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June 24: Carnegie Mellon University Professor Robert Siegler Receives $10 Million Government Grant To Fund Mathematics Research Center

Contact: Shilo Raube / 412-268-6094 /

Carnegie Mellon University Professor Robert Siegler Receives
$10 Million Government Grant To Fund Mathematics Research Center

PITTSBURGH—The Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a $10 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University Professor Robert Siegler and two colleagues. The grant will fund a five-year research and development center aimed at understanding difficulties students have in math. Siegler, along with Nancy C. Jordan, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, and Lynn Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, will run the Center on Improving Mathematics Instruction for Students with Mathematics Difficulties. The center, which will be administered at the University of Delaware, will focus on improving instruction for middle school students who have problems with math concepts, specifically fractions.
"This center is a great opportunity to identify the sources of children's difficulty with fractions and to develop interventions that improve their knowledge," said Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Carnegie Mellon. "Understanding fractions is crucial not only to success in all more advanced mathematics but also to success in many everyday situations, such as adjusting recipes to the number of family members and comparing alternative financing offers."
Current research shows that U.S. students trail their peers in East Asia and much of Europe in terms of math skills.
  • On the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 50 percent of eighth graders in the U.S. could not order three fractions from least to greatest.  
  • U.S. students' understanding of fractions is even weaker, relative to that of students in other countries, than their understanding of whole numbers.
  • A large gap separates the mathematical knowledge of children from rich and poor backgrounds, and from differing racial and ethnic groups. These differences are already present in preschool-aged children and increase over the course of schooling.
"Research is showing that students have a lot of problems understanding rational numbers," said Jordan. "Fractions are very important for learning algebra, which is considered a gateway skill for success in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines."
For the past 35 years, Siegler has studied the development of mathematical and scientific thinking in children aged 4 to 14. The general overlapping waves theory of cognitive development, described by Siegler in his 1996 book "Emerging Minds," has proven useful for understanding the acquisition of a variety of math skills and concepts, including arithmetic, proportionality, mathematical equality, decimal fractions, number conservation and estimation. Recently, his research suggested that certain types of numerical board games, similar to Chutes and Ladders, are especially helpful for improving young children's mathematical understanding.
Siegler and his colleagues will collaborate with school districts in the Pittsburgh area to conduct translational research and collect data. They will then use the findings to create interventions that can be implemented in the classroom to help students who are struggling with fractions.
"My studies with the center will be aimed at describing in detail the contributions of both general processing skills and specific knowledge 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 instructional interventions with them."
The research project is set to begin Sept. 1.
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