'Sesame Street' Strives to Combine Humor and Science

For more than 40 years, preschoolers have been asking how to get to Sesame Street; after the show's latest season, which began in September 2011, these children might be able to calculate just how many miles they need to travel to get there. Welcome to the 'new' Sesame Street, brought to you by the subjects Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

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Getting the Average U.S. Student Above Average

According to the most recent data (2009's Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA), U.S. students simply don't match up with kids in many other countries when it comes to certain subjects. Out of 65 industrialized nations included in the study, American students aged 15 ranked 23rd in science and 30th in math.

How can we fix the problem? Some believe you have to start young. So: enter Elmo and company.

Or, should we say, Professor Elmo and company?

The 'Sesame Effect'

What experts are counting on is what has been called the 'Sesame effect': preschoolers who watch the program often grow up to do better in high school.

Overall, higher grade point averages and better grades in math, science and English have been observed in high school students who tuned in to Sesame Street as toddlers as compared to students who might have spent time watching other programs.

So, it is hoped that the combination of the 'Sesame effect' and President Obama's 2009 pledge to improve STEM education over the next ten years will prove to be a powerful combination in the effort to put U.S. students back at the top of the pack.

Making the Unfunny Funny

Even those associated with the show acknowledge that it can be difficult to make serious subjects humorous. Still, they are intent on keeping it funny. Head writer Joey Mazzarino recently told USA Today: 'If it's not funny, we don't do it.'

But how to make serious subjects like science and math funny? It seems that if anyone can do it, Sesame Street and its gang of Muppets can. For instance, in one episode Elmo has a rather disastrous time while engineering an automatic spaghetti server; in another, Grover helping a cow maneuver up stairs turns out to be a humorous lesson on inclined planes.

Also look for Murray the orange monster to conduct simple, recurring science experiments that are sure to result in both laughter and learning.

The Letter S: Science and Slapstick

There will also be subtler ways to keep scientific accuracy while still maintaining the humor. For instance, in a nod to Newton's Laws of Motion, characters who hit a wall will bounce back a bit and then fall to the ground rather than sticking to the wall and sliding to the floor.

Executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente called it a 'more scientifically accurate slapstick.'

Basically, it remains to be seen if the emphasis on math and science will yield positive results and eventually turn those 2009 figures around. But you have to consider: have Elmo, Big Bird, the Cookie Monster and all of the other wonderful characters on Sesame Street ever let us down before?

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