The UCSD Community-Based Research and Outreach Project

In 2011, the Director of the Spring Valley Community Center asked me to describe my perspective on the Intergenerational Math Club and the Intergenerational Reading & Book Club. Here are my thoughts.

by Daniel Bajic, Ph.D.

When speaking of education, it may be useful to use the analogy of athletic training. Some training regimens are very effective for the development of physical strength, some regimens aren't effective at all, and our understanding of physiology can help us to select or develop the optimal approaches. Likewise, in education, some pedagogical approaches are very effective, some are not, and our understanding of human cognition—the functioning of the mind, how we learn skills and remember information—can help us to select or develop the optimal educational approaches.

Returning to the athletic training analogy, another critical issue is motivation: the best exercise techniques will be worthless if someone doesn't bother exercising! And on top of this, there is the issue of self-efficacy: will people engage in athletic training if they don't believe they are capable of being athletic? In regard to the issue of motivation, the Intergenerational Math Club and the Intergenerational Reading & Book Club face a challenge that would strike many as nearly insurmountable: how do you get kids interested in an educational program that takes place right after they've already spent a whole day in school? A large part of the solution arises from the philosophy and design of these programs: namely, we provide the kids with structure and assignments, but at the same time, we give the children more freedom than they would have in a typical classroom setting. Within each grade level, there's a dynamic that is similar, in many ways, to what you would have in a college study group. That is, in addition to the academic component, there is also a social component—a chance to interact with old and new friends. This is one of the reasons why we frequently hear that the kids enjoy studying within the Math Club and the Reading & Book Club much more than they enjoy studying elsewhere.

Earlier, I mentioned the issue of self-efficacy, which presents a unique set of challenges. Returning to the athletics analogy, how can you get people to engage in athletic training if they don't believe they have any potential to be athletic? If you simply tell them, “You're all great athletes! Really!”, you won't be taken seriously if they have never seen concrete evidence of their own potential. Likewise, in education, if you want kids to believe they have academic potential, it isn't enough to just tell them they have potential. Rather, you need to give them opportunities to see concrete evidence of their potential, by giving them opportunities to see themselves succeeding and excelling in tasks that had previously seemed difficult (perhaps even impossible) to them. In working toward this goal, we have been fortunate to have many dedicated volunteers contributing to the program. These include a large number of UCSD undergraduate students, as well as graduate students, retired educators, and high school students—all of them passionate about helping children achieve their true potential. During the first half hour of each Club meeting, our volunteers help the children with their homework assignments. This is a free tutoring service, to help the kids gain the full benefit of their time in school. During the second half hour of each Club meeting, the children are provided with structured assignments, to help develop their abilities and to help us evaluate their progress. During this portion, our volunteers can assist children who are experiencing difficulties with the work. For this reason, we are able to provide assignments that challenge the children's abilities, and yet at the same time we can be confident that the children will overcome these challenges—and see themselves succeeding in tasks that had previously seemed difficult or insurmountable. This is their chance to see concrete evidence of their own potential.

In the final half hour of each Club meeting, the children are given a chance to practice their public speaking skills. Although UCSD's volunteers are not directly involved with this portion of Club meetings, we're still a supportive audience—providing applause and high-fives as extra encouragement for the children.

Earlier, I made an analogy between physically optimal exercise techniques and cognitively optimal pedagogical techniques. It would be worthwhile to discuss this further, since it highlights some of the unique benefits of the UCSD Community-Based Research & Outreach Project, and why this project could serve as a useful model for similar projects implemented elsewhere.

First, I need to mention a bit about my background: I'm a cognitive psychologist; I conduct scientific research on the human mind. The main focus of my research has been on the topic of how individuals develop intellectual skills, such as the ability to solve mathematical problems. For example, some of my recent research has provided insights into the most effective ways to structure drill practice for math problems. Like so much of the research in the social sciences, this work has clear practical implications. Like so much of the research in the social sciences, though, there is a risk that the work would simply sit in a research journal, rather than actually being put to use in any of the educational settings for which it would be most relevant. Fortunately, though, rather than simply having to hope that someone will make use of my research when designing an educational program, the Community-Based Research & Outreach Project has made it possible for me to actually help design such programs myself.

There are additional benefits as well. With the cooperation of the parents and the children in the program, we have been able to conduct scientific research within the program itself, studying the effectiveness of various popular educational techniques. Research papers based on the findings from the 2009 and 2010 sessions of the Intergenerational Math Club are currently in preparation. Thus, this program could potentially benefit not only the children directly enrolled in the program, but could even—via education reform—have benefits far beyond the program itself. These are some of the reasons why I'm excited about the potential of this program, and about the potential of similar programs that may be implemented elsewhere. For the ongoing success of the program, a large part of the credit goes to the director of the Spring Valley Community Center, Charles “Renell” Nailon, and to the Center's excellent staff. This program would not exist without Renell's vision, dedication, and talent for bringing out the best in children.

Also, for the success of the program, a large part of the credit goes to the kids themselves. I find myself continually inspired by the Spring Valley students' tremendous commitment, desire to learn, and excellent behavior. All of the UCSD student volunteers, after their first day helping with the program, have agreed. It's been very rewarding, then, to see some of the many comments from parents who have credited the Math Club and the Reading & Book Club for the improved school performance and increased confidence of their children. It's been even more rewarding to read or hear assessments from the children themselves. To quote one of the children, “This club rocks!”

Dr. Bajic, as drawn by one of the children.

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