U.Va. Pre-K Math and Science Project for Teachers and Students Wins Award

July 12, 2010 — It is easy to imagine activities taking place in the average pre-school classroom: coloring, singing, story time on the rug, practicing standing in line.

However, some preschool classrooms in Virginia are not average. In these classrooms, the 4-year-olds are making scientific predictions, conducting experiments, analyzing findings and describing their comparisons using mathematical and scientific language. Even more surprising is that this classroom is not for gifted students. Instead, it is for students at risk for early school failure.

The math and science activities developed for these students come from the My Teaching Partner-Math and Science curriculum developed at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. MTP-Math and Science has two components: a curriculum designed to nurture competence and confidence in math and science among young children who may be at risk for early school failure, and an online teacher support program designed to encourage confident, high-quality teachers, capable of developing their students' emergent understandings of math and science through appealing, authentic, structured inquiries and activities.

Mable Kinzie, director of the MTP-Math and Science project, said there is a huge need for this kind of curriculum.

"By age 4, a significant gap exists between young children born into poverty and their more advantaged counterparts, where at-risk preschool children evidence fewer key mathematical skills – a gap that widens as these children start school and move into the primary grade," Kinzie said. "Although it is possible to nurture math and science understandings through early childhood education, children who are at risk have not had equal educational opportunities.

"As a result, high-quality curricula that scaffold knowledge and skill development via engaging, thought-provoking activities are particularly important for preschool children."

For its work, the MTP-Math and Science program has received the 2010 Outstanding Practice Award from the Association for Educational Communications & Technology, a leading international organization for the field of instructional Technology. This award signifies excellence in the design and implementation of instructional materials and systems. The award will be presented at the 2010 AECT International Conference in October in Anaheim, Calif. 

"It was a very challenging year for the Design and Development Practice Award," said Monica Tracey, chairperson for the award committee. "A committee of eight instructional design professionals from various background areas reviewed all of the entries. The MTP project is excellent, and we are very excited Curry entered it in this award competition."

"This is probably the top instructional design award one can get," Kinzie said. "The competition is international in scope and given by the organization that best represents the discipline of instructional design."

"There is a tremendous need for top-notch materials that can support young children's learning in math and science and perhaps as great a need for materials that are helpful for teachers as they work with young children," Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said.  "This curriculum addresses both children's and teachers' needs and holds great promise for strengthening early education programs. The award reflects excellence, quality and innovation in the design of these materials that shows in both teachers' and children's enthusiasm."

For these preschoolers, learning occurs across the year to deepen their understandings of math and science concepts. Each activity builds on the one before.

Beginning their journey with math concepts, the students gather two objects and compare them in length. Then they compare multiple objects in length, until they get to use their "monkey rulers" to measure these objects. By the end of the year, these 4-year-olds are measuring, comparing and describing multiple objects.

Their introductions to science begin with students' explorations of the seasons and what is happening outside "right now." For example, in the fall students explore the environment near their schools and collect seeds as they ripen. In the winter, students sort and describe seeds and consider their use as a food source. In early spring, students sprout and examine bean seeds (and the "baby plants" that emerge) before planting the sprouts. Later in the spring, students experiment to study the effects of light and water on the growth of these plants. The ones that receive light and water produce seeds which brings closure to the exploration of the plant-life cycle, Kinzie explained.

Throughout all of these activities, the students are encouraged to use substantial math and science vocabularies, including terms such as "predictions," "experiments," "analyzing findings" and "describing their comparisons."

The support for the teachers is a significant element in making this curriculum work, Kinzie said.

"Providing high-quality curricula to Pre-K teachers is by itself insufficient," she said. "Large-scale national studies suggest that, even when offered validated curricula, Pre-K teachers often struggle to implement them with high quality and fidelity, largely as a function of their lack of content knowledge and confidence.

"Providing pre-kindergarten teachers with professional development in math and science, conceptual areas in which they report less confidence and experience, is critical."

The MTP-Math and Science project has completed its first year of field trials. The curriculum will continue to be used by teachers at their field sites, a multiple school, pre-kindergarten program situated in a large Virginia school district that is part of the Virginia Preschool Initiative. 

This upcoming year, the MTP-Math and Science research team will collect and analyze data from these classrooms.