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Translational Research in Early Childhood Education

Each year, it seems, brings another study on the dismal state of America's education system and a renewed debate about its causes and possible solutions. But lately there is something new -- or at least newish -- on the education scene: neuroscience. The mind, brain, and education (MBE) movement, also known as neuroeducation, is gaining momentum as a research field. Consider the recent formation of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society and its journal Mind, Brain, and Education, which published its first issue in 2007. Also notable are the neuroeducation initiative led by former Society for Neuroscience President Tom Carew and the increasing visibility of research bridging neuroscience and education at scientific meetings, including the upcoming Aspen Brain Forum.

So what is MBE? You might say it's translational neuroscience research, applied to problems in education instead of medicine -- benchtop to blackboard, if you will. This week, Science Careers profiles two researchers who are working to span this neuroscience-education divide to help children with learning disorders.

Scanning for Early Signs of Reading Woes

Nadine Gaab, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, is working on dyslexia. With dyslexia, it's best to intervene during kindergarten or before. But how do you diagnose a reading disability before a child learns to read? Gaab is using a variety of tools and techniques to identify markers for dyslexia during early childhood and even infancy. Siri Carpenter profiles Nadine Gaab in this week's Science Careers.

Finding the Prime Factors in Number Processing Deficits

Developmental dyscalculia, which occurs with approximately the same frequency as dyslexia, is in many ways a complement to dyslexia. Whereas dyslexia inhibits literacy, dyscalculia inhibits numeracy. Daniel Ansari is doing his part to remedy that, using both neuroscience tools and behavioral measurements to elucidate the brain basis of numerical and mathematical abilities, to identify the cause of dyscalculia, and to find a solution. Siri Carpenter profiles Daniel Ansari in this week's Science Careers.

Interested in training for a career in MBE? There are no dedicated Ph.D. training programs yet, but several universities now offer master's level programs, including the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the University of Texas, Arlington, College of Education and Health Professions, and the University of Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience in Education. Other universities, including Johns Hopkins University and Vanderbilt University, are developing similar programs. Students interested in doing a Ph.D. and pursuing a research career in the field of MBE typically complete degrees in cognitive neuroscience, psychology, educational psychology, or education -- with significant training in the complementary fields mixed in.

What about research funding? Federal funders that have made significant investments include the National Science Foundation, through its Science of Learning Centers program, which offers awards for large-scale centers dedicated to the science of learning, and the Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences, which funds neuroscience projects related to education. Some other funding agencies "haven't discovered the brain yet," Gaab says. When she inquired recently about grant opportunities at one large agency that funds educational research, she was told, "We are interested in reading but not the brain."

Finally, what about job opportunities? Ansari says they're increasing. When he was entering the job market in 2003, Dartmouth College's Department of Education was one of a handful of institutions that had embraced MBE. But in the past 5 or 6 years, he says, the situation has started to change. In the past year, Stanford University's School of Education, Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, and the University of Pittsburgh's psychology department have advertised positions in educational neuroscience, and Ansari believes that, despite an academic job market that is depressed overall, more such jobs will be advertised in the coming year.