Baylor Education Continues Multi-Year Research in Early Math Skills

September 28, 2021
MELA 2021

Elementary Education major Ashley Solar (left), now a senior, taught in Baylor School of Education's Math for Early Learners Academy, held at La Vega Primary School during the summer school session.

Baylor education experts continue multi-year research in early-intervention program to improve math skills in young children

Contact: Meg Cullar, Baylor School of Education, 254-710-6435
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WACO, Texas (Sept. 28, 2021) – After a 2020 hiatus due to COVID, Baylor University’s Mathematics for Early Learners Academy (MELA), sponsored by the Baylor School of Education (SOE), returned for the summer of 2021. The program, which has helped young students ages 4-6 to achieve or exceed grade level in early math skills and number fluency, also began pilot testing its new curriculum and assessments.

The summer program, designed for students entering PreK or kindergarten and directed by Sandi Cooper, Ph.D., professor of mathematics education, aims to establish a solid foundation in “number sense,” especially for students who have been identified as struggling in mathematics.

Summer partnerships

Cooper said that research shows early math skills are a better predictor of academic success than are reading skills, but that many preschools don’t focus enough on math. Students often don’t receive interventions in math until later grades.

“MELA is all about gaining number sense, which is composing and decomposing numbers — more than just counting,” Cooper said. “When you think about the number 5, you can see it as a sum of 3 and 2 or of 4 and 1, and there are sets of five and counting by fives. And 5 can be found in the real world; for example, a nickel represents the number 5. It’s about understanding what numbers mean, not just rote counting.”

For 2021, Baylor offered MELA at La Vega Primary School in response to anticipated limitations related to COVID. The program ran for four weeks, from June 1-24, on Mondays through Thursdays, operating on the school campus in coordination with the district’s summer school program. From 2016-2019, MELA had offered a four-week experience at the Mayborn Museum in partnership with Waco ISD and La Vega ISD, with a total of 80 students served in 2019.

Embedded research

Through the modified version of MELA embedded in a campus summer school, the Baylor research team also implemented pilot testing of its newly developed four-week curriculum and accompanying assessment tools, collecting feedback for further development.

When MELA began, the teaching team had to modify a curriculum designed for the full academic year. For the past two years, based on collected research data from MELA sessions, an expert team of Baylor educators developed a four-week curriculum designed for summer intervention use, such as by districts during their summer-school programs.

“The goal is to produce a summer-school curriculum that would be made available to any school district,” Cooper said.

Foundational funding for the curriculum-development work was provided by Baylor’s internal grant program and by Waco’s Cooper Foundation, which helped fund the 2019 MELA camp. In addition, Lupita Lang, Ph.D., assistant professor of bilingual education at Baylor School of Education, joined the research team to provide feedback and support regarding appropriate experiences for bilingual children.

In addition to the research related to the development of number sense for young learners, Cooper organized a team of graduate student researchers to study the professional growth of the Baylor SOE teacher education students as they prepared and taught math lessons in the summer program. This research, focused on “Teacher Noticing,” was designed to determine how these Baylor students “notice” mathematical learning based on young learners’ verbal responses and interactions with the tasks. As part of this research, the Baylor students participated in a “video club” once a week, to review video clips of their own peers and discuss the process of noticing – attending, responding and interpreting.

Embedding the program inside a traditional summer school was a valuable research venue, Cooper said, especially for curriculum development, although children also benefit from the Mayborn atmosphere and from enrichment experiences available on a college campus.

Baylor benefits

“The Mayborn provides appropriate classrooms, but the students also can venture into the wonderful exhibits,” Cooper said. “We go on number walks throughout the museum, and we are able to go into the exhibits to experience mathematical explorations.”

In addition, students also experienced field trips to campus locations such at the Baylor Bear Habitat and Baylor athletic facilities. While not possible this year, the Baylor student teachers brought Baylor to La Vega with activities based on Baylor traditions, including running the Baylor Line and enjoying Dr Pepper floats.

MELA’s 2021 staff included two master teachers, nine undergraduate Baylor teacher-education majors, four doctoral students focused on research activities, along with Cooper and Brandy Crowley, Ph.D. ’21, program coordinator of MELA, as part of doctoral study.

The MELA experience is invaluable for the graduate-level researchers and especially for the undergraduate pre-service teachers who are pursuing teacher certification, Cooper said.

“This is a great professional development opportunity for Baylor students to grow as new teachers,” she said. “MELA serves as a ‘bonus’ field experience for these pre-service teachers, who will be ready for their senior year of a fulltime teaching internship.”


For more than 100 years, Baylor educators have carried the mission and practices of the School of Education to classrooms and beyond as teachers, leaders in K12 and higher education, psychologists, professors, researchers, and more. With more than 60 full-time faculty members, the school’s growing research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation, while graduate programs culminating in both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. prepare outstanding leaders, teachers and clinicians through an intentional blend of theory and practice. Visit to learn more.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.