Nancy Karweit, noted education research specialist who studied how children learn, dies

Nancy Karweit, a mathematician and social scientist who studied how children learn, died of Parkinson’s disease complications and dementia May 8 at Lorien Elkridge Skilled Nursing Center. She was 77 and lived in Towson.

Born in Kingsport, Tenn., she was the daughter of George Peter, a Meade Fiber Corp. manager, and Bessie Peter, a homemaker.

She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“She was a bright woman. She had a logical and systematical way of looking at things,” said a colleague, Barbara Wasik of Glen Mills, Pa.

Ms. Wasik recalled Ms. Karweit’s early computer work: “In the early 1960s, she was a computer pioneer when there were not many women in the field. Nancy’s work reflected her personality: It was complex, groundbreaking and it spanned many diverse topics.”

She took a post at the Johns Hopkins Universuty in 1962 at its Applied Physics Laboratory, then located in Silver Spring. She moved the following year to the university’s Homewood campus in Baltimore, working first for an engineering laboratory, then from 1964 to 1966 for the Department of Social Relations.

She was a junior member of a team headed by James S. Coleman, co-founder of the Center for Social Organization of Schools. Coleman was the author of the 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” considered a landmark study of public education.

“Nancy helped build the project’s computer system and did critical data analysis,” said Ms. Wasik, who worked with her in Baltimore.

Ms. Karweit worked in a former carriage house in the 3500 block of N. Charles St. that contained the educational research project’s early computers.

“It was the dawning of the age of computers. It took up the entire carriage house with four gigantic tape drives. Nancy was in charge of that machine, and if you had a problem, you asked Nancy. She had coding skills and we didn’t,” said Joyce Epstein of Baltimore, a Hopkins University colleague.

“Nancy was not only a helpful person, she went on to write four books with her colleagues and published more than 50 papers,” said Ms. Epstein. “She was very productive.”

Ms. Epstein said she wrote of how school friendships are affected by the way a school brings children together with different talents and abilities. Her research also touched on other factors of education — including that children are often more often absent from school on rainy days and Mondays.

She also did early research focusing upon the impact of full- and half-day kindergarten on student achievement. Her findings indicated that a full day was better for impoverished children, but what was more important was the academic quality of the program.

She studied whether an extra year of school, called developmental kindergarten, could improve achievement, and developed a program called STaR — Story Telling and Retelling. She developed evidence that it helped preschool and kindergarten students with their vocabularies.

“She always said, ‘Listen to what the data say; not what you want it to say,’” said Ms. Wasik.

The Coleman report had been commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ms. Epstein recorded data from more than 600,000 students. Among other findings, the report showed the importance of teachers’ verbal skills and the student's family background.

According to a Hopkins biography, Ms. Karweit joined CSOS in 1966 as a research staff assistant, receiving a master’s degree in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins two years later and a doctorate from university in 1976 in social relations — now called sociology. She was named a CSOS principal research scientist in 1987, a rank she held until her retirement in 1998.

After her diagnosis wih Parkinson’s disease, she painted in watercolors and played the piano.

“She was beautiful, kind, funny and smart, always full of energy. She was a country girl at heart. She loved the Smoky Nountains,” said Jim Trone, her partner for 37 years. “We ran 10K races together and rode mountain bikes. She loved ice skating.”

“She worked very hard as a principal research scientist,” he said. “She remained humble and had a sweet Southern charm about her. She mentored and inspired many young researchers in education. Many of the teaching methods she developed are used in classrooms today.”

A memorial service will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Education Building, 2800 N. Charles St.

In addition to Mr. Trone, a videographer, survivors include a son, Alex Karweit of San Francisco, Calif.; a daughter, Jennifer Karweit of Hoboken, N.J.; and two grandsons. She had been married from 1963 to 1981 to Michael Karweit, a retired engineering professor at Johns Hopkins.

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