URI professor plays prominent role in development of PBS Kids’ show Elinor Wonders Why™

Sara Sweetman works on scripts, games, curriculum for multi-platform teaching and learning effort adapted in response to pandemic

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2021 — Long before the PBS Kids show Elinor Wonders Why™ and its multi-platform teaching and learning resources were launched in September 2020, University of Rhode Island Professor of Education Sara Sweetman helped build the foundation for the show’s success.

Sweetman, who has already won praise for work on other PBS Kids shows such as The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™ and Sesame Street™ for her ability to help show the creators and producers how to boil down science concepts for little ones, was asked in 2016 by PBS to help develop a request for proposals for new children’s shows and accompanying learning media.

The co-creators of the show, 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 at Berkeley, emerged as the winners from the process.

Sara Sweetman. URI photo by Nora Lewis
Sara Sweetman. URI photo by Nora Lewis

“They are scientists who have also made names for themselves as comedians,” Sweetman said.  “Creating children’s media was a new adventure for them, but they obviously had the science background and they know how to be entertaining, so I worked with them to ensure the content was age appropriate and educational.”

Cham is a cartoonist for the online comic, “Piled Higher and Deeper” (PHD Comics), and the two have collaborated on a book: “We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe.”

Sweetman worked with the duo on scripts and educational games, and her team at URI, Kelly Shea, a Ph.D. student in education who worked with Sweetman on a research project for The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™, and Lisa Jones, a Ph.D. student who works part-time with URI’s Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net), developed a preschool curriculum based on the series.

Eighty Elinor Wonders Why™ episodes will be shown on PBS affiliates during a year-and-a-half and three video games that accompany the shows are already in use. Four more are in development.

Like The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™, Elinor Wonders Why™ offers a wide range of free teaching and learning resources that accompany the show.

Before designing the curriculum, the team worked with educators at URI’s Child Development Centers in Kingston and Providence to get a sense of how preschoolers experience the natural world in suburban and urban settings.  Sweetman, Shea and Jones collaborated with Rhode Island PBS, and Rhode Island teachers, several of whom participate in URI’s Guiding Education in Math and Science Network, and home child care providers. They also worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop the teaching and learning materials for a world dominated by a pandemic.

“We worked on a suite of resources to support parents and educators,” Sweetman said. “We were in the planning stages when the pandemic hit and we adjusted the curriculum to be responsive to unique teaching situations caused by the pandemic. The curriculum can be delivered virtually or in-person to students.”

She said teachers and home child care providers “were an essential part of the development and testing of the lesson plans. Their dedication to teaching and passion for young children shows in the innovative materials that were created.”

“We at Rhode Island PBS have been privileged to work on this project with Professor Sweetman and her team at URI, as well as with early childhood and family child care educators,” said Jon Rubin, director of Education Services at WSBE Rhode Island PBS. “This powerful local collaboration reaches well beyond our region to provide state-of-the-art digital media resources to families across the country through the PBS system, to support children’s development of literacy and STEM skills,” he said.

The main character in the animated show, Elinor, a little rabbit that shares the same first name with Cham’s daughter, 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 our natural and our designed world.

“What we are finding is that more and more children are spending increasing amounts of time in the engineered world — computers, tablets, cell phones — and less time in the natural world. They don’t understand where the engineered world comes from,” Sweetman said. “Elinor helps make connections between the natural and the designed environments.”

The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That™ focuses on physics, while Elinor Wonders Why™ focuses on the natural world,” Sweetman said. “The Cat focuses on experimental and engineering design and Elinor focuses on asking questions and making observations as she encounters the outdoors.”

The URI professor said Elinor and her friends are part of an Explorers Club that encourages children to go outside and explore.

And it doesn’t have to be some grand adventure. “Elinor wants pre-schoolers to see the wonder in the living community you might discover under a rock in your own neighborhood, ” the education professor said.

Parents, teachers and home child-care providers should be confident that Elinor Wonders Why™ and the accompanying materials are top quality multi-platform teaching and learning tools, according to Sweetman.

“All the people I know at PBS take children’s education and programming very seriously,” she said. “I also know that people trust that PBS has the best interests of children at heart. Our research has shown that quality, well-developed technology is good for children, their families and teachers.”

Elinor Wonders Why™ is part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS Ready to Learn Initiative with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education.