A teacher, a mentor, a treasure

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2021 — If you read the results of a research project on The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!™, you’ll discover that the TV show and accompanying learning media have a positive impact on the ways children perceive science and scientists.

There is little in the research paper about the University of Rhode Island associate professor of education who directed the project for PBS Kids and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But ask the people who work with Sara Sweetman and you’ll learn that she embodies the best of the teaching profession.

Lawrence S. Mirkin, producer of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!™ for Portfolio Entertainment and owner of Mirkin Creative Inc. of Toronto, called her “the fabulous Sara Sweetman and a treasure.” But at first, he didn’t know anything about her.

Mirkin first connected with her after PBS Kids recommended that she be the science adviser for The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!™.

“We clicked from the beginning,” Mirkin said. “Sara possesses an unusual group of skills to find in one person. She understands young kids and their development stages. She knows the science. And she understands story and entertainment.”

He said his job, in collaboration with members of the team, is to produce a television show to engage and entertain children while exposing them to science practices and concepts.

“Sara is a joy to work with because she understands that for the science concepts to stick with a young audience, you have to embed those ideas in the stories and the characters,” Mirkin said. “You can’t just insert a line of dialogue with the content and think a young child will register it because we’d like them to do so.”

Mirkin said Sweetman repeatedly helped the team achieve the goal of getting the kids to retain the science through entertaining storytelling.

“She also prevented us from putting too many ideas in one story (occupational hazard) and instead, to go deeper into that one idea,” Mirkin said. “She has a lovely phrase: ‘We want to create pre-conceptions without creating misconceptions’ that will be appropriate for preschoolers. Lots of educational advisers don’t understand this.

“The TV story is just the initial point of engagement, but our programs in Ready to Learn are made so that teachers or parents or other caregivers can take an episode and use it to teach more deeply and more personally to individual students. Sara was instrumental in helping us achieve this in The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!™.”

Mirkin could not say enough good things about Sweetman.

“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.”

Betty Young, a URI professor of education for 25 years (now retired) and founding director of the Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net), met Sweetman when she was an elementary school teacher participating in the math and science network. To this day in the program, teachers are paired with URI scientists and educators to change science teaching and learning from memorizing textbook facts to discovering science through experimentation.

“Sara has a contagious enthusiasm for STEM and implementing instructional practices that engage learners to LOVE science and math,” Young said. “She creates, she teaches, she leads.  She moves with ease in the worlds of education: elementary classrooms, doctoral studies, Sesame Street, project management, and teacher preparation. She shares her joy of learning wherever she goes.

“I was thrilled when the School of Education hired Sara, my doctoral student, to take over my position,” Young said. “I am so gratified that she has kept GEMS-Net alive and well, as I started it around 1996.”

Kelly Shea, an education specialist in the GEMS-Net project, Ph.D. student in education and member of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!™ research team, said Sweetman has been her mentor and colleague for the past six years.

“Sara provided me the opportunity to view and experience education from all levels,” Shea said. “She always ensures that the student voice is present and that all decisions are made with student learning at the forefront. As a student in the doctoral program, I feel honored to have Sara as my major professor. I have grown as a researcher through her support and her ability to trust the process. She allows me to explore ideas and has a talent for asking just the right questions to guide my learning. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to work with Sara and all of the experiences in education our collaboration has provided me.”

Jennifer Pietros called Sweetman a mentor to her as a Coventry middle school science teacher and as a student in the University of Rhode Island-Rhode Island College Ph.D. program in education. Pietros joined Sweetman’s research team for a National Science Foundation grant, titled “Computing in Elementary School: An Exploration of Computational Thinking Approaches and Concepts Across Disciplines” (Sweetman, 2018-2020) (1813224).

“She has taught me so much about the research process from creating surveys, applying for approval from Institutional Review Boards, collecting and analyzing data, presenting at conferences, and writing for publications,” Pietros said. “She provided many amazing experiences and opportunities, which have inspired and motivated me to learn as much as I can about the best practices for teaching and learning science. Sara’s influence has led to enormous growth in my own learning as well as my students for which I will forever be grateful.”