Lessons learned from ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ URI students, Rhode Island’s teachers

URI education professor’s lifelong odyssey of teaching, learning

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2021 — Imagine learning from a University of Rhode Island professor who is friends with The Cat in the Hat, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and now Elinor, the star of one of the newest PBS Kids shows, Elinor Wonders Why™.

URI students majoring in education and hundreds of teachers from school districts around the state don’t have to imagine such a thing at all. That’s because Associate Professor of Education Sara Sweetman, Ph.D. ‘13, has been working closely with these TV stars and the talent behind them for more than a decade as a consultant to children’s educational media companies.

Since she arrived at URI in 2007 as a teacher-in-residence with its Guiding Education in Math and Science (GEMS-Net) program, the former special education and elementary school teacher in Jamestown and Bristol has become a national leader in developing science and math education programs with embedded learning opportunities for reading and writing. She’s also an expert who helps develop and research quality television and multimedia programming as an adviser to PBS Kids and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ready to Learn Grant, and a mentor to hundreds of elementary and middle school teachers around the state who want to provide their students with the best science and literacy education possible.

Even with her demanding and multiple roles at URI, Sweetman and a team from URI conducted a research study showing that preschool children who interacted with materials created for the PBS Kids show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™ provided opportunities to learn about science for all participating children. The results of multiple analyses, which were released in April 2020, revealed that the free and accessible media had a positive effect on children, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status or whether they receive special education services. The eight-week study, conducted with 137 preschool children from 13 classrooms in Rhode Island, suggested that twice as many children (56%) were able to accurately depict what scientists and engineers do at the end of the study than at the start (24%). In one portion of the study, the Nature of Science and Engineering Survey, children from the lowest income households increased their scores the most, indicating that the multimedia program may help close the achievement gap that often exists before children even start school.

“There is a lot of mixed messaging in the media right now about screen time and we as educators have concerns as well,” Sweetman said. “However, we have a need to develop 21st century learners, learners who understand how to work with and develop advancing technologies. I think we need to shift the conversation from screen time to quality media integration for children. Media integration, like that found The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™, in the classroom and home is very active, very social and often involves hands-on learning and materials as well.

“As a learner myself, I learn best through investigation and hands-on experiences,” said Sweetman, the full-time director of the URI GEMS-Net program since 2010 who joined the URI faculty as an assistant professor in 2015.

And as Sweetman, who was recently promoted to associate professor of education, has learned over the years, even mistakes can be valuable, if not funny, experiences.

“When I taught in Bristol , I decided to use onions to help the students physically grasp the shape of the letter O. So I had the children cut the onions in two, paint the round portions and then had them use the onions like a stamp to make the letter O on paper. But the onion caused them to cry and wipe their eyes with their paint-covered hands. Then, the fire alarm rang for a fire drill, and here I was standing outside with my students, their faces covered in paint and tears.”

But it was probably that adventurous and innovative spirit that caught the attention of the GEMS-Net leaders when Sweetman participated in the program as a Jamestown teacher. They asked her to serve as a teacher-in-residence in 2007, and three years later she was named director.

“I learned a great deal in those first few years. Going in and out of hundreds of classrooms over the years was the best professional development experience I could have had. I saw so many amazing teaching strategies and thoughtful and caring ways to educate our young children from the teachers around Rhode Island.”

GEMS-Net now brings elementary and middle school teachers from 13 districts to URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus for workshops in science, engineering and math, often run by URI professors.

But how did Sweetman get connected to programs like Sesame Street and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™?

She has a lifelong friend who works at Sesame Street, and after President Barack Obama announced his Educate to Innovate campaign, the show’s director of education asked Sweetman to come to New York to talk about STEM education.

“During my first presentation at Sesame Street, I showed videos of Rhode Island teachers doing their work in the classroom. Those videos solidified what I could bring to the writers, directors, producers, and actors. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to teachers who let me come to their classrooms for the videos during which we talked with students and teachers.

“I immediately fell in love with the people who work in children’s television, in Sesame Street and all of the shows and multimedia I have worked on. In all my endeavors since, I have found them to be some of the most passionate people when it comes to children and learning.”

In June 2011, representatives from Sesame Street arrived at the Narragansett Bay Campus to watch and engage in GEMS-Net workshops as teachers constructed mini-parachutes, competed in a parachute drop and learned about the science of gravity, inertia, drag and other factors that affect how parachutes work.

“Our relationship with Sara has been wonderful,” said Michelle (Newman) Kaplan, in 2011 during the visit. She is now the assistant director of content in the Curriculum & Content group at Sesame Workshop.

“We strive to introduce STEM education and exploration early to build a foundation for these skills. Not only does she (Sara) have a lot of science education knowledge, she has a wonderful way of conveying that to our teams.”

Later that summer, Sweetman went to work with the cast and crew of Sesame Street to help guide 12 of the show’s science, technology, engineering and math segments. She also starred in four Sesame Street videos. In those segments, she chatted with Murray the Muppet and a bunch of youngsters from New York public schools.

“We were in Central Park in 90-degree heat in direct sunlight. When we were between takes, we had to pat the sweat off our faces. It was an experience I never thought I would have.

“I learned early on that education is unpredictable, that what we teachers learn and what our students learn informs all of us. Every day is a unique experience,” she said.

Whether teaching URI junior and senior education majors, children in kindergarten, crews at PBS Kids or professional educators, Sweetman is always aware of the profound responsibility that accompanies teaching.

“Teaching is a life-changing job, and you have to know that you are charged with affecting the lives of hundreds of people,” she said. “That leads us to GEMS-Net, where we emphasize that being a great teacher is a lifelong endeavor and that we are going to give you tools to be great.”

Sweetman also praises the school districts that continue to support and participate in GEMS-Net.

“It’s very hard to support continuous improvement, but our research shows unequivocally that students who have teachers who participate show strong improvement over time,” she said.

“The big question is how do we support people of Rhode Island and teaching and learning here and around the world? I don’t do any of this alone. I think one of my skills is surrounding myself with great doers and thinkers, and that’s how a lot of my success has occurred.”