Kareem Edouard has been doing research for years on how to make children’s media more inclusive. And these days he’s putting those ideas into practice — on a big platform.
He’s applying his research as a creative producer for a new show on PBS called Work It Out Wombats!, aimed at teaching concepts of computational thinking to kids ages 3 to 6.
Edouard is no stranger to making media. Before he became an academic, he spent years producing TV commercials and music videos. Then he switched careers to become a kindergarten teacher and later a high school teacher before going back to get a doctorate in education from Stanford University.
Today, he’s an assistant professor in learning sciences and STEM education at Drexel University’s School of Education, and he leads the university’s Informal Learning Linking Engineering Science and Technology (ILLEST Lab).
EdSurge sat down with Edouard to talk about how his research informs his new animated TV show and how he thinks the media industry needs to change to help draw more Black students into STEM fields.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What is the gap that you’ve seen in children’s entertainment around STEM topics that you’re trying to fill?
Kareem Edouard: The primary work with my production hat is nuance. We have this broad discussion around equity and inclusion, but we miss the cultural nuance of representation across the spectrum, particularly for young children. And the work that I do — both in an academic space and then also the production work — is making sure that the missing voices, particularly of Black and brown students, immigrant students and LGBTQ students, are represented across a wide [range of media], particularly in children’s STEM media.
That does two things. One, it provides motivation and inspiration, when you see yourself reflected back at you. And the second thing we run into is the lack of creators [of entertainment shows], the actual creators of the content that also look like the young people that we’re looking to reach.
When you were a kid watching children’s shows, did you feel like there was something missing?
As a young Black male, there was always the coming of age story, and it was always white male-focused. So Luke Skywalker in Star Wars — very white male-focused — as well as all the cartoons.
And I’m not saying that we didn’t have any representation [in media], but the representation wasn’t direct enough to speak to me, to see myself reflected back where I felt confident, I felt appreciated and I also felt the nuance of who I am seeing on screen. And part of that was that a lot of it was through a white gaze.
There was a very limited discussion on how we represented Black boys, for instance. If you’re old enough to remember the TV show “Recess,” one of the characters was a Black male wearing a basketball jersey and high-tops. There still was something missing, in the fact that this character was very flat — which most ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons were very flat to start with — but it was really flat, particularly for Black boys and Black girls.
So you’re saying it felt out of balance?
My parents are from Haiti, so being not only Black, but also being Haitian was another part of the immigrant story that I was looking to see reflected back. And we didn’t see that. It was always a very particular East Coast story of what a Black boy was.
So the work that I do, particularly at the ILLEST Lab, is that we look to challenge those constructs and really try to advance this conversation that there are opportunities not only to see ourselves, but to also be active creators in the process.
In your career, you have also been an elementary and high school teacher. How has that informed your thinking?No. 1, young people aren’t really listening to you as a teacher, they are absorbing culture outside of the classroom. So Carol Lee is an academic that I really hold dear in my heart, and she frames it through this conversation of ‘cultural modeling.’ So you bring what’s outside in the culture into the classroom. And one of the first lines of engagement for young people is the media that they’re consuming. So the kindergarten teachers that I would hang out with and work with, they would always reference their cartoons. So we would do work critiquing some of the cartoons that they were watching and really having a discussion of how to impact their own development.
The second thing is just to be very direct. It’s not just cartoons. This is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it has tracks where you can get government funding. And then you also have multiple streaming platforms that are paying millions for creators to develop. So the young people, they’re starting to understand and see that, and they’re now beginning to ask questions as to how they can have representation and access to content that really is not only for them and their own personal growth development, but then also where this content sits in the cultural zeitgeist.
How did you come to work on a show for PBS applying your research?
The idea already existed — by two wonderful executive producers, Marcy Gunther and Marisa Wolsky at WGBH Boston — who approached me to have a conversation about diversity and equity. So they had the framework, the roadmap of this show, and they really wanted to figure out how they could make this show even more accessible.
So the first thing I did with my partner, Dr. Darlene Edouard, we came together and we watched some early samples of the show and started to think about, what are the cultural touchpoints?
One thing was the intro and the musical framing [of the theme]. So we made sure we put some raps in there, and I remember sitting with the young actors and walking them through how to hit the different points in the rap to give them a really clear, nuanced expression of how to perform this.
What’s the basic premise of the show?
It centers around the three wombats — Malik, Sadie and Zeke — and the matriarch of their family, Grandma Super. They all live in a tree, and it follows them using computational thinking (CT) skills to solve problems. And part of it is centered around how these young wombats are engaging — not only solving problems in the neighborhood, but then navigating the community that’s built.
So part of what the wombats do for us as far as having this discourse, particularly having a grandmother be the head of the family, is there are many of our students or our viewers who live in a family without a mother and father, but grandma raises them. … Really what we tried to do in the designing of the “treeborhood” was reflect what America looks like. And then also couching in the fact that we’re talking about CT skills and how important that is.
How do you work STEM themes into a show for such young kids?
So this is a team thing. I’m sitting here, but it’s still a team thing. And my favorite episode is the cornbread episode. So No. 1, we started the cultural framing talking about, how do you make cornbread? Everybody makes cornbread differently, and we wanted to engage that in the show. But part of a CT framing is process, logic and organization.
They wanted to make Grandma Super’s special cornbread, but they were missing ingredients. So they had to taste different types of cornbread to figure out and isolate what was the missing ingredient. And this is the work that you do when you’re starting to code and you’re going through nested “if” statements. But how do you present that to a 3- to 5-year-old, right? So part of it is making sure that we couch all of those seven CT skills within activities and also storylines that later, when you go to the website, you play the interactive game or you engage in any of the curriculum that you find in the classroom, that’s where not only the games, but then also the teachers are able to continue to reinforce the learning that was done on the show.
Do you think things are changing and improving in representations of STEM in children’s media broadly?
No. The creative and the writing teams are still not reflective of the audience that they’re looking to approach. And then second, [there’s a need to] provide fellowship and opportunities for the career pathway for folks that are in the underrepresented communities to be a part of it.
One of the things at Work It Out Wombats that we pride ourselves on is that we have a writing fellowship because myself and my wife made it very clear that in order to create these cultural, nuanced discussions, we need writers, not only writers that are underrepresented, but we also need women. We also need folks from immigrant backgrounds because we have characters on here that are from various backgrounds. In order to have a real authentic voice for all of these characters to be presented, you need the writers to create that.
How does your lab play into that?
The primary focus is, how do we create culturally sustaining STEM engagement for Black children? And we have something called the Sneaker Lab where I have about 600 sneakers in there, and we design and create sneakers through the concept of material science. And being in the animation business and working in a space where creativity is at its real apex, I decided to open an animation lab [in ILLEST Lab] and I’m bringing Black students from West Philadelphia High School to come into the lab and engage.
It’s right now in its beginning stages, where we’re doing a little bit of stop-motion work. In the latest Spider-Verse movie there’s a [14-year-old] Black male who was making animation on YouTube and TikTok who was asked to come in and create a sequence with Legos for the movie. And I think those are the opportunities that we need to start cultivating and beginning to strategize to get as many young people to be in this space so they can design and create, so that way they can get opportunities further down the line.
Listen to the full conversation on this week’s EdSurge Podcast.