CELEBRATE! Profile: Kaitlin Sands '15 and Melissa Mischka '15

Though parents of preschoolers focus more of their efforts on teaching children how to read, two Elon University seniors found that you don’t have to be a wizard with numbers to create in young people a love for math and science.

Plenty of research has documented the best techniques for effectively teaching children in the classroom. What happens in the home, however, hasn’t been studied to quite the same extent.

And as devices like iPads change the way young people learn, identifying best practices for instilling a love of learning, especially in science and math, is more important than ever.

Elon University seniors Kaitlin Sands and Melissa Mischka have collaborated over the past year to observe how parents teach numeracy and scientific concepts to their 4- and 5-year-old children. Under the guidance of Professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler in the Department of Psychology, the duo found that parent questions can significantly affect learning, and that it’s more effective to ask those questions with activities that don’t involve online technology.

Their work is the first to be featured on E-net this week in a series of stories about research and creative projects on display at the 2015 Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

“Parents of preschoolers typically focus more on reading and social skills than math and science,” said Sands, a psychology major from King, North Carolina. “Kids can understand math and science concepts. You just need to be there to guide it and nurture them along.”

The two students each conducted her own study: Sands wanted to know whether training parents improved a child’s predictive and mathematical reasoning, and if it made a difference whether activities took place in the physical environment or virtual contexts. Mishcka looked at similar considerations for scientific activities and whether parental use of open-ended questions sparked a child’s intellectual curiosity.

Sands and Mischka gave one group of parents specific prompts for the math and science activities. A second group of parents received a list of learning activities to complete but no specific instructions for leading conversations with children.

It was evident that prompts and training can make an impact.

“The biggest difference between the method we would describe to the one group of parents, and what the other parents would do on their own, is that the unprompted parents didn’t give their children as much time to think through answers,” Mischka said. “A lot of them said that not giving an answer was the most difficult thing.”

Yet allowing children time to think through ideas and responses actually sharpens their ability to make predictions and evaluate evidence.

Another important consideration is where that learning takes place, Sands added. Online activities through devices like an iPad aren’t as effective for parental guidance of math skills. They give parents less time and opportunity to solicit feedback from children and don’t provide natural breaks for reflection and analysis.

Still, there was one common factor underlying all of the activities. “No matter how much information or guidance you give your child,” Mischka said, “they won’t get as much out of something if they aren’t interested and internally motivated to learn it.”

In addition to their undergraduate research projects, Sands and Mischka were involved in the “Little Village” program of Elon University’s “It Takes a Village” Project, where they helped young children from the community with emerging literacy development. Sands is a member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, while Mischka previously served as president of the Future Educators Club and captained a flag football team.  

Sands, a psychology major with minors in neuroscience and early childhood education, moves to the Lone Star State this summer to begin graduate studies in developmental psychology at the University of Texas Dallas. Mishcka, an early childhood education major, recently accepted a position with the Aspirations School of Learning in Carlsbad, Calif., where she will work with toddlers using a Reggio Emilia learning approach.

CELEBRATE! Is Elon University’s annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. For more information, visit elon.edu/celebrate.