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Struggles of famous scientists inspire STEM students

"When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up," said researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 11, 2016 at 4:33 PM

NEW YORK, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Education policy makers have increasingly emphasized the importance of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, education. For many students, science doesn't come easy, and a steep learning curve can be discouraging.

According to new research, one way to keep students engaged and encouraged is to teach them about the struggles of famous scientists.

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For the study, researchers from Columbia University divided 402 students in ninth and tenth grade at four high schools serving predominantly low-income populations in the Bronx and Harlem areas of New York City. Half of the students were asked to read a science book passage recounting the major scientific successes and discoveries of Einstein, Marie Curie and Michael Faraday.

The other 201 students read a passage recalling the personal and professional challenges and failures that each scientist faced and ultimately overcame -- Einstein's flight from Nazi Germany and Curie's laboratory letdowns.

Each student group read and reflected on the passage at the outset of a six-week grading period. At the end of the six weeks, researchers looked at grade trends.

The findings, detailed in the Journal of Educational Psychology, showed students who read about hardship and struggle saw grade improvement, with the most drastic improvements among students who had previously struggled the most.

In the other group, grades went down slightly on average, suggesting a overly positive or one-sided presentation of scientific success may have negative effects on academic achievement.

"When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up," lead researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, an associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University's Teachers College, said in a press release. "Many students don't realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way."

Lin-Siegler suggests science books should do more to present a balanced narrative of scientific successes and failures -- and to bring larger-than-life scientific figures down to size. Textbook writers must make the work of Einstein and others more relatable.

"Many kids don't see science as part of their everyday lives. We teach them important content, but we never bring it to life," she said. "Our science curriculum is impersonal, and kids have a hard time relating to it because they just see a long list of facts that they have to memorize."

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