Purdue’s Center for Early Learning prepares children to take giant leaps in early STEM learning

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

Two young girls work with a staff member on a science experiment with stones and water

David Purpura, professor of human development and family science in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, has devoted much of his career to creating lasting change in children’s understanding of math. By understanding the mechanisms that have demonstratable impacts on children’s early math learning, Purpura and his research team have tailored their findings into the development of math-focused children’s books, including the “Little Elephants’ Big Adventures” series, the “Pattern Pals” series, and the upcoming “Our Mathematical World” series. The books not only offer an opportunity for young children to learn math but also offer a tool that teachers and family members can use to support young children’s learning.

David Purpura headshot

David Purpura

Purpura’s research is only a part of the many strides being made in children’s early STEM learning through the Center for Early Learning, a hub of research, policy and practice centered around shaping early childhood education, with a particular focus on STEM learning.

“Every time I think about these amazing initiatives that Purdue is embarking on to educate the next generation of STEM leaders, it keeps bringing me back to the earliest years of learning because none of what we want to do at these higher levels is possible without having high-quality early childhood educational opportunities for children,” Purpura said.

Driving innovative research

Since its start in the Department of Human Development and Family Science (HDFS), the Center for Early Learning, for which Purpura also serves as director, has been awarded more than $15 million in active grants and contracts for research and professional development projects, bringing together researchers from around Purdue.

“That funding provided the opportunity to really develop the research focus of a center that was more impactful beyond the work of one or two individual faculty and could extend more broadly into the early childhood education research world,” Purpura said.

In just one component of the research in the center, Purpura’s work has expanded from studying math language interventions in the home to now scaling it to the classroom level as a curriculum supplement, pairing the “Little Elephants” books with guided play.

“We’re designing these books in ways that are based off of high-quality science, and we’re testing out the mechanisms and processes by how we can enhance early math learning that then will expand into elementary school to really transform children’s math learning and make instruction more effective,” Purpura said. “It’s really about building up the science of math learning and designing effective tools to teach it to all children.”

Avery Closser headshot

Avery Closser

In August, Avery Closser joined Purpura’s team as a postdoctoral researcher to advance her training in developmental science. While Closser was originally studying math learning in middle-school, high-school and college students, her work in Purpura’s lab has allowed her to extend her research to even younger learners.

“I started thinking that supporting math learning shouldn’t just be focused on middle school but actually looking at ways that we can provide earlier interventions on foundational topics in math that become more critical as students reach middle school,” Closser said.

One important component of the center for Closser is its monthly seminars, which bring in guest speakers to cover topics in developmental science and early education and give researchers an opportunity to network. Closser noted the center’s interdisciplinary nature extends beyond faculty to graduate and undergraduate students.

“I think the Center for Early Learning is a fabulous resource for research opportunities and learning about community partners,” Closser said. “It’s also just a fantastic opportunity to learn more about interdisciplinary work at the intersection of child development and education.”

Shaping Indiana policy

Jennifer Finders headshot

Jennifer Finders

Within the Center for Early Learning, Assistant Professor Jennifer Finders chairs the policy pillar of the center and focuses on connecting the research to stakeholders throughout Indiana. She is currently working on developing a roundtable event that will bring together researchers, policymakers, practitioners and community members for a day-long event to discuss the needs of children and families and look for new approaches.

“We know a lot of people are involved in the early learning space but not necessarily working together, so our goal is to have the Center for Early Learning be that place where people can network and strategically develop solutions that will enhance our overall impact on early education within the state,” Finders said.

Ultimately, Finders’ goal is to maintain a highly collaborative space where researchers and policymakers can co-design studies to produce valuable resources and initiatives for Indiana communities.

“I want to do things differently; instead of taking a top-down approach as is often done in research, I see the value in a bottom-up approach that recognizes existing strengths within the system and focuses on what is needed to support the innovative efforts that are already occurring in our communities,” Finders said.

Engaging with families

Sarah Eason headshot

Sarah Eason

Beyond research and policy, Assistant Professor Sarah Eason is working to boost community and family involvement with the center as chair of the center’s family and community engagement efforts.

“One of the reasons I was excited about coming to Purdue in the first place was the land-grant mission and wanting to be engaged with the community in the area, so having a more formal platform to do that through the center, I’m really excited about,” Eason said.

Eason is working on coordinating participation in the Purdue College of Agriculture’s Spring Fest on April 15, where the center will have on-site and take-home activities for parents and children focused on math and science learning. Eason, along with the center’s program development manager, Chanele Robinson-Rucker, worked with HDFS students to help develop the materials and activities.

“How we encourage families to support their preschooler’s learning — in ways that are informed by our research findings — could set the stage for their children to eventually pursue majors in STEM areas at Purdue, so it’s neat thinking that we could be connecting with families now with the potential to increase equity and accessibility for families and hopefully promote STEM interest in children who might not have previously thought of themselves as scientists or mathematicians,” Eason said.

Looking forward

As the center’s efforts in research, practice and policy aim to comprehensively support children’s STEM learning starting in their earliest years, the faculty in the center are continuing to look for innovative ways to build on their pillars.

“We can’t just think about high-quality STEM education starting here at Purdue, but Purdue has to be thinking about it across those early years — we need an integrated system of STEM learning from birth into early childhood into elementary and secondary school to create a pipeline all the way up to help students take those next steps so they can take giant leaps,” Purpura said.