Mathematical ability of students seems to be evident even when they are still infants

A child who is skilled at math may display that ability as early as during infancy, according to a new study. (BIGSTOCK)
November 4, 2013
Brain Work
One sign of early ability: Math skills
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Parents are always looking for early signs of ability in their children: a boy who was able to ride a bike at age 3 or an 18-month old girl who surpassed children between ages 3 and 7 in an equestrian competition.

A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many researchers have long suspected: Signs of mathematical prowess are apparent as early as infancy. Even if tykes can’t count or don’t know what a number is, those likely to be successful in math show an innate sense of numerical values early on.

A team from Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pittsburgh is the first to provide evidence that an infant’s “preverbal number sense” is linked to mathematical ability in preschool.

The researchers tested four dozen 6-month-old infants to see whether they could recognize numerical changes using dots. The babies looked at two screens: One showed a constant number of dots but changed their size and position; the other changed the size and position of the dots as well as their number. Some babies looked longer at the screens where the number of dots changed, which researchers concluded was an indication that the babies sensed a difference.

The same children were tested three years later. Researchers found that the children in the group of infants who had stared longer at the screens where the number of dots changed did better on tests of mathematical ability — even when researchers controlled for general intelligence.

Among the implications of their work: the possibility that early interventions could be developed to help children, even very young ones, improve their number sense.

Good Books
Baseball pitches and parabolas
“National Geographic Science of Everything”

If you’ve ever been stumped trying to help your child with his science homework, then you need “National Geographic Science of Everything: How Things Work in Our World.”

With 400 big, glossy pages, this hardback has the heft of a textbook, but with pictures and writing style accessible to anyone — even if your own scientific experiences never went beyond a kitchen-counter volcano of baking soda and vinegar.

The book relies on common experiences to explain larger principles. Under the natural-forces section, for example, readers can learn how a pitched baseball illustrates a parabolic curve.

“Science doesn’t have to be intimidating, or scary, or dry,” tech writer David Pogue says in the forward. “Presented well, the stories of science are in­cred­ibly interesting — especially when they peel back the operations of everyday things.”

Beyond Science 101 , the book also delves into such newsy topics as electric cars, Transportation Security Administration body scanners and cellphones with flexible screens that won’t crack if you drop them.

But by far what makes the book most enjoyable are the nuggets of obscure knowledge. Who knew that Clarence Birdseye worked as a taxidermist before pioneering the flash-freezing of food? Or that scientists are working on adding nanoparticles of silver to socks to obliterate odor — potentially saving the noses of thousands of parents of teenage boys.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.