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Children and parents explore apps during a preschool technology class at the Salvation Army Children's Learning Center in Boston in 2014.

Is making STEM social one way to get more children interested?

A research team at the University of Washington ran an experiment to see if putting STEM-related tasks in a group setting affected children's motivation.

Shortage of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals has been an important concern in the United States. It is estimated that over the next 10 years, the nation could face a shortage of one million STEM workers.

So, what can we do to get more students interested in STEM?

Research shows that science achievement gaps begin very early. Between fourth and eighth grade, the number of children reporting positive attitudes about math and science drops from about 71 percent to about 48 percent.

Early math skills are the strongest predictor of later school success. Simple activities like counting and playing with puzzles can build children’s STEM skills.

Studies show that preschool children who participated in a 26-week math curriculum had math test scores that improved twice as much as children in a control group with a standard preschool curriculum. Even talking more about math and playing board games can boost preschool children’s STEM abilities.

However, these educational activities are also competing with lots of other things for children’s attention. Less than five percent of classroom time in preschool focuses on STEM-related activities.

I am part of a research team at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. With my colleagues Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff, I have been looking for ways to make STEM more engaging for children.

We found an answer: Make it social.

We ran an experiment to see whether making STEM social would affect children’s motivation. We brought 141 four-year-old children into our lab. They did two activities, a math game and a puzzle game.

For one of these activities, children were made to believe that they were part of a group. Children were required to do the other game all by themselves. 

Each group had a special color. For example, children in the green group put on a green t-shirt. Then they sat at a green table with a green flag, and took the group’s activity out of a green box. In reality, all children actually completed both activities alone. All that they saw was a poster that showed pictures of other children in the group, all wearing a green t-shirt.

For the other nongroup task, children were also provided with t-shirts of a certain color. There was a poster on the wall with pictures of other children. However, that poster showed children wearing different colored shirts that did not match theirs. For example, if children wore a yellow shirt for the nongroup task, then none of the children on the poster would have a yellow t-shirt. This helped emphasize their solo status. We also reminded them that none of the children on the poster did the same activity as them.

We made the group imaginary because children’s groups in real life can be complicated. With imaginary groups, we could make the experience exactly the same for all children and test how the idea of being part of a group is motivating.

Our reason for having children believe they were part of a group was based on a simple idea: You are then part of something bigger than yourself. Other people are working toward the same goal as you. Even young children understand that working together unites people in meaningful ways.

Even with an imaginary group, children showed greater motivation for the group task compared to the individual task. Children worked for more time before choosing to quit the group task, and correctly placed more pieces for that task.

Afterwards, we asked children to rate how fun each task was, and how good they were at each one. On average, children rated the group task as more fun and said that they felt like they were better at it. When we asked children to pick which task they liked better, about half the children chose the group task, about one third chose the individual task, and a few had no preference.

Could this effect be due to something like random chance? We are confident that this is a real effect for a couple of reasons.

First, in our study, all the children did two different tasks, one in a “group” and the other as an individual. Some children did the math task as their group task and others did it as their individual task. Same for the puzzle task: Some children did it as their group task and others did it as their individual task.

We found children showed greater motivation for whichever task they did as part of a group. On average, they showed greater motivation for the group task about 40 percent of the time, equal motivation on both tasks about 32 percent of the time and greater motivation for the individual task about 28 percent of the time.

So, it’s not something about the particular group task or the children who were put in a group. The exact same children were more motivated, on average, by being in a group than by working as an individual.

Second, several studies that I conducted with Professor Greg Walton at Stanford University came up with similar findings. Those studies also looked at children’s motivation and learning when they were part of a group. In those studies, we found that children persisted longer on a puzzle when they were part of a puzzle group, and learned more new words when they were part of a word-learning group.

And if we combine our results with those studies into a meta-analysis – a study that analyses multiple previous studies – the effect is even stronger, even with imaginary groups and minimal information about the group.

Children spend a large portion of classroom time working independently. For example, one study found that American eighth graders worked individually 80 percent of the time in math class.

So what does this mean for teachers trying to get students excited about math? For parents trying to get children passionate about puzzles? We have a couple of ideas about how parents and teachers can use these findings to talk about STEM. We haven’t tested these yet, but they send the message that STEM is social.

For example, parents and teachers can use social language such as, “Let’s figure this puzzle out together.” Teachers can also create classroom-wide groups to make sure everyone feels included: “Our whole class does math together.”

Children need to be engaged in STEM before they start to lose interest. The image of STEM as solitary and isolating is strong in our culture. If we make STEM social, we can help inspire more students to discover their interest in STEM.

Allison Master is a Research Scientist, University of Washington.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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