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DeGraff awarded $1 million NSF grant to continue linguistics research in Haiti

Funding will help develop classroom tools to teach science and math in Creole for the first time.
Michel DeGraff
Michel DeGraff
Photo: Melanie Gonick

MIT linguistics professor Michel DeGraff has received a new grant of $1 million from the National Science Foundation to support his innovative study of the value of native-language instruction in Haiti’s schools.

The funding, to be distributed over five years, will help support DeGraff’s efforts to examine whether Haiti’s students perform better when taught in their native Creole rather than French, the traditional language of instruction in the country.

“This NSF grant is a fantastic and much-awaited opportunity,” DeGraff told MIT News. “It's going to be a big boost to the efforts that we at MIT and our partners in Haiti have launched to help transform higher education in Haiti.”

In awarding the grant, the NSF stated that the project will be “putting knowledge about language structure to work in ways that may raise fundamental new questions for linguistics research.”

The issue of native-language instruction has long been a focus of DeGraff’s work. His scholarly research has traced Creole’s description by Europeans and North Americans as a hybrid, seemingly inferior tongue; DeGraff has assembled evidence showing that Creole’s evolution has followed the same pathways as many Indo-European languages.

Along with this research, DeGraff has helped initiate a project based on Open Education Resources (OER) in order to develop Creole-based active learning tools. The NSF grant will enable OER to create and disseminate those tools in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Thanks to groundbreaking teamwork among MIT faculty and Vijay Kumar and his team at MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, we will now be able to introduce and evaluate innovative active-learning pedagogies in the one language that all Haitians speak,” DeGraff stated, adding: “As far as I know, this is the first initiative ever to introduce online Creole materials for STEM in higher education.”

Among other things, the project will take learning tools created at MIT, such as STAR (Software Tools for Academics and Researchers), and translate them into Creole for biology classes; the initiative has already introduced Haitian instructors to MIT’s TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning) program for physics.

DeGraff’s initiative has organized a series of workshops with Haitian educators, starting in 2010, on making technical education available in Creole, and has been placing materials on its website, A new series of workshops is scheduled to occur in January, covering the use of TEAL, STAR, Mathlets (a mathematics tool), educational games, as well as the topic of assessing the effectiveness of these tools.

“Haitian faculty and students have had too little access to advanced content in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” DeGraff says.

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