Academics and Research

Gates Foundation grant supports innovations in childhood learning

Preschoolers may not be able to calculate the circumference of a circle or ponder the delights of pi, but they’re more than ready to enjoy a standing play date with patterns, shapes and numbers.

In fact, says Professor Douglas Clements of the Morgridge College of Education and the Marsico Institute for Early Learning & Literacy, young children have “surprising capabilities to learn incredible amounts of surprisingly deep mathematical ideas — they’re not sitting there writing formulas on paper, but they’re learning in a way that’s appropriate to their developmental level.”

Clements should know. Along with his colleague and wife, Professor Julie Sarama, also of the Morgridge College, he’s one of the country’s foremost experts on teaching math to young children. The two hold the University’s James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and the James C. Kennedy Chair of Innovative Learning Technologies, respectively.

Already funded by a $500,000 grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to develop their “Learning and Teaching With Learning Trajectories Tool,” a web application that trains teachers and caregivers in the ways young children think and learn about math, the couple recently received nearly $700,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further upgrade and enhance the program and to make it available on multiple platforms, including tablets and smartphones.

“Reaching thousands of children, which we have, is nice, but we need to reach several powers of magnitude more,” Clements says.

Another of Clements’ and Sarama’s projects follows the progress of more than 1,000 students participating in an effort known as TRIAD (Technology-enhanced, Research-based, Instruction Assessment and professional Development). To date, TRIAD students have a better grasp of mathematics concepts than their counterparts in a control group. Continued study will show whether that advantage persists through later years.

As much as they’ve accomplished, Clements and Sarama still have a robust agenda focused on providing the science to support effective education. Clements sums it up this way: “It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does continually surprise me how many things you have to get right to do education well.”

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