Unlocking the Secrets of Academic Success on a Playground in Brazil

Students from Dr. Eugene Allevato's class discuss their concepts for a math-focused playground.
Students from Dr. Eugene Allevato’s Math Ideas class discuss their concepts for a math-focused playground in Brazil

What makes a student determined to succeed academically?

The question has long occupied Dr. Eugene Allevato, adjunct professor of mathematics in the College of Liberal Arts. Having taught remedial math for more than a decade — and recognizing how complex the drive for academic success is – he’s taken his quest to understand the sources of students’ intrinsic motivation (and how to change a mindset) all the way to Brazil.

His novel approach: examine motivation from the perspective of play, and do so cross-culturally. Dr. Allevato was recently awarded a Faculty Development Grant to build a playground in Brazil for impoverished children, and he’s asked his students from Math Ideas (Math 200) to brainstorm ways to incorporate math/science/emotional intelligence lessons into the playground structure. “Our students are participating in the process of generating ideas for the activities and designing the games involving math and emotion awareness,” he says. “Connecting emotional intelligence with math and academic success is unique, considering the activities that we are creating.

“Investigating preschoolers’ social and emotional intelligence skills in early childhood education may point to actions that educators can take to help their students succeed,” Dr. Allevato explains. “The hypothesis is that if students are emotionally well equipped, they will be successful academically.”

While attending an education conference recently, he met professors from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) who described their collaboration with a community center where children are routinely exposed to poverty, violence, and crime. “Despite the adverse conditions, some students achieve academic success,” he says. “I want to show that math anxiety is shaped by the environment, culture, expectations and mentorship.”

Located in Sao Joao de Meriti, Brazil, the CAC (Community Activities Center) is a philanthropic institution that has partnered with UERJ on various educational activities since 1990. Dr. Allevato plans to be on site for two months next summer to teach, train interns and oversee development of the project.

“Understanding how impoverished children think and react to different situations, considering the concept of a growth mindset and grit, will help teachers at a deeper level develop tools to facilitate the learning process,” Dr. Allevato says.​ For his Woodbury students, the project dovetails with the university’s commitment to civic engagement and its cross-disciplinary approach to education, given that students in his math class are majoring in fields as diverse as architecture, communications and filmmaking.

“This is an important project from an educational perspective, in terms of an opportunity to evaluate pedagogical strategies to deal with math anxiety and academic success, to reduce drop out and increase graduation,” he says. “This project will enable us to define a roadmap for instructors dealing with math anxiety for preschoolers and in higher education.”

Want more? Listen to an interview with Dr. Allevato on WU Radio’s Studio 7500
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