Innovative Curriculum Boosts Fourth Graders’ Knowledge of Math and Science

April 19, 2016

Use of Speedometry also leads to improvements in girls’ attitudes toward math and science

USC ROSSIER RESEARCHERS KNEW FOURTH GRADERS WOULD HAVE FUN WITH SPEEDOMETRY, a free curriculum designed in partnership with the Mattel Children’s Foundation that comes with 40 Hot Wheels cars and 100 feet of track.

But what would the students learn?

The answer is found in an 80-page report that followed a two-year effort, including a pilot phase and a district-wide randomized-control trial involving approximately 1,800 fourth graders in 59 classrooms.

A five-member USC Rossier faculty team with expertise in K-12 education and science and math standards collaborated with teachers to design the two-week curriculum to teach basic principles in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The curriculum allows students to explore scientific concepts such as potential and kinetic energy while providing teachers with a new instructional tool that emphasizes hands-on investigation and active engagement in scientific practices such as designing experiments, gathering and recording data and reporting results.

Not only did the fourth graders have a lot of fun, but they also showed gains in content knowledge of math and science and a greater interest in lessons in comparison to students who did not use the curriculum (see below).

The researchers hope that Speedometry can serve as a model for future development and research around new standards-aligned curriculum, both to extend Speedometry to other grades and settings (such as after school), and also to encourage the creation of other programs to help teachers bring inquiry-based STEM learning to students.

Dr. Julie Marsh

Dr. Julie Marsh

Imagine groups of kids gathered around toy racing tracks and colorful mini cars. They’re building ramps, testing out which cars go farther and what makes them go faster. Girls and boys are engaged in the activities and shouting out the names of the cars or ideas for what to do next. Now imagine that in this process they’re learning how to think and act like scientists. They’re making predictions, gathering data, displaying results, examining patterns, developing explanations based on scientific principles and presenting their results.”

What the Research Shows

Dr. Morgan Polikoff

Dr. Morgan Polikoff

Because we randomly assigned classrooms to receive Speedometry lessons, we can be confident that the differences we found are caused by the lessons. In short, the curriculum successfully met our objective to foster STEM interest and engagement for the students we studied.”

Dr. Gale Sinatra

Dr. Gale Sinatra

Girls’ negative emotions about science and mathematics were found to decrease as a result of Speedometry, a particularly notable finding because decreasing negative emotions may have an even greater effect on girls’ sustained interest in STEM than would increasing positive emotions. STEM fields are overwhelmingly male, and greater engagement in math and science for girls at the elementary school level is critical to reversing this trend.”

“Promoting STEM Interest, Enjoyment, and Learning through Standards-Aligned Curriculum and Play: Speedometry Evaluation Final Technical Report” was prepared by Julie Marsh (associate professor), Morgan Polikoff (assistant professor), Gale Sinatra (professor and associate dean for research), Cathryn Dhanatya (assistant dean for research) and Susan McKibben (project manager) along with USC Rossier graduate students Taylor Allbright, Robert Danielson, Hovanes Gasparian, Quynh Tien Le, Ananya Mukhopadhyay and Tyron Young. An executive summary is available at

Speedometry curriculum development and testing was funded by the Mattel Children’s Foundation. The foundation was not involved in the design, implementation or analysis of the research and had no influence over the reporting of results. Although Hot Wheels cars were used in the pilot study and subsequent trial, the curriculum can be conducted with other toys, including household and classroom items. The curriculum and home-based activities are available for free in both English and Spanish on the Speedometry website (