Parents and preschool teachers often focus on teaching young children how to count. But early number sense involves more than just memorizing 1-2-3.
Keting Chen, a University of Nebraska−Lincoln doctoral student, is studying numeracy, or numbers skills, and how a child’s grasp of math may be influenced by their family at home and their teachers in child care settings.
Her 2020-21 research project — which involves surveys, home visits and other data collected from preschoolers, their families and teachers — gained a big boost of funding from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.
“There’s really no way that she would have been able to do this project without that funding, to that level of detail and the size of the sample she’s recruiting,” said Amy R. Napoli, one of Chen’s faculty mentors and an assistant professor and early childhood extension specialist at Nebraska. “She could still have had a good project without the funding, but the Buffett Institute fellowship really helped her have an excellent project that will contribute to the field in a much more comprehensive way.”
Now in its sixth year, the Buffett Institute Graduate Scholars program has provided funding and support to graduate students across the University of Nebraska system who have studied important subjects such as health disparities, early brain development, assessments of autism spectrum disorders and stress management for teachers.
Now qualified Nebraska students can apply to do a deep dive into the early childhood research topic of their choice. The institute is again offering the one-year fellowship to doctoral students whose research touches on the development, education and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old, especially those who are at risk due to poverty and other challenges.
A maximum of three students will receive awards of up to $25,000.
Applications for 2021-22 are due by March 31. The Buffett Institute will announce the funding recipients by the end of June.
The institute encourages diverse candidates to apply and is looking for research projects across a wide range of disciplines — education, social work, music, art, psychology and others — with ties to early childhood.
“We’re bringing unique projects to the forefront,” said Greg Welch, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of research and evaluation. “There are other funding opportunities similar to this, but we’ve expanded ours to include fields that aren’t necessarily represented in early childhood research.”
The current Buffett Institute Graduate Scholars, Chen and Erin Hamel, are human sciences students in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies at Nebraska. They are both working on ambitious projects with funding that Welch says “elevates the research being done in the University of Nebraska system.”
Chen has been studying dozens of children, ages 3 to 5, their families and their preschool teachers to see what math activities, talk and knowledge kids are exposed to and how it affects their numeracy skills. With the Graduate Scholars funding, she has been able to purchase numbers-related books that parents read to their children, compensate study subjects, pay research assistants to crunch data and cover other costs.
Math ability among young children can vary widely, even among those in the same preschool class.
“If a teacher provided similar opportunities to all kids in a classroom, that’s a question,” Chen said. “What’s different at home?”
As she embarked on her own research, Hamel couldn’t find much data on how early childhood education teachers spent their time when they weren’t actively teaching or caring for kids. Were they able to carve out time during their workday to plan future lessons, call parents, finish other administrative tasks — even take a quick walk?
There’s not much concrete information or recommendations on how early childhood teachers should be using their time away from their students, often referred to as planning or non-contact time, or even how much time they should get. Most K-12 teachers have planning time built into their schedules or get breaks when their students go to gym or art class, but early childhood teachers don’t always have that option.
Hamel was able to use her grant to survey more than 200 early childhood teachers and directors about how much planning or non-contact time they got or allotted as a supervisor and how they used it.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity,” she said. “To be funded, to actually be able to do my research, is more than I hoped for.”
It’s not just the funding that’s beneficial for graduate students, said Rachel E. Schachter, an assistant professor and Hamel’s faculty mentor.
“It’s a substantial amount of money to complete dissertation work … and it’s a great opportunity for students in that sense,” Schachter said. “It’s also a really wonderful opportunity to practice grant writing, to get feedback on that process. It’s a fabulous opportunity to connect with other Nebraska early childhood education scholars, an opportunity to present … It’s really an opportunity to practice and engage in a whole range of scholarly skills that we want our students to learn and develop.”
The Buffett Institute works closely with the four campuses of the University of Nebraska system while promoting the development and learning of children from birth through age 8. Learn more about the Graduate Scholars program and how to apply here.