Uno, One or 1: Does it make a difference in math class?

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(Nov. 3, 2010)--Assistant Professor Nicole Wicha in the UTSA Department of Biology and UTSA Neurosciences Institute, has been awarded $150,000 over the next two years from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The grant will fund a study on how the bilingual brain computes simple mathematical calculations.

The grant is the result of a collaborative effort between Wicha, who studies the underpinnings of the bilingual brain, and Elena Salillas, a math cognition scholar who recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Wicha's neuroscience laboratory.

"Neuroscientists have just begun to study how the brain processes simple numerical calculations," said Wicha. "Bilinguals pose an interesting problem for the field because they have two languages to represent the same mathematical concepts. Our findings suggest that bilinguals are faster and more accurate at processing calculations, such as simple multiplications, if those calculations are given in the language in which they originally learned them, even if the bilinguals are more proficient in another language.

"Using non-invasive brain recordings, we are able to see that the brain actually uses arithmetic concepts differently based on the language in which they are presented. We now want to extend our work to individuals who actively use these concepts in both of their languages, such as bilingual math teachers and students."

Wicha and master's student Christina Cortinas from the UTSA experimental psychology program are looking for bilingual math teachers proficient in English and Spanish to participate in their study. Volunteers will be paid a stipend for participation and travel compensation. For more information, call 210-458-7012 or e-mail wichalabgroup@gmail.com.

During a single session in Wicha's laboratory, the teachers will answer a series of simple mathematical calculations using English and Spanish words and numerical digits, while their brain function and responses are recorded.

To Cortinas, Wicha's work hit home. Her parents are bilingual educators in Brownsville, Texas. In the long run, Wicha plans to extend this work to bilingual children learning math concepts and hopes that her work will help develop new teaching and testing techniques for all students learning math.