Rebekah Richert, associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, said that many people are involved in designing educational games, and there is a lot of interest in creating high-quality and interactive media.
"On the surface they seem likely to help children learn. But there can be big gaps between what technology offers and what children really learn."
In a series of studies with children ages 18 months to 6 years, the researchers will examine how toddlers and preschoolers learn from educational media and how that can support STEM education.
Among the questions the NSF-funded project will attempt to answer is which characters or types of characters in children's media - like the popular Dora the Explorer, created for Nickelodeon, or Sesame Street's Elmo - could be used to stimulate STEM learning.
The psychologists also will conduct a workshop at Northwestern in spring 2014 involving experts in science education, computer-game design, and television learning for children to consider how best to direct future research to achieve the greatest impact on educational television programs and computer games.
Richert said that at the end of five years they hope to be able to provide information about or be actively involved in designing high-quality television programs and games that are most likely to engage children in STEM learning.