Stanford and Columbia’s Teachers College receive $2.5 million to motivate students to pursue science

Carol Dweck

The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – have an enrollment problem. Sixty percent of students who enter college with the goal of majoring in a STEM subject end up graduating in a non-STEM field, and many students – particularly those from minority and low-income backgrounds – never even consider science an option.

Stanford University psychology Professor CAROL DWECK and XIAODONG LIN, associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, will soon be researching ways to change this mindset. Through a five-year, $2.5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Large Empirical Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE) Program, the researchers will test the impact of classroom-based motivational instruction programs on students’ performance in STEM courses.

“Many students believe that only geniuses can do STEM work and that geniuses do not need to work very hard,” said Lin. “The flip side of these attitudes is often the view that if you are not intelligent, no amount of effort will help.”

To drive home that struggling in science class isn’t cause for despair, the researchers will examine two curricula: a neurocognitive approach that teaches students that their minds and brains can literally change and grow through hard work; and a social-historical approach that acquaints students with the stories of famous scientists who had to struggle to achieve their breakthroughs.

The study will be conducted at 13 schools in the New York City area – most of them low-performing or based in low-income communities – in grades 4 and 9. Some 1,400 students will participate over the five years.

Lin, the project’s principal investigator, is an expert on technology’s influence on student cognition, and primarily studies how different types of social cultural knowledge influence students’ motivation to learn STEM subjects and to solve complex problems.

Co-principal investigator Dweck’s work spans developmental and social psychology, and examines the mindsets students use to guide their learning. The author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck recently was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

— By Max McClure