Caltech at forefront of early math programs for young children

By Lillian Mongeau
EdSource Today

PASADENA — While many preschools struggle to integrate math into their programs, an early education center housed at the California Institute of Technology has long made math a central pillar in a program that uses the scientific method to engage children as young as 6 months old.

The Children’s Center at Caltech, which places a significant focus on math and science, may provide a model for other programs to follow. Researchers say a strong grasp of early math concepts is a critical element of long-term student success.

Children who enter kindergarten with an understanding of basic math concepts – like where a number might fall on a number line – were more likely to be succeeding in math and reading by fifth grade, according to a 2007 study by economist Greg Duncan from the University of California, Irvine.

Yet few early childhood education certification or degree courses require math classes and few offer explicit instruction in math, according to a December EdSource report on early math. While basic mathematical ideas like counting and shapes are often part of preschool instruction, far more time is spent on literacy skills, researchers have found. A study of programs in North Carolina and Tennessee found that half-day preschools spent only five minutes a day on math, compared to nearly 20 minutes on reading.

The idea at The Children’s Center is that the scientific method – ask a question, guess an answer, experiment, observe, conclude – provides the best basis for learning any topic, including math. The center’s director, Susan Wood, designed the curriculum with a focus on allowing young children to predict how something will work, test their idea and observe the result as a part of nearly every activity.

"Science is the perfect umbrella because everything falls under it," said Wood, who has run her program for 13 years out of three buildings on the edge of Caltech’s sprawling Pasadena campus. Science is the study of the whole world, something young children do naturally, Wood said. So whether children are figuring out that a dropped ball will fall down every time or puzzling out the alphabet, Wood thinks learning the steps of the scientific method will help children to know their world and become more engaged learners. "That’s not true with literacy," she said.

Every room at The Children’s Center, starting with the infant room and moving up to the 4- and 5-year-old room, is stuffed with activities designed with the principle of scientific engagement in mind.

At first glance, the rooms look like preschool rooms anywhere, but each toy or game has been chosen with a specific learning target in mind. A low shelf in the infant room holds squishy blocks and plastic figures in easy reach of crawling and toddling babies, but these blocks were deliberately chosen to illustrate the principles of "over," "under" and "through." The blocks are displayed so that they form an archway, with one figure on top of the arch and another underneath it. This deliberate placement helps students begin to understand one of the fundamental ideas of geometry: how objects can be described in relation to other objects. The concept is so basic for adults, it’s easy to forget that it must be explicitly taught to young children in order for them to develop the spatial reasoning needed for many math-related challenges.

This kind of careful planning extends to all of the materials at The Children’s Center: there is no chaos here, no jumbled toy boxes.

That's on purpose, Wood said. A box full of toys is "too challenging," she said, because it presents materials in a senseless, disorganized way. "Children should be able to read the environment and the environment should instruct," she said.

Wood doesn’t expect the environment alone to provide instruction. Teachers interact with kids throughout the day, asking open-ended questions like: "What do you think will happen if you do that?" and "Why do you think that happened?" They don't offer specific answers very often, instead encouraging children to come up with their own answers. They also lead group activities like music lessons and planting and caring for classroom plants, and significant portions of the day are dedicated to free play.

Such open-ended questioning – encouraging students to puzzle through problems – is considered a best practice among early childhood experts, but the method is not always in evidence in California’s many preschool classrooms. Part of that may be that many teachers have less training and aren’t as well compensated as those Wood employs. She requires and provides ongoing professional training for her lead and assistant teachers and asks all her teachers, even assistant teachers, to hold or be working toward a child development permit, the state’s minimum requirement for lead teachers. She also pays them on a sliding scale based on experience and qualifications that ranges from just under $40,000 to nearly $50,000 annually. That’s more than twice what a Head Start teacher in the state can expect to make.

The interaction with teachers, coupled with the activities offered at The Children’s Center, can help prepare children to tackle higher level math, research has found. For example, children in Wood’s program might play a game that involves arranging colored dice into a specific sequence. The ability to recognize patterns is a key skill in helping students puzzle out mathematical problems later on, experts say. For instance, multiplication tables and prime numbers are much easier to learn if one understands how to discern patterns.

In contrast, Wood said, knowing the order of the letters in the alphabet is not important to learning how to read.

"Kids have amazing intuition for basic math concepts and it's really a matter of providing the vocabulary and support to translate this intuitive knowledge into more concrete math skills that will be the foundation for later math learning," said UC Irvine’s Duncan.

Wood guarantees 89 of her 99 slots to the children of faculty, students and staff at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in exchange for free rent on the campus. The full-day program serves children from 6 months to 4 years old and is offered year-round. The waiting list has five times as many children on it as the number of students who are admitted. There is no application process other than proving your connection to the university. "We just work with what we’ve got," Wood said.

Tuition ranges from $14,400 to $18,600 for full-time care depending on the age of the child, about the standard range for private preschool in California.

Wood’s unique curriculum has its origins in the early care and education department at University of California, Los Angeles, where Wood taught at the children’s center on campus in the early ’90s. When Wood was first hired, the university had just received a grant from NASA to explore the best ways to teach science to young children, said Gay Macdonald, executive director of UCLA’s Early Care and Education program.

“Teachers like Susan just get it. It’s not foreign and difficult for them (to teach science and math),” Macdonald said. “Others who are literacy and art focused probably felt one advantage in this field (of early education) is you might never be required to take a math class.”

No studies have been conducted to track the success of students after they leave Wood’s program, although Wood has worked to explain her methods to other educators by speaking at conferences and teaching in early education programs at community colleges.

The program at UCLA, headed by Macdonald, has made an even larger push to spread its findings about how to teach math and science to young children, including publishing a textbook and consulting with the Jim Henson Company to develop the animated children’s show “Sid the Science Kid”. The textbook is even about to go international. It’s getting translated into Chinese.

Early educators in the United States are good at teaching social-emotional skills, music and literacy, Wood said, and she thinks it’s past time to add math and science to that list.

"We miss opportunities (to teach) math," Wood said, "because we're just not as strong in mathematics as we are in other areas."