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UT Experts Developing Interventions to Improve Children’s Math Skills


HOUSTON—(July 2008)—The United States is not making the grade.

The 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows the United States ranks 12th of 25 countries among eighth graders in math and science skills. In the No. 1 and No. 2 spots: Singapore and the Republic of Korea.

“There is a critical need right now in this country to do research on math. We need to identify the skills that children need to improve upon, and hone in on factors that can predict development. We really want to answer the question, ‘Why do some children succeed at math and others do not?’ There is an epidemic when it comes to children who just don’t have basic math skills,” said Steven A. Hecht, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics in the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“CLI is expanding its math intervention program through satellite clinics that can offer extra small group tutorials. We also want to address needs at the elementary and middle schools levels. Right now, CLI’s math initiative only involves students in pre-kindergarten,” said Susan Landry, Ph.D., director of the Children’s Learning Institute and Michael Matthew Knight Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

According to Landry, if children can be reached when they first begin struggling with math, a better educational foundation can be built. “We don’t want them just thinking ‘math is not my subject.’ We want to give them ways to succeed, so they can be anything they want to be. CLI uses only research-proven interventions that can help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

Hecht said the CLI group wants to find the most sensitive ways to measure math difficulties to identify early on what areas of math might require additional instruction.

Andrew C. Papanicolaou, Ph.D.

Andrew C. Papanicolaou, Ph.D.

To better understand how the brain processes mathematics, experts are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). “We are studying the entire brain to obtain more information on how it responds to mathematics,” said Andrew C. Papanicolaou, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Clinical Neurosciences in CLI at the UT Medical School at Houston. “We are seeking more funding from the National Institutes of Health to further this study.”

In the future, those scans may be able to be used to correctly diagnosis individuals who are having trouble processing math, Papanicolaou said. Imaging could also be used to see if interventions are working.

CLI, which is in the Department of Pediatrics at the medical school, currently uses one-on-one testing to determine a child’s math ability. Once a learning disability is detected, interventions can be implemented to help the child succeed.

“I believe that most people do not realize how important it is to foster a love of science and math in our young people today. With special activities and interventions in these areas, we can grab their interest and entice these future leaders into careers in medicine and other areas of science, where there is so much need,” said Judianne Kellaway, M.D., the Stephen A. Lasher Professor in Ophthalmology and assistant dean for admissions at the medical school.

CLI is developing math satellite clinics, which would bring extra assistance into Houston Independent School District schools. The clinics are scheduled to open by next year. “If we could provide that extra help and encouragement, it could go a long way to improving our children’s math skills not only at the state level, but also nationally and internationally,” Hecht said.

According to Kellaway, the medical school is also responding through its students. “In the last two years, our medical students have designed and implemented several elementary science programs. We have tripled our outreach to high school students and are initiating elementary and middle school programs,” she said.

Hecht said math and science skills are vital for national security and American businesses. “The National Science Foundation has reported that most graduate students who are obtaining advanced training in engineering departments are not U.S. citizens,” he said. “How are we going to remain a world leader in designing and building new space exploration technology? Right now, we are also relying on other countries to fill positions in American businesses that thrive in the math and science industry. If we want to stay competitive, we need action now.”


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