MY five-year-old son came home from school this year seeing things. Thanks to one of the most exciting and innovative math programs in the country, he was seeing patterns, shapes, sequences, geometric figures, and order, where I at first saw none.The program is Project IMPACT (Improving the Mathematical Power of All Children and Teachers), a unique research and teaching project in the Montgomery County suburbs of the nation's capital. It is funded by the National Science Foundation and aimed at kindergarten and first grade students in specially selected elementary schools with significant minority enrollment. Through project IMPACT, I discovered that what children learn, particularly in their formative first days of schooling, is not as important as the confidence they gain. In areas like math and science, where American students - particularly minority students - are falling behind their counterparts around the world, this is especially important. Our economic and technological competitiveness depend upon our ability to reverse this trend. If Project IMPACT's pilot program succeeds in Maryland, it will serve as a model and may point the way toward regaining American primacy in math and science. The premise of Project IMPACT is that the two most critical determinants of success in math education are early intervention and confidence building. A study published by Maryland's Department of Educational Assessment in July 1988 concluded that once students fall below performance level for their grade, they are not likely to ever catch up to that grade level standard again. Students with poor math scores in the fourth grade are likely to continue doing poorly; by the end of elementary school it is unlikely that they will be placed in a seventh grade mathematics class, which would in turn prepare them for algebra in eighth or ninth grade. Without algebra they will do poorly on college boards, if they get that far, and the downward spiral will continue. Most of the math achievement data released and studied over the past year focuses on test scores of students in eighth grade and up. If the premise of Project IMPACT is correct, these tests miss the point. Math proficiency must begin earlier - as early as kindergarten and first grade. One corner of a Project IMPACT classroom houses the Panda Cafe. Children take turns acting as customers and clerks. They sell tickets for classroom activities and learn that there are many different ways to combine money (play money), make change, and get what they want. Students also cook, using recipes that teach them to count, measure, and sequence. Cognitive reasoning with shapes, colors, and sizes encourages them to identify patterns, solve problems, and find different ways of looking at questions. One oft-repeated classroom instruction is, "Tell me something about this picture." This leaves plenty of room for a child to make a statement that will likely have some confidence-building truth to it. All of this is derived from the Maryland study's conclusion that "the best way to be successful in mathematics is to have succeeded in mathematics in the past." PROJECT IMPACT is not cheap. Participating schools went through rigorous preparation before implementing the new philosophy and curriculum. In addition to early intervention and confidence-building, there are three other critical ingredients: teacher enhancement, ongoing teacher support, and special classroom materials. Project founders knew kids could not feel confident or excited about math if their teachers did not. Twenty-five kindergarten and first grade teachers were trained with new materials for 23 days over the summer. The teachers received extra financial payment and graduate credit. "At first they were not happy to be there," explained Dr. Honi Bamberger, a Ph.D in math education who is one of the program's founders. "This was their summer.... But then they started to get so excited about math themselves, whi ch was part of the idea, that they couldn't wait to get into the classroom and share it with the kids." Dr. Bamberger, a full-time math specialist, is part of the ongoing teacher support. In addition to teaching, she advises and counsels other teachers in implementing new approaches, and tests students as part of the continuing research. Ideally, Congress and the National Science Foundation will make additional funds available to strengthen and expand this program. At the end of one recent PTA meeting a parent asked, "Since Project IMPACT only covers kindergarten and first grade, what will happen when the kids get to higher grades with teachers who haven't been trained in the same philosophy? Will it dampen their enthusiasm?" "Well, hopefully we'll get more money to extend the project," replied Bamberger. "But I've seen how it works and I've seen students say to an upper grade teacher, after the teacher has given them the correct answer, 'Isn't there more than one answer?' Aren't there other ways to look at this problem? One of the goals of Project IMPACT is to teach students that math is more than a set of rigid rules. Rather, it is the study of patterns and a way of finding order in the world. The result has been to teach students that learning can be fun, has value, and is something they can do, no matter what other disadvantages they might be laboring under.