“I’m constantly being advised by the best in the business,” Ferraro said. “It feels like they’re totally my safety net. I’m not going to mess something up; I’m not going to give bad information.”
This vetting is important, as even some award-winning children’s books and TV shows have been shown to include erroneous scientific concepts. A 2008 review in the Journal of Elementary Science Education found that many children’s books, including Caldecott Medal and Honor books, inaccurately wrote about or illustrated the moon. One common misconception is that the phases of the moon are caused by Earth’s shadow, when in reality, the Earth casts a shadow on the moon only once or twice a year, during a lunar eclipse. Sweetman said she has seen popular children’s TV programs teach that seeds need sunlight to grow. “There’s no light underground!” she laughed.
It’s not just children Sesame Street hopes to educate, but parents as well. The more adults hear scientific vocabulary and concepts, the more they can practice them with their children. Educating and entertaining both age groups is what Ferraro called the “secret sauce” of Sesame Street.
“Kids are caught up in the humor and the silliness and don’t even realize that they’re learning along the way,” she said.
Episodes like the one about the cow being unable to descend stairs are designed to give something different to each age group. A very young child will understand the concept of a ramp, while an older child will learn what a hypothesis means. Some laughs are directed straight at the adults in the room: When Super Grover suggests that the cow dance down the steps and she tells him she can’t, he quips, “I see, you’re a heifer, not a hoofer.”
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The STEM curriculum doesn’t stop at the TV. Sesame Workshop also has designed an online STEM hub, called Little Discoverers, that puts the subjects such as engineering, measurements, buoyancy, force and motion, and properties of matter in an interactive online format and suggests hands-on activities for parents and teachers to do with children. The hub features Elmo and Abby, because the Sesame Workshop team wanted a female presence to encourage STEM studies for young girls.
As important and necessary as the STEM material is for early learners, an equally important lesson for both children and adults comes from Grover’s willingness to explore the unknown with positivity and resilience.
“It’s okay if you don’t know an answer,” Truglio said in an interview with The 74, which published this story in partnership with The Atlantic. “What you have to do then is respond, ‘That’s a great question. Let’s find out together.’ That language really allows them to become real STEM-ists.”
For early learners and adults looking for STEM help, look to the sky and yell. Super Grover will come, crash-landing to the rescue.
This story was produced in collaboration with The74Million.org.