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Cultivating a STEM Mindset: Connect 2016 Speaker Roundup

Recently, Dr. Talithia Williams spoke at our Connect Higher Education Summit about how to overcome the achievement gap and cultivate a STEM mindset. She was inspiring and challenged all of us to think about how we can do better for all students. What do you think? How can we overcome the achievement gap so that everyone has access to the education they need?

Here is a brief overview of Dr. Williams’ presentation.

The Achievement Gap

Defining the Achievement Gap

When we talk about the achievement gap, what we mean is any persistent disparity or consistently unequal outcomes between different groups of students. The achievement gap can be seen in minority groups, girls, those who do not speak English as their first language and those with a lower socioeconomic status. Closing this gap is one of the major challenges facing the American public education system.

Factors in the Achievement Gap

There are many factors that contribute to the achievement gap. Lack of funding is one factor, as those who go to schools with less funding tend to perform more poorly than those who attend public schools with strong funding sources. Lack of education on the part of parents also contributes to the achievement gap, since parental involvement is a strong indicator of student success. Parents who have less education themselves are less able to provide the kind of parental oversight that is so critical to helping students succeed. Location is another factor, with differences in achievement being seen in urban versus rural or suburban schools.

There are more subtle factors at play in the achievement gap, as well. Peer pressure can be a significant contributor to suppressing children who are academically inclined, if they live in a culture where academic achievement is denigrated instead of celebrated. Student tracking and stereotyping can also keep children from academic success, as well as test bias that hinders achievement for certain ethnic or cultural groups.

But the number one factor contributing to the achievement gap is poverty and low socioeconomic status. Currently, approximately 15 million children – 21% of all children in the United States – live in poverty. Among black children, however, the percentage is significantly higher; approximately 38% of black children live in poverty. Poverty affects many of the factors that can lead to achievement gaps – students tend to attend less well-funded schools, parents are more likely to have less education themselves, and families in general have to focus more on day-to-day survival than long-term educational goals.

Overcoming the Gap

While the numbers are distressing, the good news is this gap can be overcome with thoughtful preparation and a commitment on the part of educators to ensure that all students feel capable of achieving great things.

Develop a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on growth versus fixed mindset has demonstrated that more than ability, the belief that learning is possible is critical to success. Dweck defines a fixed mindset as one in which intelligence is believed to be static; you either are smart, or you are not. A growth mindset, on the other hand, says that intelligence can be developed.

A fixed mindset can be hugely detrimental, because it tells people they don’t need to try. You either have the capability, or you don’t. Even intelligent people can suffer under this model; children who have always been in “gifted” programs, for example, can really struggle when they encounter challenging subject matter to learn, as they believe that if they don’t understand quickly, they will never master the material.

Mathematics, Dr. Williams argues, inherently helps develop a growth mindset. No one is right all the time in math. Even the greatest mathematicians have gotten things wrong, but you can learn how to get it right. In addition, math isn’t subjective in a way humanities-based study can be, so for those who are struggling, there are clear-cut avenues to improve. And finally, mathematics can be hugely collaborative, with everyone working together to understand a concept and prop each other up.

Cultivating this kind of growth mindset, especially in STEM fields, can set students up for success not only academically, but for all of life’s challenges.

Communicate High Expectations

One of the most pernicious problems in the achievement gap is low expectations. Telling a girl she “tried really hard and so will get an A” even though she didn’t master the material is an example of the tyranny of low expectations.

It is up to teachers to set high expectations and help students achieve them. From saying “I know this is hard, but I know you can do it” to not accepting failure as a possibility, teachers have the ability to instill lifelong confidence in students.

Cultivate the STEM Mindset Early

Laying a foundation for a STEM mindset early will help students achieve their goals throughout their life. From the beginning of school, encouraging rigorous thought, a growth mindset and high expectations will help students demand more of themselves, and help them build the confidence to know they can achieve what they want.

Cultivating a STEM Mindset in Higher Education

While cultivating a STEM mindset early is important, that’s not to say there isn’t work colleges can do to help overcome the achievement gap and set students up for success. First, commitment has to come at the institutional level. Colleges and universities need to commit to putting resources behind closing the achievement gap and everyone, from faculty to support staff to administrators, has to buy in to the importance of closing this gap.

Analytics can play a significant role in closing this gap, as tracking student achievement can both identify problem areas and help locate areas of success, making change not only a reality, but also scalable across departments and programs.

Technology, too, can help close the achievement gap. The plethora of apps and programs available today can make learning math seem less intimidating. “If I can do this, I can do math,” is an important lesson to share with students who are using different kinds of technology. In addition, technology is invading all fields, so the lines between art, science and engineering are becoming blurred. For students who want to focus on liberal arts, understanding how STEM will have a practical effect on their field can motivate them to learn these important lessons.

One thing is clear – as education changes, it is incumbent upon us as educators to make sure no one is left behind. What do you think institutions can be doing to better cultivate a STEM mindset?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: