STEM can push students beyond their comfort zone

Too many kids quit STEM because they don’t think they’re smart

NAGC logoI visited Baltimore for the first time when I attended the 61st annual National Association for Gifted Children convention. With four days of sessions and keynoters, I wanted to share with you my thoughts from the Opening General Session. Keynoter Freeman Hrabowski III, who has been President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) for the past 22 years, really set the tone for the convention. He advises President Obama on educational issues, and was named to the 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2012 by TIME. His talk was “Engaging and Empowering America’s Students to Succeed in STEM.” The main focus at UMBC is on STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math majors.

Freeman HrabowskiHrabowski is an impassioned speaker. He’s been on 60 Minutes, TED Talks and has many compelling YouTube videos. In his NAGC session, as he does in many of his talks, Hrabowski talked about how his life changed significantly when he was a boy and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. He remembers MLK saying “You must not let anyone define who you are.” And, “The quality of what you do will have an impact on people not even born yet.” Hrabowski said “Of course that was true with the civil rights movement, but it’s also true of other areas in which you will devote yourself.”

Something Hrabowski said that has stayed with me since the NAGC conference and that I find myself repeating to teachers, students, and parents is “The higher the ACTs in high school, the higher the AP and IB course load in high school, and the better the college the student attends, the greater the chances are that he/she will switch out of STEM classes.” It was hard to grasp this concept when he said it because it seems backward. But after thinking on it, I get it. Hrabowski said it’s because when these highly capable students transition into college and gets something below an A in a math or science class, they very often switch their major. It’s common knowledge that students who are used to getting A’s freak out when they are faced with anything below an A, and if this happens in a STEM class they figure that they are not smart enough to continue in that area.

I know that many students believe that smart = easy. Gifted students, in particular, often don’t have to work hard to get an A. So, when a class comes along that really challenges them and requires that they work extremely hard and it still results in a grade below an A, they often back down believing that they aren’t smart enough to continue or it’s just too hard. They encounter the dreaded “fear of failure” that many gifted kids eventually face.

But what if instead they embraced the challenge and thought, “Wow, this is really hard. I’m going to have to really buckle down and use some different strategies to keep up with it.” Very often, the strategies that used to work don”t work anymore. In more challenging circumstances it often takes more hard work, more tutoring, more studying, and more repetition in order to succeed… even if you’re gifted. And that’s something that many students who feel entitled, are not used to doing.

We need to send a message to our gifted students, especially those who pursue STEM college degrees, that they need to stick out the rough parts, power through with hard work, and not give up when the going gets tough.

If they stick it out and work hard, the payoff can be that the class becomes more manageable and the learning is extensive and deeper. We have to remind our students (and their parents) that sometimes a grade less than an A can actually represent more learning than getting an A.

For more, see a related study: STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields from the U.S. Department of Education.

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