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Study on characters’ educational influence gets $2.5 million grant

SoC Ellen Wartella

Can relationships formed with media characters like Dora the Explorer or Elmo help young children learn science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills?

A team of researchers at the Northwestern University School of Communication, University of California, Riverside, and Georgetown University hopes to answer that question in a five-year project funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. UCR’s share of the grant is $885,745.

The collaborators on the project are Ellen Wartella, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication, professor of psychology and professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University; Rebekah Richert, associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside and principal investigator on the research project; and Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center and professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

In a series of studies with children ages 18 months to 6 years, the researchers will examine how toddlers and preschoolers learn from educational media and how that can support STEM education.

“We believe that young children think of media characters they like as important social friends and that this parasocial relationship can set the stage for utilizing such characters to encourage young children’s learning about science and math education,” Wartella said. “We hope to stimulate interest in using media characters to promote STEM education in the preschool and early elementary years.”

Wartella, who joined the Northwestern faculty in 2010, heads the Center for Media and Human Development at Northwestern. She researches the effects of media on children and adolescents, and the impact of food marketing in the childhood obesity crisis.

The psychologists also will conduct a workshop at Northwestern in spring 2014 involving experts in science education, computer-game design, and television learning for children to consider how best to direct future research to achieve the greatest impact on educational television programs and computer games.