight and how a boat’s shape helps it float. Last season, Elmo began starring in a daily musical of his imagination that sneakily incorporates math; in “Guacamole,” he quizzes the “Rhombus of Recipes” and adds up the avocados on two trees.
On Sept. 24, the material - as well as new videos, online and mobile games, and parent and teacher resources - will find a new home online when Sesame Workshop unveils a hub on the “Sesame Street” website called “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More.”
“Sesame Street” is just one of many television programs trying to teach math and science to preschoolers. Even young children can learn basic scientific concepts, experts in educational development say. Most children are already curious about everything from weather patterns to what sinks and floats in the bath.
“They actually are already thinking about these things,” said Kimberly Brenneman, assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research and an education adviser for PBS’s “Sid the Science Kid.” Educators, she said, can “create a show that is likely to meet kids where they are, and go a little further.”
Results of two studies with nearly 600 children conducted by the Workshop “demonstrate that children can learn sophisticated vocabulary and valuable science concepts from ‘Sesame Street,’” according to a presentation by Truglio and her colleagues at the International Communications Association in May 2011.
A just-completed third study with 337 children confirmed the results, said Jennifer Kotler, the Workshop’s vice president for research and evaluation. Kotler’s team tested elements of the show’s programming with children in low- and middle-income day care centers. Through one-on-one interviews, the researchers assessed what the children knew before watching the programming and what they retained afterward.
The children were asked open-ended questions, like “If you wanted to engineer something, what would you do?” and “What will a ramp help you do?” In the most recent study, the children’s correct response rate was 25 percent before watching the videos; after repeated viewings, the figure was 38 percent, a 52 percent improvement. On multiple-choice questions, correct responses rose to 72 percent from 62 percent.
But while children may be learning science from “Sesame Street,” several educators noted that a television show alone can only teach so much.
“Children are natural scientists,” said Kathy Conezio, a preschool science teacher and curriculum developer in Rochester, N.Y., who advised “Sesame Street” on science content. Television gives children “a way of talking about what they are exploring,” she added, but “it’s better to have an adult doing it with you.”