3:46 p.m., June 23, 2010----The Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a $10 million grant to University of Delaware Prof. Nancy C. Jordan and her two colleagues at Vanderbilt University and Carnegie Mellon University to fund a five-year research and development center aimed at understanding difficulties students have in math.
The Center on Improving Mathematics Instruction for Students with Mathematics Difficulties, administered at UD, will focus on improving math instruction for elementary and middle school children who have problems with math concepts, specifically fractions.
"Research is showing that students have a lot of problems understanding rational numbers," said Jordan, a professor in UD's School of Education. "Understanding of fractions is very important for learning algebra, which is considered a gateway skill for success in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines."
Jordan has been conducting research on the general subject area of math learning difficulties for more than 12 years. During that time, she has received three National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grants to study characteristics and predictors of math difficulties for children in grades K-3.
She says she's very curious to find out how students learn fractions concepts, where they have problems and, ultimately, how to help them.
"It's really exciting but also a huge responsibility," said Jordan. "The center is going to involve top researchers coming together to work on solving an important problem in education."
The center will be using a multidisciplinary approach involving cognitive psychologists, special educators, math educators and educational psychologists, including math education professors James Hiebert and Anne Morris at UD, the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center (MSERC) on UD's campus and their curriculum specialists in math.
Jordan, along with colleagues Robert Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and Lynn Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, will collaborate with local school districts surrounding the universities to conduct translational research and collect data at the three sites.
Siegler has been studying the development of mathematical and scientific thinking in children from ages four to 14 for the past 35 years.
"My studies will be aimed at describing in detail the strengths and weaknesses of both general processing skills and knowledge of mathematics of children with mathematics learning difficulties," Siegler said. "The studies contrast the knowledge and processing skills of children of different ages and examine the effects of small-scale instructional interventions with them."
For Fuchs, her research over the past 30 years has been focused on assessing the efficacy of mathematics and reading interventions for students with learning disabilities and understanding the student characteristics associated with the responsiveness to those interventions.
"I hope to design interventions that promote better mathematics learning, specifically in the area of fractions, for students with learning disabilities," said Fuchs. "The goal is for these interventions to be useable in real school settings."
The researchers say they plan to incorporate their findings right away. The different sites will communicate frequently to get fast results so they can use the results to refine and revise the state-of-the-art interventions developed throughout the project.
"I think we are going to be able to have a large impact in the field," said Jordan. "We plan to develop usable knowledge that will help students who are struggling in math. It's so important to translate our basic understanding into practice."
The research project is set to begin Sept. 1.
Article by Cassandra Kramer
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Vanderbilt and Carnegie Mellon universities