As a child, Sara Sweetman, Ph.D. ’13, associate professor of elementary education, loved Sesame Street. Little did she know that her career would lead her right to that magical place, by way of URI.
By Dave Lavallee ’79, M.P.A. ’87
Sitting in front of the television as a little girl, watching Sesame Street, Sara Sweetman absorbed this lesson early: Learning can be fun, and you can make friends while doing it.
“I loved the Count, and I really felt like the short segments fit my personality,” says the University of Rhode Island associate professor of education. “Since I was a kid, I have felt like Grover was a friend who was relatable because he didn’t always get things right. But he always rolled with it.”
Her connection to Grover probably helped her rally years later as a teacher in Bristol, R.I., when an activity went a bit wrong.
She decided to use onions to help her pre-kindergarten students physically grasp the shape of the letter O. She had the children cut the onions in two, paint the round portions, and use the painted sides like a stamp.
“But the onions caused them to cry and wipe their eyes with their paint-covered hands,” recalls Sweetman. “Then, the fire alarm rang for a fire drill, and there I was, standing outside with my students, their faces covered in paint and tears.”
Sweetman has carried that Sesame Street lesson—that learning can and should be fun—to her work as a classroom teacher, URI professor, and as a consultant to PBS children’s television and the national Ready to Learn Initiative.
“Since I was a kid, I have felt like Grover was a friend who was relatable because he didn’t always get things right. But he always rolled with it.”
“This idea was solidified by my fourth-grade teacher who made learning joyful,” Sweetman says. “She smiled from the beginning of the day to the end, modeling that joyful learning approach. I decided as I began my career to create that type of learning space.”
Sweetman’s path to URI, and eventually to PBS, began when, as a public-school teacher in Jamestown, R.I., she participated in a URI program called Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-NET), which gives Rhode Island teachers opportunities to learn innovative science and math teaching methods, along with integrating such work with writing and literacy. Initially funded by the National Science Foundation, GEMS-NET is now supported by 13 participating public-school districts in Rhode Island.
In 2007, Sweetman was named GEMS-NET’s teacher-in-residence, and in 2010 she became the program’s director, carrying out the leadership position even as she completed her Ph.D. in education at URI. She still serves in that role today.
GEMS-NET founder and URI professor of education emerita Betty Young was pleased when Sweetman, her former doctoral student, was hired to take over.
“Even scientists don’t know everything, so they are excellent role models for all of us to continue learning.”
“Sara has a contagious enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and implementing instructional practices that engage learners to love science and math,” Young says. “She creates, she teaches, she leads.”
Seeing Sweetman during GEMS-NET training sessions with Rhode Island teachers, one gets a sense of the girl who was inspired by her fourth-grade teacher and by Grover. She moves among groups of elementary- and middle-school teachers with a smile and laughter, helping them learn how to teach their young students about drag and inertia by constructing parachutes. Workshops like this have become foundations for innovative teaching in classrooms around the state.
Sweetman’s work with PBS began in 2011 when a friend who works at Sesame Street connected her to the show’s director of education, who asked Sweetman to come to New York to discuss STEM education. She even starred in some Sesame Street episodes.
During the taping of four Sesame Street shows in 2011, one of which occurred in 90-degree heat in New York’s Central Park, she was inspired by the pluck and good nature of the children who appeared with her in the shows along with Murray the Muppet and Oscar the Grouch.
“I remember the dedication of the Sesame Street actors working under the Muppet costumes in that heat and still taking time on their breaks to talk with children walking by in the park,” Sweetman says. “I also remember the natural abilities of the children to eagerly engage in the science. They didn’t need to memorize lines because the science was fun and real for them.”
That first visit to Sesame Street launched a string of consulting and research work for PBS shows. In addition to Sesame Street, Sweetman has worked extensively on PBS shows and accompanying digital learning materials for The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot of About That! and the network’s newest effort, Elinor Wonders Why.
Along with six fellow researchers from URI, she conducted an eight-week study of Rhode Island preschool students to determine whether watching The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! and using its companion digital teaching and learning materials helped them develop a better understanding of science and of who scientists are. The results of multiple analyses showed that the free and accessible media had a positive effect on children, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or whether they received special education services.
“Media often portrays unrealistic views of science and engineering, as well as who is included in the work,” Sweetman says. “Media like The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, that is intentionally designed to be inclusive of people and places and that shows authentic science and engineering practices, has the potential to start all kids on a path toward building a more diverse and innovative future.”
Lawrence Mirkin, producer of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! for Portfolio Entertainment and owner of Mirkin Creative Inc. of Toronto, praises Sweetman’s work, calling her “the fabulous Sara Sweetman.”
“She understands young kids and their development stages,” says Mirkin. “She knows science. And she understands story and entertainment. She is as funny as she is smart—and compassionate. I want her involved in every project I do for kids, and I envy her students who get to spend even more time with her than I do.”
PBS sought out Sweetman again to review proposals for new children’s programming that eventually led to one of its more recent hits, Elinor Wonders Why, and the show’s accompanying digital learning media and curriculum.
Sweetman worked with the show’s creator, Jorge Cham, who holds a Ph.D. in robotics from Stanford University, and Daniel Whiteson, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. With them, she developed scripts, educational games, and a wide range of free teaching and learning resources.
“Sara was an invaluable member of our team,” says Whiteson. “She always had her finger on what aspect of a concept would be tricky for viewers to understand, and ideas for how to break it down, make it digestible, and keep it fun.”
Cham adds, “Sara is a joy to work with. Her vision for how to depict the process of science and asking questions to little kids really matched what we were trying to do with the show.”
Before designing the curriculum for Elinor, Sweetman and her team worked with educators at URI’s Child Development Centers in Kingston and Providence and Rhode Island PBS, as well as Rhode Island teachers and home childcare providers, to develop and test the plans.
Elinor, an animated rabbit, and her friends, Ari, a bat, and Olive, an elephant, celebrate 4- to 5-year-olds’ ability to ask questions and make careful observations of the natural world.
“The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! focuses on physics, while Elinor Wonders Why focuses on the natural world,” Sweetman says. “The Cat focuses on experimental and engineering design and Elinor focuses on asking questions and making observations as she encounters the outdoors.”
Sweetman has become so adept at teaching and developing science content that people she works with sometimes assume that she is a scientist.
“I often am introduced as a scientist, but I have to correct that,” Sweetman says. “You never learn as much as you do when you have to teach the material. In my work with GEMS-NET, I am continually excited to work with URI scientists and am inspired by the classroom teachers in the GEMS-NET program. They always bring something new to our workshops, a new way of thinking.”
Sweetman adds, “You also learn that even scientists don’t know everything, so they are excellent role models for all of us to continue learning.”
And what keeps Sweetman going as a full-time professor, director of GEMS-NET, and consultant and researcher for PBS and its Ready to Learn Initiative?
“I so enjoy the curiosity and perspectives of preschoolers and elementary schoolchildren and the way they observe and ask questions,” Sweetman says. “Also, with every new TV show I work on, come different experiences and missions.” •