Sara Sweetman, associate professor of education at the University of Rhode Island, and the creators of the Emmy-nominated PBS Kids show “Elinor Wonders Why” are enlisting Elinor, the 5-year-old bunny, and her friends Ari and Olive, to help break down barriers that girls face in the STEM fields.
Thanks to a $3.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Sweetman will work with creators Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson to develop eight new 11-minute episodes of the popular animated show with the goal of improving boys’ and girls’ perceptions of female scientists and increasing children’s understanding of mixed-gender collaborations in STEM.
“I really want to shift the thinking about the gender equity role in terms of what we can do to build better collaboration between boys and girls starting at a young age,” said Sweetman, the principal investigator on the grant. “In the past, efforts have focused on getting women excited about STEM and providing opportunities for them to excel. I think doing those are great, but if we really want to have a gender diverse field in sciences, we need to work with both men and women.”
Sweetman has been a consultant on numerous PBS Kids shows, including conducting research for “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That.” She also advises on education content for about a half dozen shows, including “Sesame Street.”
She has worked with Cham and Whiteson – who hold doctorates in robotics and physics, respectively, along with being cartoon creators – helping to build the foundation for the show when she worked with PBS Kids to develop proposals for new children’s shows in 2016. Both are co-principal investigators on the project.
“We are very excited to be working with Sara and her team on this project,” said Cham, who, with Whiteson, are founders of Shoe Ink, which produces the show. “Sara has been a part of the show from the beginning and has been instrumental in shaping its approach to STEM education. The issues addressed by this research project are extremely important, and we jumped at the chance to be a part of finding solutions and strategies to help science be more inclusive, and fair.”
The four-year project also will include researchers from the URI computer science department, who will develop an assessment tool with AI-assisted data collection and analysis that will measure the students’ perceptions. URI computer science professor Abdeltawab Hendawi, also co-principal investigator, will lead the team in creating an interactive game that uses an avatar creator so children can create their own scientist while showing what they understand about the role of scientists.
About 300 children ages 4 to 7 will be given the games to measure their perceptions on science and engineering, gender stereotypes and mixed-gender collaboration after watching new and older episodes of “Elinor Wonders Why.” The in-person sessions will be conducted in collaboration with the Providence Public Library and local PBS stations.
The idea for the study came to Sweetman after she and colleagues viewed the 2020 documentary “Picture a Scientist,” in which prominent female researchers discuss the barriers they faced, including discrimination and harassment.
“The biggest take away at my table was the overall sense that we have been going about this idea of equity and gender in the sciences wrong,” said Sweetman. “What the film really brought out was this idea that women aren’t supported by their male colleagues in STEM. If we really want to have a gender diverse field in sciences, we need to work with both boys and girls.”
In its fifth season, “Elinor Wonders Why” reaches about 16.5 million young children. The show, geared toward preschoolers ages 1 to 4, follows Elinor, Ari a bat, and Olive an elephant, as they explore the natural world.
Sweetman has served as the show’s science and STEM education expert, making sure the content follows best practices and is accessible to children in the show’s age range, said Cham. “The show is all about encouraging kids to be more curious and to empower them to ask questions and find their own answers,” he added, “and Sara has been a great guide and leader in helping achieve this goal.”
With the grant, stories in the eight episodes will engage preschoolers to underscore that anyone can be a scientist while showing the advantages of science collaborations between boys and girls.
“We’re purposely going to have some characters make gender-based mistakes to understand that problems can be solved more easily with mixed-gender collaboration,” said Sweetman. “The idea that we learn from mistakes is so important and it’s been important for the show from the beginning.”
To support those story scenarios, Sweetman and a team of URI graduate and undergraduate students will research such topics as how boys view female scientists. Researchers will work with students from URI’s Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net) 13 partner school districts around the state to better the role gender plays in perceptions of scientists by having students draw a scientist of a gender other than the one they identify with.
“We’ve been finding over time that boys draw male scientists,” she said. “Girls are beginning to draw more female scientists. They’re beginning to see that they could be scientists. What we have not done is we have never asked a boy to draw a woman scientist and see what they’re thinking.”