May 25, 2019  

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Grant Helps USM Provides Tablets, Speakaboos App for Elementary Students

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O'Rourke Elementary Pre-K teacher Allison Peavy helps a student use the Speakaboos app on tablets provided through a USM grant project. (Photo by Kelly Dunn)

O’Rourke Elementary School Pre-K teacher Allison Peavy uses words like “exciting,” “unbelievable” and “phenomenal” to describe the unexpected receipt of Samsung tablets fitted with the multi-faceted Speakaboos app for her students.

The tablets were provided by The University of Southern Mississippi through a $900,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation. More than 700 students at four elementary schools in the Mobile (Ala.) County Public School System have received the tablets, which helps them learn concepts in language, mathematics, and science.

“We are so thrilled to have tablets in the hands of all 18 students. It’s really phenomenal,” said Peavy. “Children are so involved in technology now. Once we showed them how to get into it, they were able to manipulate it right away; choose what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go. One of our goals is to incorporate the Speakaboos app into our classroom lesson plans as the year progresses.”

Three schools have been presented tablets thus far: O’Rourke Elementary, Maryvale Elementary, and Morningside Elementary. Approximately 400 students at Just 4 Development Laboratory School received their tablets during a special ceremony today (Jan. 12).

Dr. Julie Cwikla, Director of Creativity & Innovation in STEM at The University of Southern Mississippi, was instrumental in securing the three-year grant. She is working with Speakaboos, a widely used literacy app for children ages 2 to 6 based in New York City, to develop new math e-stories. With the tablets at their fingertips, the students have access to almost 300 e-stories.

Cwikla says the primary objective of the tablet program is to help teachers boost the performance of at-risk children before they fall behind.

“Speakaboos reads to children or they can read the animated stories themselves providing differentiated learning opportunities for the different skill levels,” she said. “In addition, there are many parents who are unable to read to their children daily for a variety of reasons. Some children will be able to bring this resource home and continue their learning on the weekends and over school breaks.”

With prior support from the National Science Foundation, Cwikla and her Southern Miss team investigated early understanding of fractional concepts with children ages 3 to 6. Results demonstrated young learners’ ability to partition and fair-share in the context of story based word problems.

Mathematics and fractions are areas in which children struggle once they reach upper elementary school. These fraction stories and problems are used as the basis for new interactive and animated mathematics e-stories designed for young students.

“Early development of both literacy skills and mathematical concepts are critical and predictive of long-term success,” said Cwikla. “The early years are sometimes overlooked, but by the age of 6 there is a huge range in children’s vocabulary in any classroom.”

Paula Reese spends much of her day monitoring elementary schools in southern Alabama for their compliance of Title 1 – a federal program designed to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.

Reese, School-Home-Community Programs Manager, Federal and Special Programs, says she was astonished to learn that so many students in the Mobile area would suddenly have access to the popular Speakaboos app.

“I immediately just kind of went into shock mode especially when Julie said her goal was to place one tablet in each child’s hand,” said Reese. “You can’t put a price on what this means to the children who are benefitting from this program. Improving the literacy and math skills of young children is a primary goal of elementary schools everywhere, and the Speakaboo app will certainly enhance those efforts.”

Cwikla is quick to point out that the grant initiative falls perfectly in line with USM’s commitment to teaching, learning, and human development at all levels. She also takes personal pride in helping young students reach their full potential.

“This is the kind of work I love to do where research, teaching and service all come together seamlessly,” she said. “This is the mission of our University and these smiling faces are our country’s future scholars and leaders.”