Speedometry is so hot right now.

While I talk about FOIAs and textbooks all the time, I occasionally do a little bit of other research as well. Easily the most fun project I do is the Speedometry project, funded by the Mattel Children’s Foundation.

It all started a couple years ago when a USC faculty colleague of mine was chatting with her friend, who happened to work for the Foundation. They were talking about their elementary-aged boys just love Hot Wheels, and wouldn’t it be great if they could bring that love into the classroom. Two years and two grants later, and here we are.

This project has been a blast, right from the beginning. In the first year, we brought together practicing fourth grade and kindergarten teachers and worked with them to develop a couple of weeks of instruction at each grade that used Hot Wheels cars to teach kids science and math content. We then tried out our lessons in 17 classrooms scattered across a few SoCal districts (half treatment, half business-as-usual). Overall we found promising results. Kids seemed to be learning science and math, they were excited about doing science and math, and the teachers were happy and learning too. Based on the promising pilot, we got additional funds this year to roll out the units more fully, do a larger-scale study (involving random assignment of about 60 classrooms in one Southern California district), and visit key U.S. cities to spread the message about Speedometry. The data collection for the study wrapped a few months ago, and we’ll soon be getting into the analysis phase. We should have good results to share by conference season in the spring.

The study has been really fun and a total diversion for me. There are many things the project has taught or reinforced to me (some pithy, some not):

1) Science is not a major part of the typical elementary curriculum. At most it gets a few hours a week in a typical classroom.

2) A corollary of #1: it’s often necessary (or at least beneficial) to integrate science with math and/or ELA in order to get it taught.

3) There’s *tremendous* variation in 1 and 2 across classrooms and districts.

4) Elementary teachers often are not especially strong in science, though there are of course exceptions.

5) Teachers in many districts haven’t received new materials in a long time. Even the simple offer of giving teachers the Speedometry kits is greeted as tremendous generosity.

6) Teachers are both nervous and excited about the idea of giving students a bit more control over lessons. Many of them claim they haven’t had the opportunity to relinquish control to students in quite a while, but that this is changing due to recent standards.

7) Virtually everyone I’ve encountered in schools is incredibly gracious for what we’ve done (which, to my mind, is not especially ambitious). Many teachers evidently feel quite unsupported.

8) Corporations and academics speak very different languages, though the general existence of dreadful buzzwords is quite ubiquitous in both areas.

8) Corporations often operate on very fast schedules that academics do not.

10) Teaching fourth grades is both fun and terrifying, especially relative to teaching doctoral students.

11) Dedicated PR firms can do amazing things. They seem to be very clearly be worth their cost (though I actually don’t know what the cost is).

I’m sure I’ll keep learning more. But for now, I’m hoping this work can serve as a model for other partnerships designed to improve education for kids. In the meantime, we’ll be crunching the data from our big experiment, and we’ll get back to you with results soon!

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