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Tech engineers and managers struggling to improve productivity and performance could take a lesson from preschoolers. A new study from the University of Washington finds that just the feeling of working as a group on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) assignments caused 4-year-old children to work longer on tasks, enjoy them more, feel like they’d done a better job and actually do better work.

In the experiments, the children were in fact working all alone — no other kids were even in the room —but they were told that they were on a team and given a colored t-shirt and shown photos of their fictitious partners in their same color shirts. Their chair, tablecloth and a flag on the table were all the same color.

The basic sense of belonging, reinforced by the matching colors, was enough to boost the preschooler’s ability to complete animal puzzles or correctly match pictures and numbers.

“We think of STEM as a solitary kind of thing — you do your work off by yourself,” said Allison Master, a research scientist with the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “This idea of feeling connected to other people was motivating.”

The results of the research hold important lessons for educators trying to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, as well as for those in the tech industry trying to recruit employees — particularly woman and racial minorities underrepresented in the field — and build a successful workforce.

Allison Master, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
Allison Master, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

“We need so many more professionals going into STEM than we have,” Master said. “We need to find ways to make kids like STEM and be interested in it and be engaged.”

The UW study, which was published this week in the journal Developmental Psychology, tested 141 children in the institute’s Seattle lab. The preschoolers were given two STEM tasks, one performed as a virtual team, and the other done on their own, in a shirt that didn’t match other children shown in a photograph.

Preschoolers who liked being part of their group, which was 90 percent of the kids, were more influenced by being part of a team. There was no difference between genders in the experiment.

Master suggests that there are simple steps that teachers can take to create a sense of belonging, including using language that is inclusive, making clear that the goal of the entire class is to learn math. A teacher can use words like “us,” “we” and “our” to emphasize the team nature of the lesson. Master also suggests focusing on the process of doing the activity and not the children’s ability.

The goal is that “they feel connected to math and science and technology, and they are part of a group who cares about these things,” Master said.

The general principles also apply to adults. Last year the same UW institute published research showing that actors portraying stereotypically geeky men or women repelled female students considering pursuing computer science degrees. The students were more interested when they interacted with actors dressed in mainstream clothes and saying they enjoyed social hobbies. The students were attracted to a program where the other students were more like themselves.

The sense of working individually or as a group was reinforced by matched or unmatched t-shirts and photos of other children. (UW)
The sense of working individually or as a group was reinforced by matched or unmatched t-shirts and photos of other children. (UW)

“Conveying a sense of belonging for people who are not sure they belong is powerful for adults,” Master said.

In the study with preschoolers, the researchers were careful not to create a sense of competition between teams, which can also motivate participants. The children were told that the other teams were working on totally different assignments.

They also didn’t want personal dynamics between the kids to influence their performance, which is why the teams were virtual. And that leads to another issue.

There has been an increased attention to not only building teams at software companies, but to understanding why certain teams perform so much better than others.

Google, in particular, has made a close study of teamwork. Their Project Aristotle scrutinized and deconstructed group dynamics, concluding that it’s not the aptitude of the team members that determines success but their ability to create an environment that’s safe for risk taking and in which all of the participants have roughly equal voice.

But even given the need for certain traits for a team to maximize its potential, there is an underlying drive to belong and work together. “It’s just something so fundamental about human beings,” Master said, “that we’re social.”

The research paper’s other authors are fellow UW scientists Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff. The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation. The group has submitted a new grant seeking funding for STEM-related research in actual elementary school classrooms.

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