The Powerpuff Girls and We Bare Bears are about far more than just entertainment. The popular animated programs are also part of the Cartoon Network's $30 million commitment to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) efforts to help kids learn more about coding and innovation.
In fact, timing the announcement with Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 5-11, Cartoon Network has created a new STEAM advisory board filled with tech and academic experts to help shape the network's offerings. The commitment to STEAM is in conjunction with President Obama's Computer Science for All initiative.
"We aspire to foster the next generation of creators and innovators. It's one thing that's really true to our DNA and who we are. We've actually been doing this forever, since the dawn of time, but we haven't been calling it STEAM," said Jill King, senior vice president of Cartoon Network.
Integrating more STEAM components into programs means that children are learning more about what it really means to work in a computer science field.
"We have an opportunity to tell these stories and show kids and girls what a role looks like in computer science. We have the opportunity to break stereotypes," King said. "The Powerpuff Girls' team wrote in a storyline about Bubbles, who was a coder, and she was basically coding her sisters into the internet to fight the bad guys and save the internet."
"Computer science has this stereotype of a white male alone, hacking away at his computer. But that's not all it is," King said. "Computer science can be about working in a team. You can find computer science in anything you're working in. If you're interested in fashion, you can find a computer science job in fashion. We want to put in front of kids and girls that, 'hey you can work together in computer science,'"
The children who watch Cartoon Network are part of the post-Millennial generation tagged as the Pluralist generation, with its members known as Plurals. The generation consists of kids born after 1997, and most are growing up with tablets and smartphones in their hands.
Through its programming, games, apps and website, Cartoon Network has a multi-platform reach. The advisory board will allow the network to accelerate and expand its reach and to give kids the confidence to become the next generation of creators, animators and makers, King said.
"We know what we don't know. We know that we're experts as it relates to this generation and how kids relate to content and technology. And we're experts in developing shows and worlds that are relevant to kids. But we knew as it relates to STEAM we needed to go out and find that expert thought to guide our strategy," she said.
Last year, the network began a partnership with MIT Media Lab's Scratch project and Google's Made with Code to leverage coding so that kids can express ideas, craft stories and create art. In the past 12 months, kids have built and shared more than 50,000 animations, games and other creations through the We Bare Bears tutorial on MIT's Scratch.
Made with Code pulls stories and characters into coding activities so that kids can create animation and games. There's even a GIF-making tool that allows children to create their own Powerpuff Girls GIFs.
"We have a great opportunity to introduce coding to kids through our characters and our shows," King said. And it's not about learning to code, it's coding to learn because that allows for more creativity and self-expression, and allowing them to find their voice, she said.
Part of the goal is to overcome gender and racial inequities and to reach more under-represented children and give them hands-on experiences with computer science in a way they might not have had before, King said.
Karen Peterson, a new board member and CEO of National Girls Collaborative, said, "Research tells us that girls are much more likely to respond to computer science engagement that is both relevant to their interests and multidisciplinary. Cartoon Network is well positioned to lead in this arena, given how familiar and appealing their content is to those we are trying to reach. I'm thrilled to join this important effort and share Cartoon Network's offerings throughout the National Girls Collaborative Project network, which brings together organizations throughout the country committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in computer science and other STEM disciplines."
And Mimi Ito, professor in residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine, said "The research is clear. If we want more kids engaged in tech, we need to connect to what they are already engaged and interested in. What better way to do this than through beloved cartoon characters and content? Cartoon Network's commitment to CS for All offers a uniquely powerful opportunity to reach and spark an interest in coding among kids who might not see already themselves as techies."
The new advisory board also includes Zach Klein, CEO of DIY Co., Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert professor of learning research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, and Diana Skaar, head of business innovation for Robotics at X, formerly Google[x].
Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:
- The Cartoon Network has created a new advisory board to focus on STEAM programming for children.
- The new advisory board is part of the network's $30 million commitment to STEAM initiatives.
- Last year, the network began a partnership with MIT Media Lab's Scratch project and Google's Made with Code to leverage coding so that kids can express ideas, craft stories and create art.
- 100 million students worldwide will learn to code this week for Hour of Code (TechRepublic)
- How 'Hour of Code' sparked a movement that could teach 100 million people to code (TechRepublic)
- Get started coding with one (or several) of these 10 free resources for learning to code(TechRepublic)
- How "returnships" can get working mothers back into tech (TechRepublic)
- Predictions 2017: A year of action (ZDNet)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.