Caroline Hornburg joined the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech after completing a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. Her research is focused on children’s learning, primarily in the domain of mathematics.

What is your background?
I was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I’m a Tar Heel at heart. I attended UNC–Chapel Hill for my undergraduate degree in Psychology. Next, I traveled to the Midwest for my PhD at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied developmental psychology. I completed a postdoc at Purdue University in the Department of Psychological Sciences, where I gained expertise in implementing principles from cognitive psychology into educational practice. As a result of this training, my research program bridges cognitive, developmental, and education sciences.

One fun fact: I was on the drumline in high school and college.

What are your research interests and why are you passionate about this topic?
My research program focuses on children’s learning, primarily in the domain of mathematics.

My interest in studying children’s mathematical strategies and the best ways to teach mathematics to children was sparked during high school when I was tutoring children from low-income backgrounds. Children from low-income backgrounds enter school already behind their peers in many academic domains. In particular, math knowledge at the start of kindergarten strongly predicts future academic achievement.

In my research, I approach the study of children’s cognitive development with the passion for supporting mathematics learning and commitment to closing this opportunity gap. I also approach my research in children’s mathematics learning as a former middle school “mathlete” myself with a strong mathematics background. I believe everyone can be a “math doer,” and I strive for my research to increase engagement in mathematics, especially for those students typically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Why is your research important?
In my research, I aim to identify mechanisms underlying children’s learning and develop improvements in instructional methods that advance children’s mathematical understanding. I focus on math skills that are foundational for understanding of later math concepts, because children who struggle to grasp early skills tend to be at risk for later math difficulties.

One such topic I have focused on is children’s understanding of mathematical equivalence, or the concept that two mathematical expressions are equal and interchangeable. This concept is difficult for the majority of elementary students in the United States, as students often solve 3 + 4 = __ + 2 by putting “7” or “9” in the blank, viewing the equal sign as a signal to compute left to right.

My work has demonstrated that children’s early understanding of mathematical equivalence is a key predictor of later math achievement and algebra readiness. In other work, my colleagues and I have focused on the development of effective interventions to improve children’s understanding of mathematical equivalence. Broadly, understanding of early mathematics is an important topic, given that children’s elementary mathematics skills provide the foundation for their success in later mathematics, and also predict high school graduation, college attendance, and wages in adulthood.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role at Virginia Tech?
I am excited about the possibilities of new research collaborations both within the department and across the university, such as within the School of Education and the Department of Mathematics. The university has a great deal of support for faculty in terms of internal grants as well as resources for external grant applications, and I aim to form interdisciplinary collaborations across the university in pursuit of these opportunities.

What goals do you hope to accomplish in your first few years in the department?
I plan to form partnerships with local elementary schools and initiate new research projects. I will also apply for both internal and external grants to support my research program, and ultimately I want to prepare myself to be competitive for large multi-year federal grants.

In terms of teaching, I am working to develop materials for a new course, HD 3254: Curriculum in Early Childhood. This course is a required course for students in the department’s new major in Childhood Pre-Education. I am looking forward to teaching this new content and preparing future educators.

In addition, one of my goals is to promote the visibility of the new childhood pre-education major across the university and in the broader community as well, for incoming first-year students and transfer students.

What is your favorite part about mentoring students?
When I hear that a student is interested in pursuing graduate school, I get excited about their potential opportunities. I encourage undergraduates to gain research experience outside of the classroom and critically read current research articles that interest them. I position myself as a resource to students, as someone who has survived the process of seeking out graduate programs, applying, and navigating the road to the Ph.D.

How do you spend your free time?
I enjoy hiking, bowling, and watching movies.

What is the most helpful advice you have received?
A little kindness and positivity can go a long way. Also, rejections are commonplace in academia and should be viewed as redirected opportunities.

Interview by Casey McGregor