Shusterman Awarded $1.8M NSF Grant to Design and Test Preschool Math Games

Anna Shusterman

Anna Shusterman

Before children enter Kindergarten, they’re often interested in mathematical concepts like patterns, numbers, and logic. However, math remains under-supported in most preschool settings in the United States.

As a recipient of a $1.8 million grant by the National Science Foundation, Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman hopes to address this educational need by providing preschool settings with a research-based, developmentally appropriate, conceptually rich, flexible, and fun collection of math games that can be incorporated into any classroom.

“The preschool years have long been recognized as an opportune time to engage children in mathematical thinking, bootstrapping their natural curiosity and laying a foundation for future academic success and lifelong numeracy,” Shusterman said.

Her project, titled “Implementation and Efficacy Study of the Wesleyan Preschool Math Games,” has the potential to provide evidence for the benefits of incorporating a simple, playful set of materials into early childhood settings to increase children’s foundation for STEM learning.

In 2021, Shusterman, with help from undergraduate “math ambassadors” from a service-learning class, will begin the study in 65 diverse public and private preschool classrooms throughout Connecticut, randomly assigned to condition. Shusterman, who also is the co-chair of the newly-established College of Education Studies, says students will benefit from the “ambassador” experience.

Sites will be selected to represent a broad range of demographic makeup with respect to socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, English-language learners, and disability status. The 2020–21 year will be spent finalizing the game designs and the teacher materials, as well as building relationships with partner schools in Connecticut.

These schools will be equipped with Wesleyan Preschool Math Games, well-developed novel teaching materials with specific aims in mind: to be well-rooted in cognitive development research, flexible for the teacher to use, and engaging for children. Shusterman and her lab will test out different strategies for introducing the math games into the classroom. For example, one group of teachers will be trained to emphasize the child’s initiation and discovery, while another group will be trained to focus on the teacher’s role in drawing out the mathematical content.

Ultimately, Shusterman hopes to understand what is the most effective implementation strategy for using the math games to improve children’s early numeracy skills. And, importantly, does adding these math materials into preschool classrooms improve children’s early numeracy skills more so than typical classroom practice?

The success of the experimental program will be measured by changes in children’s numeracy scores over the course of a school year (fall to spring), compared to a baseline control group. In the following year, Shusterman’s group will repeat the study, this time focusing only on the most promising strategies.

Shusterman’s research will be supported by dedicated staff and carried out in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team. Jennifer Rose, professor of the practice in the Center for Pedagogical Innovation, will assist with research design and data analysis, and Chris Chenier, adjunct assistant professor of art and digital design technologist, will support the design and production of the physical materials, along with the Wesleyan Machine Shop.

“This study answers two important questions at once. By using a scientific approach to compare different implementation options, it will be possible to decide on the most promising intervention approach or approaches going forward. As an added bonus, we will find out whether or not the intervention meaningfully improves children’s numeracy skills within a typical classroom setting,” Shusterman said.