Dean's Notes: Tapping the Research Potential of WKAR and PBS KIDS

When WKAR Family was launched in January 2017, we made a commitment to Lansing Schools that we will provide a PBS KIDS Playtime Pad for every student in kindergarten. With that commitment, we were on the hook for approximately 1,200 tablets. Set aside the minor detail that we had no funding for the project. At every turn, there was a hurdle we had not anticipated.

Our team wouldn't take no for an answer. After a 10-month journey fueled by our commitment to the children in the Lansing community, we delivered the first batch of Playtime Pads to kindergartners at Kendon Elementary.

As students sat cross-legged in anticipation, the suspense was palpable. At the count of three,  the device came out of the box and within a few minutes, wide-eyed joy was transformed into hidden magical powers. Little fingers swiped at the screen, unlocking new games and discovering the joys of creativity and problem-solving. Within minutes, our kindergartners were at ease, playing games, working the camera and even deploying the tablet as a shield from enemy fire.

When Bob Floden, Dean of the College of Education, asked, “Who likes to do math?” little hands went up with no hesitation. Ditto for their enthusiasm for science. They were oblivious to research that suggests the odds are stacked against them. But the findings are for real. Before these children enter middle school, their interest in math and science will wane. By the time they enter college, only a small fraction will pursue studies in STEM areas.

What turns unbridled enthusiasm for science and math in kindegarten into crippling distaste for STEM subjects in middle and high school? The tablet project in Lansing Schools aims to address this question. The project is a collaborative effort among WKAR TV, home to Curious Crew, a successful STEM program for tweens, and PBS KIDS, a trusted household brand in children’s education.  With funding support from NSF, VP for Research at MSU, and the Rotary Club of Lansing, we have teamed with MSU colleagues to examine benefits of interactive media on improving STEM education.

But a tablet is not a magic bullet. At best, technology is a facilitator. At worst, it can be a nuisance in the classroom. It will take the collective resolve of communities to address the STEM crisis in education. No doubt, it will require the collective efforts of students, teachers and parents. It will also require researchers to quickly translate findings into evidence-based practices.

Tablets in the hands of kindergartners in Lansing Schools offer a platform to test new models of instruction to nurture interest in science and math. Seeing the joy in the eyes, I was reminded of the final scene in Monsters Inc., when Sulley comes to the realization that laughter and fun are far more powerful than primal screams of fear. In there is a lesson for STEM education.

By Prabu David