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Improving Early Learning in Math, Science and Literacy is Goal of New Grants Awarded to UB Professors Clements and Sarama

Release Date: February 14, 2011

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UB Graduate School of Education professors, Doug H. Clements and Julie Sarama

BUFFALO, N.Y. – For University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education professors Doug H. Clements and Julie Sarama, the list of federal grants that allow the husband-and-wife research team to continue their nationally distinguished work on teaching math to hard-to-reach pre-kindergarten children keeps growing.

Clements and Sarama, whose work in the Buffalo and Boston Public Schools systems has attracted wide academic and popular acclaim, have earned three new federal grants, all awarded in the last four months.

The latest in grant is one for $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Studies (IES). The three-year award will fund Clements' and Sarama's ongoing work to help students learn what is known as STEM content, or Science, Technology, Education and Math, starting from the pre-kindergarten years and continuing throughout the elementary grades.

"This new funding will allow us to follow the progress of about 1,000 students who were involved in their early childhood project called TRIAD (Technology-enhanced, Research-based, Instruction, Assessment, and professional Development)," Clements says. "These children, from the Buffalo and Boston Public Schools, learned more than a control group on their pre-K through first-grade years. We will continue to gauge their learning of mathematics to study the later impact of their increased early achievement."

Clements' and Sarama's work has already garnered acclaim from academic journals as well as mainstream media. A 2009 front-page story in The New York Times praised their work for being one of the few projects in the field of cognitive science to establish a successful track record. UB's Building Blocks program could "transform teaching from the bottom up," according to the article.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) also awarded Sarama and Clements two grants to work in early learning. In the first, a $2.5 million grant will fund efforts by Sarama and Clements, along with colleagues (and mother-and-son team) Curtis Tatsuoka and Kikumi Tatsuoka, to create and test a new early mathematics assessment. This assessment will use innovative statistical and computer technology to give teachers more useful and detailed information about children's knowledge of mathematics in less time than existing assessments.

"Fast but fully informative assessments help teachers really know their students, and support their use of the powerful teaching strategy of 'formative assessment' or individualizing learning," says Clements.

The second NSF grant is for $3 million to combine their work on the Building Blocks math curriculum with that of colleagues in other fields, called the Connect4Learning interdisciplinary curriculum. This curriculum will connect four basic domains of learning. In addition to mathematics, the grant includes experts in science (Kimberly Brenneman, Rutgers University), literacy/language (Nell Duke, Michigan State University) and social-emotional development (M. L. Hemmeter, Vanderbilt University).

"Early childhood is full of debates about subject matter, with arguments arising about new emphases on mathematics taking too much time away from literacy," says Sarama, principal investigator in this study. "Science is rarely mentioned. Further, there is little research on whether an emphasis in one area necessarily means less emphasis in others, or whether they can be combined each to the benefit of others.

"We believe the latter, and believe our Connect4Learning curriculum will encourage all children to develop their full potential in all four areas -- a potential that is greater than often realized."

In the end, the principle behind Clements' and Sarama's work is simple but profound. It all revolves around why early learning is so important.

"Research from educators and economists agree," Sarama says. "The most beneficial time to enhance children's learning is the earliest years. The main goal of all our work is to contribute to this critical foundation of early learning."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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Charles Anzalone
Senior Editor, Law, Social Work and Education
Tel: 716-645-4600
anzalon@buffalo.edu