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Brains and Brawn Secrets to Student Success

Let's face it – math and science are hard. It takes the right combination of support and resources to succeed in challenging STEM courses. New research suggests that students not only need those two ingredients, but they also require the "grit" and intellectual brawn to obtain academic achievement.

What does having "grit" mean for a student? According to the research, grit is comprised of:
•  Goal-directedness – Knowing where to go and how to get there.
•  Motivation – Having a strong will to achieve identified goals.
•  Self-control – Avoiding distractions and focusing on the task at hand.
•  Positive mind-set – Embracing challenge and viewing failure as a learning opportunity.
Does this mean students should be working hard all the time, or should they be learning in a way that maximizes time and impact? In addition, how do students build the mental toughness needed to succeed in challenging STEM subjects? These subjects are undoubtedly challenging across all grades levels, but there are three ways to help students develop the “grit” they need to succeed.
1.       Build relevant lessons into academic instruction to motivate students in class.
I recently asked a nine-year old boy named Jacob how he was doing in school. He responded, "Well, school just started so I am still getting used to it." Then I asked him what he was learning and what his favorite class was. He said, "Right now we are focusing on math and science. Math is really hard, but science is my favorite class so far. We are building rockets out of metal and once we are done, we are going to launch them outside!"

Without a doubt, science is a hard subject as well, but Jacob's eyes lit up when he talked about science, and he was genuinely excited to learn new concepts and to implement what he learned outside of the classroom in a way that connects his learning experience to the outside world.

2.       Prepare students for increasingly rigorous coursework at an early age. 
If students aren't prepared early on to take challenging coursework, they will be unable to overcome the future barriers when taking STEM subjects. Building the pipeline of future STEM majors and an even more robust STEM workforce is incredibly important for the long-term viability of the American economy. This cannot happen without targeted and impactful programs that put students on a path to success at an early age.
By creating a genuine interest in STEM subjects through relevant, hands-on learning and increasing the visibility of the private sector in education through mentoring and internships, we can build the capacity for rigorous coursework and motivate students to push through academic obstacles.
3.       Finding the right balance between learning and study time. 
Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, recently spoke at a US Chamber of Commerce event on education and workforce issues, at which she provided a compelling analysis of the optimum learning model for kids most likely to succeed. According to Ripley, there are two prominent types of student learning models:

·      Hamster Wheel Model – Students are in a pressure cooker, in which study time and work are "relentless and excessive." This is the model typically found in countries such as South Korea. While this model does teach students the value of persistence and prepare them for a modern workforce, Ripley claims it creates as many problems as it solves. Most importantly, not all students have the access to private tutors and special programs to help them gain an advantage in an ultra-competitive environment. Clearly this model creates a bias for the wealthy and this type of “survival of the fittest” mentality does not promote equity in education. It only serves to create wider achievements gaps among students, particularly among underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
·      Finland Model – The Finland Model focuses on high-quality teachers and instruction from the onset of a child’s education. To begin, Finland’s teacher-training programs are highly rigorous, which leads to better prepared teachers who stay in the classroom longer. The secret in the Finland model is effective teaching, use of  classroom time, and relevant learning opportunities for students. The result is students who consistently perform well and who understand the value of their education on their career and college readiness.

While having grit and brawn in academics can give students a boost, simply working hard may not be enough for all students. Students come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic factors play a big part in student outcomes.
Our students need access, support, and encouragement to graduate successfully from rigorous, effective educational programs. It is imperative that we find the right mix of support and learning systems for our students. Easy rhetoric and a one-size fits all model will not solve the issues facing the American education system. NMSI has solutions and proven programs which equip teachers and students with the resources, support, and know-how they need to succeed.