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Pennies Project Inspires Kids

Mills College Weekly

Abraham Lincoln is currently teaching math, history, and Internet skills to children of all ages. The 16th president, and the face on America’s most un-loved coin, has become the center of the Children’s School’s “Million Penny Project,” an ongoing event to raise one million pennies that’s providing an educational experience for children and adults alike while creating an endowment for future students.

The Mills College Children’s School is a laboratory school that has been a part of the Education Department since its establishment in 1926. Located behind the Computer and Mathematics Building, the school provides care for pre-school, kindergarten and elementary school children, while training Mills students studying Child Development.

The Pennies Project is the first of its kind at the school. According to Director Suzanne Di Lillo, the fourth/fifth grade students came up with the idea last semester before the arrival of guest speaker David Schwartz, an author of children’s books on math and science. “The kids thought of the pennies idea in anticipation of his visit,” she said. “It grew out of an interest from both students and teachers to understand large numbers.”

Laurie Grassi, a fourth/fifth grade teacher, said her class considered several different items before ultimately choosing pennies to count. “We thought of using eucalyptus leaves and acorns but…realized storing them would be too messy,” she said.

The class chose to create an endowment fund for student financial aid once she explained to them that they would raise $10,000 with the million coins.

The project officially kicked-off on the day of Schwartz’s visit, and has been an educational whirlwind since then. The children raised over $500 in pennies on the first day, with more than half of it coming from parent donations. Grassi’s class recently held a successful bake sale and a counting day with the preschool class. “It’s been so exciting,” she said. “It’s really been a great way for learning math in a physical context.”

Grassi said she uses the project to teach lessons on weight and measurement.

The class also learned about banking when they made a trip to the Bank of the West to convert their bake sale profits into pennies.

Di Lillo said the bank has been doing an excellent job of working with the pennies project by providing specialized coin bags and working with them to convert all of their money.

However, Di Lillo said the children haven’t been the only ones to learn something new from the experience: banks can actually charge you money for penny conversion. Because pennies are coins in such low demand, banks generally do not stock many of them.

Di Lillo said the project “has really been a rich, cross-curriculum learning experience.” Students have learned about Lincoln, explored Web pages devoted to other penny projects and discovered mathematical rates by figuring out how much time it would take to collect all of the pennies.

The project has also allowed teachers to investigate child behaviors such as one-to-one correspondence which is the counting process for early learners, and object permanence, which is the ability to realize an object still exists even though it can’t be seen.

Di Lillo said that the “Million Pennies” project is an especially excellent way to explore the object permanence capabilities of young students, because the penny cache is stored out of the general view. “We often ask the children ‘What do you think happened to them?’” she said.

Some students have become so excited about the pennies project that they’ve started their own collections.

Virginia Quock, a kindergarten/first grade teacher, related the story of Eléonor Moser, a kindergartner who had her savings converted to pennies over the winter break. “It was very cute,” she said. “She had $33.05 and her father took her to the bank to have it exchanged.”

Gale Emigh, the administrative assistant for the school, is also excited about “Million Pennies.” She believes that the project is both mathematically and financially stimulating. It’s made understanding large numbers less daunting which she finds a “really valuable exercise because it keeps kids interested in math.”

She said the project is also a really great way to start an endowment fund. “The students are helping secure the futures of so many other kids.”

The school has currently raised more than 70,000 pennies and anticipates the project’s conclusion next year after continued fundraising. Di Lillo said they will commission a Brinks armored vehicle to carry the 3.2 tons of pennies to the bank.

In the meantime, Grassi said she and Quock are already brainstorming other ideas for another project; they would like to make it inclusive of the entire Mills community yet need to talk to the kids first “because it really was all them.”

Donation jars for the “Million Penny Project” are located in the Children’s School office and in Sage Hall.