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The Top 5 Best Things About Being a JGCC Research Fellow

by Sarah Vaala, Ph.D.
February 1, 2013

Sarah Vaala and MurrayThis Fall, I became the newest Cooney Center alum.  After completing my year-long stint as the 2011-2012 Cooney Center Research Fellow, I am now a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  Having had a few months to reflect on my Cooney Center fellowship, I have gained some perspective on what made it such a rewarding experience.  My first draft of this blog post was titled “The Top 100 Best Things About Being a JGCC Research Fellow,” but due to space considerations I was forced to cut it down to the Top 5 (note: feel free to contact me for the remaining 95 best things).  In no particular order, the five best things about being a JGCC Research Fellow are:

1. The mission
“How can digital media help children learn?”  While this may seem like a simple question to many, acquiring the answers is complex, largely incomplete, and absolutely critical to children’s education and well-being in the 21st century.

The mission of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center reflects precisely the reason I decided to pursue a career in children’s media research in the first place.  As an undergraduate Psychology major in 2003 I enrolled in Dr. Edward Palmer’s “Children and Televisual Media” class at Davidson College.  I realized then that children’s engagement with media constitutes another context through which children learn and develop—just as they are impacted by their experiences in home or school.  A position as a research assistant the following year brought me into the homes of many families from many varied circumstances throughout which I observed one constant presence: television.  I was struck by an epiphany that occurred to Joan Ganz Cooney decades ago: as there is perhaps no other resource to which children’s access and interest is so ubiquitous, television should be harnessed as a learning tool.

Ten years later we have witnessed an incredible revolution in digital technology—the “media context” of childhood has expanded to include cell phones, tablets, online social networks and virtual worlds, and video game devices that fit in the palm of your hand or can be operated without holding anything at all.  As these technologies enable increasingly interactive, anytime-anywhere media engagement for youth, they up the ante on our original mission.  Many different digital media are now being used by children in innumerable ways; how can they help children learn?

To spend a year working for an organization built around addressing this essential question, alongside others drawn to pursue the same goals, was truly a dream realized for me.  The most rewarding moments of my fellowship were those in which I felt I was using my own knowledge and training to contribute towards the Cooney Center’s fundamental mission.

2.     Getting pushed outside your comfort zone
While the Cooney Center’s mission was one dear to my heart, its methods were, at times, somewhat unfamiliar to me.  What resulted was an unparalleled opportunity to learn and advance my research and writing skills.  Joining the Center directly from graduate school, I was accustomed to writing for academics.  Learning to convey important research questions and findings to parents, policymakers, media producers, via blogs, reports, and white papers, was an accomplishment of which I am particularly proud.  The specific design of the Cooney Center and its independence as a “research and innovation lab” means that its ultimate stakeholders are children and families.  As such, uncovering and disseminating key information to diverse audiences that are poised to make the most differences in the media children consume and the ways in which they consume it is what the Cooney Center does best.

 3. The creative and supportive environment
Being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone is particularly appealing when it occurs in a setting teeming with creative energy and replete with talented researchers, writers, producers, and Muppets!  As a Cooney Center Research Fellow I was constantly exposed to new ways of thinking about the role of digital media in children’s lives, while simultaneously provided access to individuals on the frontlines of children’s media research, design, and production with invaluable perspectives to offer.  I sat in on Sesame Street curriculum seminars as writers, researchers, producers, and outside child development experts met to discuss aspects of the next season’s program. I traded insights and intriguing questions about children’s e-books with the Sesame Worldwide Publishing team.  I attended a meeting with representatives from JGCC, the Sesame Innovation Lab, Nokia, and AARP to discuss mutual interests in helping children and remote grandparents connect and learn together via digital media.  And these are only a few examples.  Spending the year in such a creative environment, with so much support from my Cooney Center colleagues and others in the Workshop was a top highlight for me.

4.     The flexibility to pursue varied interests
Surrounded by so many creative opportunities daily, it may seem a wonder that I sat still long enough to get anything done during my fellowship.  In fact, back in the world of academia, I am amazed at all I was able to accomplish during my year at the Cooney Center.  In addition to the incredible support and guidance I received from my JGCC colleagues and other mentors, these accomplishments are owed to the flexibility Cooney Center Fellows are given to pursue what interests them.

In the early days of my fellowship, while helping to collect research for our QuickStudy line of research, I was bitten by the e-book bug.  Executive Director Michael Levine and Research Director Lori Takeuchi worked with me to pursue this interest via a large-scale survey that queried parents about their attitudes and use of e-books with their children.  When I mentioned my curiosity about how e-books and other tablet apps were being used to teach children with developmental disabilities, they encouraged me to visit the Mary Cariola Children’s Center and write a series of blog posts about what I had learned there.  This interest continues to thrive, and I have plans for an experimental study regarding children’s e-book underway.

5.     The people!
One thing that made my year as a Fellow particularly special was getting to work with the Cooney Center team.  Though the staff is small, they are, to a person, dedicated to the mission of the Center.  The team is comprised of members who are innovative, hardworking, and always supportive and encouraging.  My Cooney Center colleagues strive tirelessly to enrich the lives and learning of youth through their efforts to understand and advance the educational potential of digital media; getting to join their ranks has been a true joy for me.

These and many other aspects of the fellowship made my year at the Cooney Center one of the most productive, rewarding, educational, and fun experiences in my life.  Did they say the application came out today?  I think I may just apply again…