Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Morgridge duo developing new innovations in childhood learning

Julie Sarama and Douglas Clements. Photo by Wayne Armstrong

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 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.

When Clements and Sarama share their research findings, policymakers and educators take notice. In May, for example, Clements was on Capitol Hill, testifying at a Congressional briefing about the importance of early childhood mathematics intervention.

Together, the two have published more than 125 research studies, as well as 20 books and 70 chapters in scholarly tomes. Their nationally recognized Building Blocks mathematics program, designed for prekindergarteners, is celebrated for developing the cognitive foundations for quantitative and spatial reasoning.

The husband-and-wife team has guided more than 25 research projects and more than $25 million in grants from, among others, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Studies. Today, they are working on five of those projects. They are joined on these high-impact projects by co-investigators at universities across the country and by DU graduate students interested in qualitative and quantitative research.

One of their projects explores innovative ways to help children learn science, math and technology content. Another creates and tests assessments that allow teachers to understand exactly what children understand. Still another project 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.

Clements and Sarama hope their work will remind decision makers — everyone from school superintendents and politicians to parents and teachers — that the best educational solutions are rooted in cognitive science.

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 continually surprises me how many things you have to get right to do education well.”

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