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Educators may be underestimating the mathematical problem-solving abilities of young children, a recent study by University of Wisconsin researchers suggests.

As part of their study, which was published in November in the Journal of Mathematics Education, Thomas Carpenter and Elizabeth Fennema asked 70 kindergartners in two schools to use counters, their fingers, or other objects to show how they would solve word problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

They were asked, for example: "If 19 children were going to the circus, and five can ride in each car, how many cars are needed?''

The researchers said the kindergartners, who represented a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic groups, had little trouble answering and, in fact, performed better than some older students in other studies.

Such kinds of problem-solving activities, however, are rarely part of the curriculum for young children.

"If children can indeed solve a wide range of problems, including problems involving multiplication and division situations, much earlier than generally presumed, there are some serious implications for the American textbook industry,'' Ms. Fennema says. "This study suggests that much more challenging problems involving a range of operations can be introduced earlier in the primary grades.''

The Carnegie Institution of Washington has received a five-year, $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help elementary school teachers in the District of Columbia develop the skills needed to teach hands-on science and mathematics.

Under the aegis of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, a total of 50 teachers from five elementary schools will be enrolled in teacher training institutes this summer to begin the program.

In subsequent years, 100 additional teachers from other district elementary schools will be chosen to participate.

Selected graduates of the CASE program will serve as mentors, helping to train new participants and to coordinate science teaching in their schools.

Franklin Smith, the district's superintendent of schools, expressed hope that the program will spark an increased interest in science among minority students who, he says, "have been traditionally underrepresented in the field.''--DEBRA VIADERO & PETER WEST

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