Current Projects

Food Marketing to Youth Across TV, Websites, Video Games, and Apps

Children’s media have historically been rooted in characters—from Mister Rogers and Big Bird to Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. Unlike any previous technological age, however, children now encounter these characters across media platforms, including television programs and advertisements, computer games, video games, and mobile apps. In some cases, food and beverage companies use branded or licensed media characters to promote their products to children across these platforms. This character-based marketing practice may be particularly influential when it comes to children’s food and beverage preferences in the real world. Although media characters populate all aspects of children’s lives, little is known about the underlying reasons for why character-based marketing may influence children’s food preferences and consumption patterns. For example, who exactly are the media characters used in marketing to children? And why are certain media characters able to persuade children to prefer and to consume specific foods and beverages? To answer these questions, the Center on Media and Human Development is working in collaboration with the Children’s Digital Media Center on an NSF-sponsored project that examines food marketing to youth.

Teaching Reproductive Health through Media

As part of an NICHD grant, we currently are conducting formative research in support of a series of educational video shorts that will teach preadolescents about puberty and human reproduction. We recently held focus groups with 7- to 12-year-old children as a part of this effort. Children were asked about their experiences learning and understanding of reproductive anatomy, puberty, menstruation, and conception, as well as their attitudes towards preliminary materials from that might be used in the show. Children in this age range receive formal sexual education in 5th and 7th grade, and informal lessons from family members and peers. Despite recent increases in access to Internet and federal funding for formal sexual education, these children were just as uninformed about these topics as youth were in the 1980’s and ’90’s. That said, children around the age 10 were very receptive to the idea of watching a high quality series of educational shorts centered around these topics. Another wave of formative testing will take place in the Fall.

Foundation of Music: The Impact of a School-Based Digital Music Program on Engaging Strengths of African American Youth

Contextual factors such as poverty, racism, exposure to violence and living in inner-city neighborhoods provides unique vulnerability for Black youth (Graves, Kaslow, & Frabutt, 2010).  One of the major issues facing many cities in America is figuring out how to adequately engage with these youths.  This study evaluates the program outcomes of Foundation of Music’s school based hip-hop songwriting and digital music production program (SWP) in seven Chicago elementary schools. The program is a year –long music class being piloted in low income communities of color with youth aged 11 to 14 years. The intention of this ongoing evaluation is to assess the effectiveness of the program’s stated goals and objectives of promoting pro-social behavior, self efficacy with digital media, STEM learning outcomes and engaging strengths within participants.

Teachers &  Media Technology in the Classroom

The Center on Media and Human Development is examining data collected by the Fred Rogers Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children to understand teacher attitudes and use of technology in their classrooms. Findings have been published in Computers & Education as well as “Technology in the Lives of Teachers and Classrooms,” a report for the Fred Rogers Center.

Supporting Science Talk

Graduate student Bri Hightower received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to fund her research investigating how families with preschool children engage in science talk together. Through interviews and focus groups, Hightower will uncover how families are already naturally engaging in science-talk and identify opportunities when science-talk could be added to parent-child interactions. Hightower’s project will culminate in an intervention designed to provoke parent-child science talk.


Young Children’s STEM Learning from Media
The Center on Media and Human Development is working in collaboration with the Children’s Digital Media Center and the Childhood Cognition Lab on a second NSF-sponsored project to study very young children’s learning of STEM content from media characters. Some of the projects that have been conducted on children’s STEM learning from media include:

Parent-Child Co-Use of Interactive STEM Apps 

Much research shows that children learn more when they co-view television with their parents compared to watching alone, particularly because parents can highlight and discuss important learning concepts with their children. Given this research, we are interested in how parents and children use educational apps together on a touchscreen device, and whether co-use affects children’s learning. We are currently conducting research that investigates how parents and their 4-year-old children interact while using an app together that is designed to teach children the building-blocks of coding. We are also interested in whether parent-child interaction varies across situations and contexts, and therefore are observing parents and children using the app together and also playing with blocks. We hope this research will help us better understand how parents and children use interactive devices together, whether there are differences between how parents interact with their children around media and non-media, and how to support parent-child interactions in a way that promotes children’s learning.

Parent Attitudes about STEM Learning and Media

We are interviewing parents to learn how they engage their preschool child in math and science learning outside of school and to uncover if media is being used to support their child’s informal learning. These interviews will help inform the development of the STEM Survey that will be distributed during Summer 2017.

Character Portrayals in STEM-focused Educational Television Shows and their Impact on Children’s Attitudes Towards STEM

STEM skills are essential to preparing children for an increasingly technological global workforce. Yet, children in many countries, including the U.S., continue to fall behind their international peers in these areas. Interest in STEM is especially low for female and minority students in the U.S., which leads to lower achievement and less participation in these fields later in life. These early achievement gaps may be exacerbated by the mass media. Content analyses reveal that characters engaging in math and science on TV are overwhelmingly male and white. However, there is potential for counter-stereotypical portrayals to counteract these traditional stereotypes. Encouragingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that educational television shows created in recent years have begun to feature more diverse characters, but the effect of these positive portrayals is yet unknown. The goal of this project is to understand the current landscape of characters featured in STEM television for young children today through a content analysis (Study 1), and to experimentally investigate whether children’s exposure to these programs and identification with featured characters can increase their attitudes and efficacy towards STEM, especially for girls and children of color (Study 2). 

What STEM topics are represented on Children’s STEM TV? A Content Analysis of Programming on U.S. Television

Early learning of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is important for developing children’s interest and achievement in these disciplines (Watts, Duncan, Siegler, & Davis-Kean, 2014). Considering that children can learn science and math from educational television (Fisch, 2014), it is important to understand what science and math topics are present in television shows for young children. We analyzed 20 U.S. children’s programs that were described as STEM programs and assessed their depictions of STEM content based on math and science learning standards. The results demonstrate that STEM television programs for young children frequently represented foundational math and science topics, such as “scientific practices,” “living things,” and “working with numbers,” but represented others skills, such as “energy,” “forces,” and “natural hazards,” less often.

Learning to Code in the Classroom

Coding is emerging as an important piece of STEM and efforts to begin building foundational coding skills are already underway in the early childhood education space. We conducted a naturalistic observation of a week-long summer enrichment camp for preschoolers designed to teach coding via two tablet-based apps; Daisy the Dinosaur and Kodable. We administered pre- and post-assessments of app familiarity, coding knowledge, game knowledge, and app appeal over the course of the week. Parents with children enrolled in the larger summer enrichment program also completed an online survey describing their attitudes and beliefs around STEM learning, as well as their experiences with media and interactive technology.

Measuring with Murray: Touchscreen technology and preschoolers’ STEM learning

Early exposure to STEM-related concepts is critical to later academic achievement. Given the rise of tablet-computer use in early childhood education settings, interactive technology might be one particularly fruitful way of supplementing early STEM education. Using a between-subjects experimental design, we sought to determine whether preschoolers could learn a fundamental math concept (i.e., measurement with non-standard units) from educational technology, and whether interactivity is a crucial component of learning from that technology. Participants who either played an interactive tablet-based game or viewed a non-interactive video demonstrated greater transfer of knowledge than those assigned to a control condition. Interestingly, interactivity contributed to better performance on near transfer tasks, while participants in the non-interactive condition performed better on far transfer tasks. Our findings suggest that, while preschool-aged children can learn early STEM skills from educational technology, interactivity may only further support learning in certain contexts.