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Science Is a Team Sport; Showing Students That May Boost Interest in STEM

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Hollywood's version of science—the lone genius toiling in the basement, the socially awkward computer engineer—stands in stark contrast to the real life, increasingly team-oriented work in science and engineering fields. A new study suggests correcting that misconception could encourage more American students to engage in science.

Across four different experiments, students in China and India reported more opportunities than U.S. students to work with and connect to others as part of science activities, according to a new article in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Male and female students across all countries who perceived science as a communal activity were more likely to say they wanted to pursue a career in science than those who saw science as a "lone wolf" field. That was true even after taking into account students' general interest in science. 

In a related experiment, U. S. students were shown one of two descriptions of a scientist's day. One version focused on teamwork while the other highlighted a scientist working on her own. A follow-up study showed students who saw the description focused on collaboration expressed more interest in STEM careers afterward.

"When we started finding this, we were excited about it, because it's demonstrating that ... one of the fundamental parts of human nature is we are social creatures. We want to be part of a group," said lead researcher Elizabeth Brown of the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. "If you provide them opportunities to work in groups, form a strong relationship with a mentor, or have them think about and really see how their work is helpful to other people," students take a greater interest in STEM, she said.

It's not clear from the study whether U.S. students actually have fewer opportunities than Asian students for teamwork and community oriented science activities (or just think they do), but data from the most recent 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science show that 8th graders who work with other students on science several times a week scored significantly better on the test than those who had less-frequent exposure to group work in science. 

The results come at a time when the United States has been treading water on international science tests and struggling to draw more diverse students into the field. Prior studies have shown that women and students of color can be turned off by stereotypes about scientists, suggesting that such perceptions may contibute to achievement gaps in science engagement in the classroom, too. 

And beyond simply giving students more group activities, Brown suggested teachers and principals should help students learn to see both how professional scientists work together and how their work is connected to society as a whole.

"A lot of times in science classes students are working with a lab partner, but from what I've seen, often students are missing that connection between what they are doing in the classroom and how it is helpful to the community," Brown said. "Helping them make those connections can be particularly powerful."

Photo Source: Getty Images


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