KU education just what she needed for Sesame Street

Rosemarie Truglio

Rosemarie Truglio remembers just what she thought when her adviser at Rutgers University told her she’d found the perfect graduate-school program for her, and it was at Kansas University: That’s not happening.

“I didn’t even know where Kansas is,” said Truglio, who grew up in Hoboken, N.J.

But her mind changed in time, and now she says KU is exactly the stop she needed to make between New Jersey and where she is now: in New York City, where she works as one of the minds behind “Sesame Street.”

Truglio is the senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street” and other children’s programming. In that job, she oversees the curriculum that guides not just what Big Bird, Cookie Monster and other puppets do on the TV screen, but also the toys, websites, smartphone apps and other media that go along with the show. She also manages the heaps of research that go into forming that curriculum, and that’s where her KU education comes in.

“I don’t think people realize how much work goes on behind the scenes,” Truglio said.

She earned a Ph.D. in developmental and child psychology from KU, and in September she’ll be honored in New York at one of a new series of events held around the country this year to honor distinguished alumni of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

After her initial skepticism, Truglio wound up coming to graduate school at KU in 1983 without even visiting the campus first. She picked a Ph.D. program in what is now KU’s Department of Applied Behavior Science, in part because she learned of the research being done by two then-faculty members — John Wright and Aletha Huston — on the effects of television on children.

She received her doctorate in 1990, writing her dissertation on the effects of primetime TV on adolescents’ sexual education. She joined the faculty at the Teachers College at Columbia University before going to work on “Sesame Street” in 1997.

Everything she does now is based on the experience in researching developmental psychology that she first gained at KU, she said in a phone interview.

“It really is a perfect position,” Truglio said.

She leads a staff that researches everything that “Sesame Street” cranks out, from the 26 TV episodes per year to two smartphone apps for kids.

After they pick a subject area to emphasize with the children who watch — two areas of emphasis right now are physical health and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — they first research what kids know and what they need to learn about that subject. As segments of the show, toys or other pieces of content are created, they’re tested with experts and children. After shows have aired or an app has been released, Truglio’s group measures how much kids are learning.

“The real experts are the children,” Truglio said.

For example, after President Obama began to call for better STEM education for America’s students, Truglio and her staff went to work forming a science- and math-focused curriculum for “Sesame Street.”

That curriculum has shown up on the show in the form of “Super Grover 2.0,” a segment in which skinny blue monster Grover assumes a superhero alterego to do a bit of engineering-related problem solving. In one episode, Grover (Truglio’s favorite “Sesame Street” character) must engineer a solution to help a cow get down from one floor to another without using stairs, and he discovers that a ramp will do the job. At sesamestreet.org, children can play interactive “Super Grover” games to build science and math skills.

“We’re teaching really big concepts, but we’re doing it in an age-appropriate way for children,” Truglio said. “And parents.” That last part is important, she says: “Sesame Street” producers want adults and children to watch and play together.

In a way, Truglio says, “Sesame Street” is one big research project. Every one of its 44 seasons has been an experiment, with experts like her constantly trying and testing new ideas.

Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett, a KU professor of psychology, has known Truglio for about 30 years. She said Truglio’s “Sesame Street” success has continued a tradition of strong research on children at KU that began with its old Bureau of Child Research and has continued with its Life Span Institute.

“I can’t imagine how many kids have been reached by her work over the last 20 years,” McCluskey-Fawcett said, “not just here but globally.”

For the past two years, Truglio has guest-lectured via Skype about TV’s effects on kids for McCluskey-Fawcett’s honors child psychology course.

In addition to the well-researched material on health, science and other topics that she and others work into “Sesame Street,” Truglio said she hopes the kids who watch take something away from her favorite character, who often stumbles but always gets back up.

“Grover is open,” Truglio said. “He tries. He is not afraid to fail. And I think when it comes to education, we have to model that you learn through your mistakes.”