Educational media benefits childrens STEM learning

January 1st, 2016

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Electronic media also have a long history of exposing children to informal STEM content, from the debut of television series such as Mr. Wizard in 1951 through the various educational television series, Web sites, and interactive games available today.  Research has shown that such media can hold significant benefits for children’s STEM knowledge, process skills, and attitudes toward science and mathematics.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Impact on Knowledge

Numerous educational television series have been found to produce significant gains in children’s knowledge of science or mathematics content.  For school-age children, this includes research on television series such as 3-2-1 Contact (Cambre & Fernie, 1985; Johnston, 1980; Johnston & Luker, 1983; Wagner, 1985), Fetch (Peterman, 2006), Bill Nye the Science Guy (Rockman Et Al., 1996), Cro (Fay, Teasley, Cheng, Bachman, & Schnakenberg, 1995; Goodman, Rylander, & Ross, 1993), and Cyberchase (Flagg, 2003-2010); (Fisch 2003), (Fisch 2010), among others.  In many cases, the targeted STEM concepts would be difficult for children to experience directly without electronic media, as in Dragonfly TV’s enhancing fifth graders’ understanding of nanotechnology (Flagg, 2009).  Nor are the benefits limited to school-age children; regular preschool viewing of Sesame Street has been found to contribute, not only to immediate effects on knowledge of early mathematics content, but also to long-term performance in school, including performance in science, math, and language arts classes as late as junior high and high school see(Fisch & Truglio, 2001) for a review.

Computer games and software can also lead to gains in children’s STEM knowledge.  For example, Ardac and Akaygun (2004) found that eighth graders displayed greater understanding of physical and chemical changes if they had learned with the aid of software that allowed them to simultaneously view videos of experiments, chemical equations, molecular drawings, and simple animations.

Process skills

Beyond comprehension of the STEM concepts shown, sustained viewing of educational television series can also improve process skills among school-age children.  This has been evident in effects of, for example, Bill Nye the Science Guy on children’s hands-on science experimentation (Rockman Et Al., 1996), SciGirls and Design Squad on engineering design process (Flagg, 2010)(Vaughan, Pressman, & Goodman, 2007), and Square One TV and Cyberchase on mathematical problem solving (Fisch, 2003; Hall, Esty, & Fisch, 1990).  Similarly, interactive games can provide a platform for children to exercise and develop their skills, as seen in research on data gathering in a multi-user virtual environment (Ketelhut, 2007), scientific argumentation while playing the augmented reality game Mad City (Squire & Jan, 2007), or mathematical reasoning during online Cyberchase math games (Fisch, Lesh, Motoki, Crespo, & Melfi, 2011).

Some effects on process skills have appeared even among preschoolers.  For example, Beck and Murack (2004) found that, when presented with the same sorts of explorations shown in the animated television series Peep and the Big Wide World, preschool viewers of the series were significantly more likely than non-viewers to initiate predictions and observations, identify problems, use problem-solving strategies, and solve the problems.

Attitudes toward STEM

Educational television has also been found to have significant effects on children’s attitudes toward STEM, although these effects have been moderate in size and less consistent than effects on knowledge.  (Attitudinal effects have not been studied as extensively for interactive games, beyond the appeal of engaging in the game itself.)  It is not clear whether attitudinal effects have often been more moderate because the materials were not as strong in this regard, because attitudes are difficult to measure (making it difficult to detect change), or because attitudes are more resistant to change than knowledge.  Some combination of these factors seems likely to have played a role.

Nevertheless, in some studies of educational television, sustained viewing did lead to significant improvement in attitudes toward STEM, such as the impact of 3-2-1 Contact or Cro on children’s interest in science and technology (Cambre & Fernie, 1985; Fay et al., 1995; Johnston, 1980; Johnston & Luker, 1983; Wagner, 1985), Dragonfly TV on perceptions of the importance of experimental methods (Rockman Et Al, 2003) , SciGirls on confidence in engineering design process (Flagg, 2010)), and Square One TV on conceptions of math, enjoyment of mathematics, and motivation to pursue challenging mathematical tasks (Hall et al., 1990). Several education scholars argue (Alvermann & Hagood, 2000; Buckingham, 2003) that the media’s capacity to promote positive attitudes towards science is maximized when children understand how media texts are constructed. The limited research on media literacy and science shows that when media literacy is added to the science curriculum it helps students critically analyze scientific images in entertainment texts (Steinke et al., 2007)(Steinke et al., 2009).


This cumulative body of research stands as strong evidence for the power of educational television and interactive media to serve as tools for informal science education. Media also is a remarkably efficient tool for STEM engagement. Despite a high initial cost, Nielsen ratings indicate that individual broadcast programs engage viewers for 15-60 minutes for a cost of approximately twenty five cents per person.

This is not to say, of course, that all media are necessarily equally effective.  However, research has pointed to production approaches and techniques that can be employed to help maximize the educational effectiveness of an interactive game or television program.

Effective, well-produced educational media can combine with all of the other sources of formal and informal STEM learning in children’s lives.  Together, they can enrich knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and set children on a long-term trajectory of success.


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