The United States may be damned with faint praise this morning, as the newly released 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show American 15-year-olds have improved to perform in the middle of the pack of 34 industrialized countries in science, while their math performance remained below the average. The results are apt to goad an already-urgent debate about how to move scientifically talented youngsters from science and math classrooms to economy-spurring science careers.
Yet a new 25-year longitudinal study of America’s top-performing students suggests even a natural interest in or talent for science doesn’t guarantee a student will become an accomplished scientist as an adult. Rather, students who received early and strong “doses” of both STEM courses and enrichment were more likely than their academic peers to become advanced scientists as adults.
In the study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, Jonathan Wai of Duke University led a team of Vanderbilt University researchers to study nearly 1,500 of the nation’s top-performing .5 percent of students in math, drawn from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. Separately, the researchers looked back over the scholastic careers of more than 700 top-performing graduate students in science, technology, engineering, or math.
Specifically, the researchers analyzed the quantity, richness, and intensity—or “dose"—of STEM-related activities students had access to during their school years. These included the academic courses they took, such as Advanced Placement or early-college math and science courses, and the enrichment they received, from participating in a science or math fair, conducting independent research projects, or writing within the disciplines.
“There’s been a lot of focus in gifted education on acceleration, taking regular course material and moving through it faster, and we wanted to look at a broader definition of dose,” Mr. Wai said. Though the study focused on students in the top-performing 1 percent in the nation, he said, “I certainly think this concept of educational dose could be translated to students at all educational levels.”
Students who participated in more than the median number of science and math courses and activities during their school years were about twice as likely by age 33 to earn a doctoral degree or tenure or to publish a journal article in a STEM field than were students who participated in a fewer-than-average number of activities. This held regardless of whether the students were male or female.
The researchers suggested the balance of both rigorous academics and extracurricular activities to allow students to use their knowledge may give students an edge over their equally bright academic peers.
“Educational enrichment and advancement comes in multiple forms and students may not have access to everything,” Mr. Wai told me. “You don’t have to have access to everything in order to have a high dose. What matters is that the student is intellectually engaged and stimulated. I do think we should allow students to go at their own pace, to take advanced courses if they want to, and to have as much access to these educational opportunities as they want and are ready for.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.