Penn GSE Homecoming @ Home highlights Bedtime Math and awardees

December 4, 2020
Headshot of Laura Overdeck

Penn GSE celebrated accomplishments in multiple facets of education as part of Penn’s Homecoming @ Home on Saturday, November 14. In addition to honoring five outstanding graduates as Education Alumni Awardees, the program featured keynote speaker Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, WG’95, founder and president of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit that works to help kids love math. 

“This has been an unprecedented year for educators across the globe,” said Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman, welcoming attendees to the virtual event and acknowledging the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and a contentious election cycle. “I have been amazed and encouraged by the work Penn GSE students and alumni are doing to positively impact their communities.”

Overdeck’s keynote address, “Jumpstarting Math: Getting Beyond Screens and Worksheets,” shared her eight-year journey creating fun and memorable ways for children to learn math. When Overdeck’s three children were simultaneously in preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school, she and her husband began a tradition of reading them bedtime stories—and giving them math problems to solve before bed.

“I ended up raising a family of kids who looked forward to this as an excuse to stay up late at night,” said Overdeck, who went on to found Bedtime Math when interest among parents in her neighborhood showed her the demand for playful ways to teach math.

At the core of Overdeck’s approach is an emphasis on hands-on learning to ensure that children are both eager and able to learn math. Worksheets and memorization, she argued, can allow students to appear proficient without truly understanding math. By contrast, she said, Bedtime Math activities such as illustrating geometry with glowsticks, arranging favorite toys to make charts, and bringing fractions to life with art allow children to develop real fluency with mathematical concepts.

“This is what we believe needs to happen with math to ignite that eagerness and also ability,” she said. 

Bedtime Math’s free app to help parents guide children through math activities, available in English and Spanish, has been downloaded half a million times. The organization also works with schools through after-school math clubs and professional development for teachers.

Noting that traditional curricula often get in the way of well-intentioned efforts by teachers and parents, Overdeck offered strategies to better engage children in math. Asking a child to start counting at eight, for example, will reveal whether the student truly understands counting or has just memorized it. Spending class time answering a student’s question, even if it seems off-topic, feeds children’s curiosity. “Kids love to drive their own learning,” she said.

Overdeck also discussed approaches to addressing the educational inequities brought to the forefront by the pandemic. Enriching activities done after school and at home provide the benefit of continuous learning, Overdeck said, and these opportunities should be extended to students from lower-income families and under-resourced schools who may not have access to them. She also recommended approaching testing as a way to diagnose and help students, rather than punish or judge, and urged that high expectations should be set for all students.

“Rigorous content is needed to go and do the high-flying jobs, and you want to leave that door of opportunity open to everybody,” she said.

Following a question-and-answer session with participation from many Penn GSE faculty members and alumni, Dean Grossman thanked Overdeck for a provocative and inspiring talk and asked what gives her hope in her work.

“There are a lot of people out there who are passionate about getting kids to learn,” answered Overdeck. “A lot of us really see the magic in a kid suddenly having that aha moment. And I just don’t think any adult is immune to the joy of seeing that, and that is the force that’s going to push us forward.” 

During the event, Dr. Grossman announced the following 2020 Education Alumni Award recipients:

Penn GSE Educator of the Year Award

James B. Johnston, WG’66, GRD’76

Dr. Johnston, a graduate of Penn GSE’s Ed.D. program in education administration, has had a tremendous commitment to education throughout his career, beginning as a professor and becoming the first dean of Spring Garden College’s Business Management Division. He also served for four years as the director of admissions and financial aid at the Wharton School. Later, Johnston founded SAGE Scholars, where he works closely with leaders of private colleges to make their values-oriented education programs more available and affordable. SAGE Scholars partners with over 403 private colleges and universities in 47 states, and over 7 million student participants have earned millions of dollars in tuition discounts from SAGE.

Helen C. Bailey Award

Caroline Brayer Ebby, GR’97

Dr. Ebby, who earned her Ph.D. from Penn GSE, is now an adjust associate professor in the Teaching, Learning, and Leadership division at Penn GSE. She is also a senior researcher at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, housed within Penn GSE. Ebby has been a leader in the field of math education for many years, helping teachers apply evidence-based instructional approaches in math classes. Many of her projects to advance the field of math education have focused on The School District of Philadelphia to improve teaching and learning for local educators and students. Ebby also has played a significant role in Penn GSE’s Teacher Education Program.

William B. Castetter Alumni Award of Merit

Marsha H. Comegno, GED’98, GRD’04

Dr. Comegno, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in higher education administration from Penn GSE, has helped shape the School’s alumni engagement efforts due to her dedication and leadership. She serves as chair of Penn GSE’s Alumni Leadership Board and also serves on the Board of Trustees of Gettysburg College. She is the president and founder of Journey Education Consulting, through which she counsels students and families to help them find the right fit for college academically, socially, and financially. She previously served in the admissions offices of Gettysburg College and Penn Law, and also served as associate dean of admissions at Salem College. Throughout her career she has visited hundreds of colleges and universities and counseled hundreds of students and families. 

Ethel and Allen “Buddy” Carruth Sustained Leadership in Education Award

Saqi Mehta, GED’01

Saqi Mehta, a graduate of the Psychological Services program at Penn GSE, has focused her career around education and diversity. She began her career doing research at Harvard, and then became a career coach at MIT, Harvard Business School, and Tufts University. She now is a global diversity recruiting lead at Cloudera, a software company, where she leads a global team. As part of the technology industry, she has been an advocate for diversity and cofounded the platform ReigningIt, bringing awareness to women in STEM. She also helped launch Square Code Camp, a week-long immersion program for women from around the country to learn about the environment, computer science, and other technology fields.

The Penn GSE Recent Alumni/Early Career Award of Merit

Tian Song, GED’09

Tian Song, who graduated from the Higher Education program at Penn GSE, has over twelve years of experience in global operations, leadership, and international education. Tian recently became director of campus operations in the Twin Cities for Amerigo Education, an organization that builds supportive boarding communities for international students in partnership with strong American preparatory schools. Previously, Tian served in roles at the Council on International Educational Exchange, the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization. She also serves in volunteer leadership positions for NAFSA: Association of International Educators’ Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee and the Global Leadership League’s Partnerships team.

Grossman also welcomed nominations for the 2021 Education Alumni Awards, including the newly established The Kwame Nkrumah Distinguished Alumni Award.

“I hope all of you listening today have a sense of the reach and global impact of our alumni and the impact they’re having,” said Grossman. “I look forward to the next time we can be together in person to celebrate all of your accomplishments.”

Watch the Penn GSE Homecoming @ Home video to learn more, and visit the Penn Alumni Homecoming @ Home page for more event content and activities.