Culture 8 min read

How Parents Made the Difference in this Long-term STEM Study

Big Joe /

Big Joe /

A comprehensive study spanning over 35 years has revealed the strongest factors in student success within STEM fields. The result can be summed up in one word: parents. Traditionally, students who have achieved the greatest academic success are seen to have innate talent and/or superior intelligence.

STEM is defined as the educational fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. This article focuses on the parental aspect of the STEM study.

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Parents Have the Keys to Child Success

Contrary to many parent’s belief that schools alone have the resources and qualifications to educate their youth, this longitudinal, comprehensive study indicated that parents are the best educators.

Christopher Rozek |


The study’s findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Among the researchers was lead author Christopher S. Rozek, University of Chicago, and collaborating researchers from Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Virginia

The key points of the study revealed that success stems from parental involvement that nurtures their child’s interest and conveys the importance of understanding STEM subjects.

The basic premise for the study came from earlier studies of animals and their thought processes in response to certain challenges. The researchers noted that animals routinely exhibited displays of helplessness, which led to refusals to methodically work through a problem.

Superior Intelligence vs. Strong Work Ethic

This study took the helplessness of animal subjects and applied the idea to children. They created two subject groups and gave both groups different types of praise and feedback for success. One group received recognition of their intelligence, and the other group experienced more constructive comments and support.

Over time, researchers documented that those in the “superior intelligence” group were efficient at tasks they felt prepared to handle. Ultimately, when more complex problems arose, the confidence of these consistent high-achievers was easily broken.

The other group of children, not recognized as naturally-gifted, experienced an entirely different result. After being consistently praised for strong work ethic and the ability to work through challenging processes without regard to failure, these students scored consistently higher than their “gifted” counterparts.

Another huge side effect of the constructive criticism method: most of the latter group became students with a lifelong love of learning and overcoming challenges with a positive attitude.

Education is Ultimately the Parent’s Responsibility

Academic resources are not as helpful without parental involvement and encouragement.

Unknowingly, parents neglect their children by insisting they are not a part of their child’s education. After all, teachers are required to have classroom training and hold degrees to teach, so why would someone who is in the service industry or manufacturing feel they could prepare their child to study Algebra?

However, this study confirms that parents have an innate educative scope in their children’s early development beyond “please and thank you.”

As I write this article, my family and I are part of a growing homeschooled demographic. At the beginning of our homeschooling journey with three children under the age of five, many people scoffed at the idea of us having what it took.

Our qualifications–or lack thereof–were called into question by those unaware of homeschooling successes. My husband and I took on this challenge while we were both enrolled full-time in college and working on our undergraduate degrees.

Admittedly, in the first few months, we struggled with the idea of teaching our children adequately. We almost gave up. I, too, was conditioned to believe that I was not qualified to teach our children.

In the end, we homeschooled for four years. Our kids are currently thriving in a more traditional school environment. We frequently hear about our children’s’ “strong work ethic” which, aside from the aforementioned educational benefits, most teachers hold in high regard.

Do You Even Listen to me? Why Yes, Mom and Dad, I do

Most parents would tell you that their kids never listen. However, as the study showed, kids do indeed listen and apply lessons from their parents to STEM study and learning.

Our role as parents goes beyond teaching the right way to tie shoe laces or make the bed. Yet, parental involvement in STEM study does not guarantee success. Only combined with adequate educational resources at school or in the homeschool setting does active parental support have the best chance to influence student success.

The STEM subjects are an area of focus in the elementary, middle school and high school arena. Parents who struggled in those fields are hesitant to take a more hands-on approach. Yet, that very inclination can be used a leverage to convey the importance of STEM study to students.

The Possibly Changing Face of STEM Scholars

President Donald J. Trump has promised to ramp up restrictions on U.S. immigration. As this could include restrictions for even particularly bright international students seeking to learn in the U.S., there is a growing need to nurture STEM education in U.S. students.

A recent Statnews article stated that numerous STEM researchers and practitioners would most likely be affected in some way by the immigration restrictions. As author Rebecca Robbins noted, “all six Americans who won the Nobel Prize in Science were originally immigrants.”

“all six Americans who won the Nobel Prize in Science were originally immigrants.” Rebecca Robbins

Exemplary researchers such as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi lament the fact that if this same immigration ban were in place 40 years ago, she would not have been able to immigrate from Lebanon.

Dr. Zoghbi has conducted invaluable research into neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Without the likes of these top-notch professionals, progress in STEM study could slow down.

Helping Parents to Create Dialogue on STEM Study

Even taking all of this into account, it can be difficult for parents to find a productive and encouraging way to talk with their children about certain topics. Most often this difficulty lies in trying to find the exact words and approach that will encourage students to excel.

As many parents struggle to hold a dialogue which will help their children make excellent academic choices, one Manvel High School student stands head and shoulders above the crowd.

Ataiya Smith is the perfect example of homegrown STEM study success, as she was recently named as a delegate for her school by the prestigious National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists, as well as receiving an award for Excellence in the STEM field.

In an EdgyLabs interview, Smith’s mother April shared some advice regarding encouraging her daughter. Mrs. Smith and her husband did not push their daughter towards the STEM fields. Instead, they chose to support her in anything she wanted to pursue. April notes that her daughter has an excellent work ethic and love of learning.

Ataiya expressed an interest in the fields of math and science with the hopes of one day becoming a forensic scientist or homicide investigator. With that info, the parents were able to choose the correct environment to nurture her success. Manvel High gears its programs towards the medical and science fields.

Ms. Smith’s ultimate goal is to attain a Ph.D. She has excelled in science fairs and other academic competitions. Ataiya has excelled with the love and support of her parents.

STEM Study Take-Aways

Some positive takeaways for parents:

  • It can be difficult to talk to your children about STEM education, but that’s only because you haven’t done it yet. You have some learning to do, too.
  • Other parents have been where you might be. That means there are educational resources for learning how to support your child’s education. Get out there and do some research.
  • Involvement is the most important factor. If you’re there to help, you will.

Some things to avoid for parents:

  • Don’t push your child into any one subject, including within the STEM fields. Instead, empower your child to excel in what they are interested.
  • To that end, instead of scolding a child for neglecting a subject of study, try to convey to your child why a basic understanding of every subject is important on the whole.
  • Ensure that an open dialogue always exists. If communication between student and parent or student and educator is suspended, a student will lose focus.

The Beyond Science Dialogues

Furthermore, ideological differences and different religious beliefs can color how parents approach their kids about certain subjects. Again, it is best to keep an open dialogue despite a subject’s sensitivity.

The Future of STEM Success: Collaboration or Global Competition?

Because STEM fields make up the foundation for many high demand careers, studies like this one will likely continue to focus on learning within that spectrum. Yet, non-STEM disciplines will still benefit from pedogogical study.

As Nobel Prize winner Dr. Zoghbi noted, we must also work on creating a global partnership, thereby creating access to the knowledge of scientists and researchers. Only then can we all be on the cutting edge of technology.

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