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Can Oscar the Grouch teach a new generation of scientists?

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The trash-loving Oscar the Grouch will help kids get interested in STEM this season on PBS's Sesame Street. (Photo: From http://www.sesamestreet.org)

Many blogs in this column have advocated for charismatic and dynamic role models to get kids interested in science. Well, someone waved her magic wand and answered our call. In September, USA Today and the major TV networks reported that the producers of the hugely popular Sesame Street will introduce science to its pre-school audience. Crazy though it may sound, the new Fall season of the PBS classic will be brought to you by the letters S, T, E and M . . .  more commonly known as the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Now in its 42nd season, Sesame Street and its cast of characters Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and the rest of the gang will build bridges, launch rockets, and think through problems that require trial and error, observation, and data collection. In other words, they'll be asking our toddlers to think like scientists and engineers.

But are parents ready for this? The show's producers definitely think so. Rosemarie Truglio, vice president for education and research at Sesame Workshop which produces the show, says "Young children are natural scientists. They're exploring the world around them and trying to figure out how it works." Carol-Lynn Parente, the show's executive producer, says "It really boils down to asking questions, observing, making a hypothesis and testing it out,"

Can Sesame Street pave the way to a career path in science? For 30 years, researchers have studied something called the "Sesame Effect" and found that exposure to the show as a pre-schooler meant higher achievement in high school. Frequent viewers got better grades in English, Math and Science and had a higher grade point average than non-viewers.

Sandra Calvert, a researcher at Georgetown University says "Sesame Street is teaching the children the pre-requisites for learning, like recognizing numbers, and letters, so when they begin school, they are ready and wired to learn." 

It remains to be seen whether the show will have a measurable impact. What we do know is that among 65 industrialized nations, 15-year-old high school students in the US placed 23rd in science and 30th in math behind countries like Finland, Slovakia, and Estonia. In another international study, US 4th-graders faired slightly better, entering the top 10 among 35 participating nations.

Sesame Street is no stranger to complex issues. Over four decades, the show has helped kids tackle everything from divorce to diversity. Let's hope that Oscar and the gang can perform some Harry Potter wizardry and help more U.S. students climb the scientific achievement ladder. It's never too early to influence the next generation of scientists.

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The trash-loving Oscar the Grouch will help kids get interested in STEM this season on PBS's Sesame Street. (Photo: From http://www.sesamestreet.org)
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