Foundation awards Pittsburgh-region preschool math grant

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While the National Science Foundation has spent millions locally trying to improve math in K-12 schools, it is making its first investment primarily in preschool math instruction in the region with a $3 million grant to the Fred Rogers Co.

The three-year competitive grant is from the NSF's Advancing Informal STEM Learning program. Only 8 percent of applicants won awards in this round.

The work will build on the new "Peg + Cat" television program, which debuted on PBS last month. The Fred Rogers Co. is the executive producer of the animated show, which focuses on a girl, her cat and how they solve problems using math.

In addition to helping to support the show, part of the grant covers a summer institute for Head Start teachers and other preschool educators in the area who will learn, using "Peg + Cat" examples, how to engage young students in mathematical thinking.

The institute is intended to be a pilot that could be used throughout the country.

The professional development effort -- called Early Learning of Math through Media, or ELM2 -- is a collaboration of Rogers, Head Start, Math & Science Collaborative at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and the Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We were especially excited about this project because it gives an opportunity to use this delightful children's program as a platform to help teachers get more comfortable with math concepts in a very nonthreatening way," said Nancy Bunt, program director of the Math & Science Collaborative, which previously has received NSF grants for K-12 math and science.

Foundation program director Sandra Welch said preschool math grants are unusual, but she noted a "growing body of research that indicates that by getting children interested, giving them some early experiences, getting their teachers more expert in understanding how to teach these numerical concepts, that will have an impact when they go to kindergarten and then their early years and throughout."

Alan Friedman, director of development at Rogers, cited research showing preschool teachers spend only 7 percent of instructional time on math and typically do not have math training.

Ms. Bunt said, "I think it probably ties back to our national feeling that some people have a math gene and some people don't, and the people who perceive themselves as having the math gene often aren't teaching preschool."

Bill Isler, chief executive officer at Rogers, said he wants parents not only to read to their children every day but to talk with their children every day about mathematical principals.

While sorting blocks and learning shapes are common preschool activities, Ms. Bunt said preschool teachers don't always recognize them as foundational math activities and don't necessarily teach children how to describe them and think about them as math.

The collaborative will be helping to develop an eight-day summer institute for 24 Head Start and other preschool teachers next summer, with follow-up during the school year. Another 24 teachers will be in the institute the following summer.

Some of the training will help boost the teachers' confidence, Mr. Friedman said.

"Many of these folks have little faith in their mathematical abilities," he said.

He said a play and activity guide will be developed for teachers and parents, including simple board games tied to content in the "Peg + Cat" episodes.

The grant includes a research component to evaluate what works and can be shared throughout the country.

Ms. Welch said the research is aimed at learning how reaching children through television, online and through specially trained Head Start teachers affects the early understanding of math concepts.

"Peg + Cat" presents math as an adventure in a world where the background is a piece of graph paper and songs about math can break out -- or a song, such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, can be turned into a mathematical pattern. Peg uses math concepts when she rescues a cat, makes a pizza and cleans her room.

"It's really learning is everywhere," Mr. Isler said.

Ms. Bunt said Peg and her trusty cat are "really having kids engage in mathematics rather than just hearing about it or parroting it back. One of the key things is being persistent in problem solving. The whole persistence piece is something 'Peg + Cat' really exemplify."

The lessons are reinforced with Internet activities at pbskids.org/peg.

Paul Siefken, vice president of broadcast and digital media at Rogers, said young children can interact with the activities with a mouse or, more easily, with a finger on a tablet or other touch-screen devices. He said they have "opened up a whole new world of play."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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