Undergrads help with grad research in new speech communications class

By Eric Nyberg

Undergraduate students are receiving the rare chance to participate in graduate-level research as part of the University’s Speech Communication 396 class.

The course, titled “Evaluating the Quality of Children’s Television Programming,” is designed for students who are interested in doing future graduate work in the field of speech communication.

The course is funded by Children Now, a California-based national interest group focusing on children’s education. Barbara Wilson, head of the University’s speech communication department, organized the course in collaboration with Dale Kunkel, a professor in the communication department at the University of Arizona.

Students in SPCM 396 analyze the educational and informational content of children’s shows such as “Sesame Street,” “Barney” and “Lizzie McGuire.” Students will watch episodes of various shows during class and determine whether or not the programs are educationally beneficial to children by means of a coding system. Additionally, the students assess the shows for violence.

“(Kunkel’s) team was responsible for recording all the TV shows in our sample, and he collaborated with us as we designed the coding scheme,” Wilson said in an e-mail. She added that her SPCM 396 students are responsible for the actual coding of the shows.

The decision to include undergraduate students in the research was a practical one. Not only would the students provide an ideal, unbiased group of evaluators, but Wilson said the students would also come away with the valuable experience of having done graduate work.

“Researchers who design a study should never actually be the coders, so we knew that we would need to train a group of people to help us,” Wilson said. “We always imagined that we would have undergrads do this.”

Jackie Grimes, junior in LAS, said the class was exciting because the students can see themselves playing a part in the research process.

“I applied for this class because I’m a speech communication major,” she said. “I like media studies and its effects on children, and I want to change it for the better.”

Kristin Drogos, graduate student, oversees the class of 12 students and teaches them the coding system and will likely write an academic paper on the research at the end of the semester.

Children Now will publish the research in the hope that effective results will be passed on to the government.

“(Drogos) does a great job,” said Ryan Wildy, junior in LAS, adding that the class will help him in the future. “The class has definitely been what I’d hoped it would be.”

The research will determine whether prime-time television stations are complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which requires a minimum of three hours of educational children’s programming daily for every public station.

“Past research like this has found that some programs are being tagged as Educational/Informational but are not in fact very educational,” Wilson said, citing “The Flintstones” as an example.

The class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays in 184 Lincoln Hall. The shows being analyzed are children’s shows broadcast on Saturday mornings.

“It’s a great change of pace from the classes I’ve taken,” Wildy said. “A class like this is just one of the great things about the speech communications department.”