Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Activities for Students and Families Stuck at Home due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

As I write this blog post, my 4-year-old is spraying me with a water sprayer while I am desperately protecting my computer from a direct hit. Earlier, while I was listening in on a meeting, she yelled out “hi!” anytime I took myself off mute. Balancing work and raising kids in this bizarre situation we find ourselves in is an overwhelming experience. When schools started closing, some parents resorted to posting suggested schedules for kids to keep up a routine and deliver academic content during the day. These were wonderful suggestions. As someone whose dissertation focused on how people learn, I should be applauding such posts, but instead, they filled me with a sense of anxiety and guilt. How am I supposed to balance getting my work done while also designing a rigorous curriculum of reading, writing, and math instruction for a kid whose attention span lasts about 10-20 minutes and who needs guidance and adult interaction to learn effectively? Let’s take a step back and recognize that this situation is not normal. We adults are filled with anxiety for the future. We are trying to manage an ever-growing list of things—do we have enough food? Do we need to restock medications? What deadlines do we need to hit at work?

So here is my message to you, parents, who are managing so much and trying desperately to keep your kids happy, healthy, and engaged: recognize that learning experiences exist in even the simplest of interactions between you and your kids. For example—

  • When doing laundry, have your child help! Have them sort the laundry into categories, find the matching socks, name colors. Create patterns with colors or clothing types (for example, red sock, then blue, then red, which comes next?).
  • Find patterns in your environment, in language (for example, nursery rhymes), and when playing with blocks or Legos. Researchers have shown that patterning is strongly related to early math skills.
  • Talk about numbers when baking. I did this with my daughter yesterday morning. We made muffins and had a blast talking about measuring cups, the number of eggs in the recipe, and even turning the dial on the oven to the correct numbers. Older kids might be interested in learning the science behind baking.
  • Take a walk down your street (practicing good social distancing of course!) and look for different things in your environment to count or talk about.
  • Bring out the scissors and paper and learn to make origami along with your kids, both for its benefits for spatial thinking and as a fun, relaxing activity! In this project, researchers developed and pilot tested Think 3d!, an origami and pop-up paper engineering curriculum designed to teach spatial skills to students. The program showed promise in improving spatial thinking skills.
  • If you choose to use screen time, choose apps that promote active, engaged, meaningful, socially interactive learning.
  • If you choose to use television programs, there is evidence showing that high quality educational programs can improve students’ vocabulary knowledge.

Hopefully these examples show that you can turn even the most mundane tasks into fun learning experiences and interactions with your kids. They may not become experts in calculus at the end of all of this, but maybe they will look back fondly on this period of their life as a time when they were able to spend more time with their parents. At the end of the day, having positive experiences with our kids is going to be valuable for us and for them. If you have time to infuse some formal learning into this time, great, but if that feels like an overwhelmingly hard thing to do, be kind to yourself and recognize the value of even the most simple, positive interaction with your kids.

Written by Erin Higgins, PhD, who oversees the National Center for Education Research (NCER)'s Cognition and Student Learning portfolio.

IES Celebrates Computer Science Education Week and Prepares for the 2020 ED Games Expo at the Kennedy Center

This week is Computer Science Education Week! The annual event encourages students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 to explore coding, with a focus on increasing representation among girls, women, and minorities. The event honors the life of computer scientist Grace Hopper, who broke the mold in the 1940s as a programming pioneer. Coding and computer science events are occurring in schools and communities around the country to celebrate the week.

This week is also a great time to highlight the computer science and engineering projects that are coming to Washington, DC for the 2020 ED Games Expo at the Kennedy Center on the evening of January 9, 2020. Developed with the support of the Institute of Education Sciences and other federal government offices, the projects provide different types of opportunities for students to learn and practice computer science and engineering skills with an eye toward examining complex real-world problems.

At the Expo, expect to explore the projects listed below.

  1. In CodeSpark Academy’s Story Mode, children learn the ABCs of computer science with a word-free approach by programming characters called The Foos to create their own interactive stories. In development with a 2019 ED/IES SBIR award.
  2. In VidCode, students manipulate digital media assets such as photos, audio, and graphics to create special effects in videos to learn about the coding. A teacher dashboard is being developed through a 2019 ED/IES SBIR award.
  3. Future Engineers uses its platform to conduct STEM challenges for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. Developed with a 2017 ED/IES SBIR award.
  4. Fab@School Maker Studio allows students to design and build geometric constructions, pop-ups, and working machines using low-cost materials and tools from scissors to inexpensive 3-D printers and laser cutters. Developed with initial funding in 2010 by ED/IES SBIR.
  5. In DESCARTES, students use engineering design and then create 3-D print prototypes of boats, gliders, and other machines. Developed through a 2017 ED/IES SBIR award.
  6. In Ghost School, students learn programming and software development skills by creating games. In development with a 2018 Education Innovation and Research grant at ED.
  7. In Tami’s Tower, children practice basic engineering to help Tami, a golden lion tamarin, reach fruit on an overhanging branch by building a tower with blocks of geometric shapes. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution.
  8. In the Wright’s First Flight, students learn the basics of engineering a plane through hands-on and online activities, then get a firsthand look at what it looked (and felt) like to fly it through a virtual reality simulation. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution.
  9. In EDISON, students solve  engineering problems with gamified design software and simulate designs in virtual and augmented reality. In development with support from the National Science Foundation. 
  10. May’s Journey is a narrative puzzle game world where players use beginning programming skills to solve puzzles and help May find her friend and discover what is happening to her world. Developed with support from the National Science Foundation. 
  11. In FLEET, students engineer ships for a variety of naval missions, test their designs, gather data, and compete in nationwide naval engineering challenges. Developed with support from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.
  12. Muzzy Lane Author is a platform for authoring learning games and simulations without requiring any programming skills. Developed in part with a Department of Defense award.

About the ED Games Expo: The ED Games Expo is the Institute’s and the Department of Education's annual public showcase and celebration of educational learning games as well as innovative forms of learning technologies for children and students in education and special education. At the Expo, attendees walk around the Terrace Level Galleries at the Kennedy Center to discover and demo more than 150 learning games and technologies, while meeting face-to-face with the developers. The Expo is free and open to the public. Attendees must RSVP online to gain entry. For more information, please email Edward.Metz@ed.gov.

Edward Metz is the program manager for the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research program.

Christina Chhin is the program officer for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education research program.

IES Honors Dominic Gibson as Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

Each year, IES recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2018 winner, Dr. Dominic Gibson completed his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Washington where he specializes in understanding how children learn words and mathematical concepts. In this blog, Dominic discusses his research and his experience as an IES fellow.  

What inspired you to focus your research on early mathematics?

So many everyday activities as well as many of humanity’s greatest achievements rely on math. Simple math becomes so second nature to us that it is often difficult for older students to conceptualize what it would be like to not have a basic understanding of numbers. But children take months and often years to learn the meanings of just the first few number words (one, two, three) and to learn how the counting procedure really works. Children’s acquisition of other math terms (angle, proportion, unit of measurement) is similarly marked by misconceptions and slow, difficult learning.  

Overcoming these learning challenges relies on an interesting mixture of uniquely human abilities (like language) and skills we share with other animals. Moreover, children’s ability to master early math concepts predicts their future academic success. Therefore, by studying how children learn about math, we can better understand the sources of humanity’s unique achievements and apply this knowledge to reducing early achievement gaps and maximizing our potential.

Based on your research, what advice would you give parents of pre-kindergartners on how to help their children develop math skills?

My biggest piece of advice is to talk to children about numbers and other basic math concepts. Children benefit from abundant language input in general, and “math talk” is no different. Even simply talking about different numbers of things seems to be particularly important for acquiring early math concepts. Numbers can be easily incorporated into a variety of activities, like taking a walk (“let’s count the birds we see”) or going to the grocery store (“how many oranges should we buy?”). Likewise, good jumping off points for using other types of early math talk such as relational language are activities like puzzles (“this one is too curvy to fit here—we need to find a piece with a flat edge”) and block building (“can you put this small block on top of the bigger one?”).

It also may be useful to note that even when a child can say a word, they may not fully understand what it means. For instance, two- to four-year-old children can often recite a portion of the count list (for example, the numbers one through ten) but if you ask them to find a certain number of items (“can you give me three blocks?”) they may struggle when asked for sets greater than two or three. Therefore, in addition to counting, it is important to connect number words to specific quantities (“look there are three ducks”). It may be especially helpful to connect counting to the value of a set (“let’s count the ducks—one, two, three—there are three!”).

My last piece of advice is to be careful about the types of messages we send our children about math. Many people experience “math anxiety,” and if we are not careful, children can pick up on these signals and become anxious about math themselves or internalize negative stereotypes about the types of people who are and are not good at math. Ensuring that children feel empowered to excel in math is an important ingredient for their success.

How has being an IES predoctoral fellow helped your development as a researcher?

The diverse group of people and perspectives I encountered as an IES predoctoral fellow made a huge impact on my development as a researcher. As an IES predoctoral fellow pursuing a degree in psychology, I met many students and faculty members who were interested in the same questions that interest me but who approached these questions from a variety of other disciplines, such as economics, public policy, and sociology. I also connected with networks of educators and policymakers outside of academia who alerted me to important issues that I may have missed if I had only worked within my own discipline. Through these experiences, I gained new tools for conducting my research and learned to avoid the types of blind spots that often develop when approaching a problem from a single perspective. In particular, I gained an appreciation for the challenges of translating basic science to educational practice and the number of interesting research questions that emerge when attempting to do this work.

Compiled by Katina Rae Stapleton, Education Research Analyst and Program Officer for the Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences, National Center for Education Research

Computational Thinking: The New Code for Success

Computational thinking is a critical set of skills that provides learners with the ability to solve complex problems with data. The importance of computational thinking has led to numerous initiatives to infuse computer science into all levels of schooling. High-quality research, however, has not been able to keep up with the demand to integrate these skills into K–12 curricula. IES recently funded projects under the Education Research Grants, the Small Business Innovation Research, and the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Education Interventions programs that will explore computational thinking and improve the teaching and learning of computer science.

 

  • Greg Chung and his team at the University of California, Los Angeles will explore young children’s computational thinking processes in grades 1 and 3. The team will examine students’ thought processes as they engage in visual programming activities using The Foos by codeSpark.
  • The team from codeSpark will develop and test a mobile game app for grade schoolers to learn coding skills through creative expression. The game supports teachers to integrate computational thinking and coding concepts across different lesson plans in English Language Arts and Social Studies.
  • VidCode will develop and test a Teacher Dashboard to complement their website where students learn to code. The dashboard will guide teachers in using data to improve their instruction.
  • Lane Educational Service District will work with researchers from the University of Oregon to evaluate the impact of the district’s Coder-in-Residence program on student learning and engagement.

IES is eager to support more research focused on exploring, developing, evaluating, and assessing computational thinking and computer science interventions inclusive of all learners. IES program officer, Christina Chhin, will speak at the Illinois Statewide K-12 Computer Science Education Summit on September 20, 2019 to provide information about IES research funding opportunities and resources focusing on computer science education.

Equity Through Innovation: New Models, Methods, and Instruments to Measure What Matters for Diverse Learners

In today’s diverse classrooms, it is both challenging and critical to gather accurate and meaningful information about student knowledge and skills. Certain populations present unique challenges in this regard – for example, English learners (ELs) often struggle on assessments delivered in English. On “typical” classroom and state assessments, it can be difficult to parse how much of an EL student’s performance stems from content knowledge, and how much from language learner status. This lack of clarity makes it harder to make informed decisions about what students need instructionally, and often results in ELs being excluded from challenging (or even typical) coursework.

Over the past several years, NCER has invested in several grants to design innovative assessments that will collect and deliver better information about what ELs know and can do across the PK-12 spectrum. This work is producing some exciting results and products.

  • Jason Anthony and his colleagues at the University of South Florida have developed the School Readiness Curriculum Based Measurement System (SR-CBMS), a collection of measures for English- and Spanish-speaking 3- to 5-year-old children. Over the course of two back-to-back Measurement projects, Dr. Anthony’s team co-developed and co-normed item banks in English and Spanish in 13 different domains covering language, math, and science. The assessments are intended for a variety of uses, including screening, benchmarking, progress monitoring, and evaluation. The team used item development and evaluation procedures designed to assure that both the English and Spanish tests are sociolinguistically appropriate for both monolingual and bilingual speakers.

 

  • Daryl Greenfield and his team at the University of Miami created Enfoque en Ciencia, a computerized-adaptive test (CAT) designed to assess Latino preschoolers’ science knowledge and skills. Enfoque en Ciencia is built on 400 Spanish-language items that cover three science content domains and eight science practices. The items were independently translated into four major Spanish dialects and reviewed by a team of bilingual experts and early childhood researchers to create a consensus translation that would be appropriate for 3 to 5 year olds. The assessment is delivered via touch screen and is equated with an English-language version of the same test, Lens on Science.

  • A University of Houston team led by David Francis is engaged in a project to study the factors that affect assessment of vocabulary knowledge among ELs in unintended ways. Using a variety of psychometric methods, this team explores data from the Word Generation Academic Vocabulary Test to identify features that affect item difficulty and explore whether these features operate similarly for current, former, as well as students who have never been classified as ELs. The team will also preview a set of test recommendations for improving the accuracy and reliability of extant vocabulary assessments.

 

  • Researchers led by Rebecca Kopriva at the University of Wisconsin recently completed work on a set of technology-based, classroom-embedded formative assessments intended to support and encourage teachers to teach more complex math and science to ELs. The assessments use multiple methods to reduce the overall language load typically associated with challenging content in middle school math and science. The tools use auto-scoring techniques and are capable of providing immediate feedback to students and teachers in the form of specific, individualized, data-driven guidance to improve instruction for ELs.

 

By leveraging technology, developing new item formats and scoring models, and expanding the linguistic repertoire students may access, these teams have found ways to allow ELs – and all students – to show what really matters: their academic content knowledge and skills.

 

Written by Molly Faulkner-Bond (former NCER program officer).