Published: September 14, 2008
The Dallas Morning News

University of Texas at Dallas scientists believe they are on the road to success in overcoming the failure of many teenagers to develop the ability to reason to solve daily problems.

Now they just need a little outside help – about $20 million – to expand their findings and put them into practice.

Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of UTD’s Center for BrainHealth, said existing studies have shown the brain undergoes more change during the teen years than at any other time except for the first two months of life.

“The frontal lobes, the area of the brain associated with critical thinking and reasoning, develop rapidly throughout adolescence,” Dr. Chapman said. “High-level reasoning and critical thinking are skills that have to be learned and practiced. If teens do not acquire the ability to learn strategically during this developmental period, they might never do so.”

Center for BrainHealth researchers believed that the middle school years would be the optimal time for training in complex reasoning skills, critical thinking skills and risk resilience.

Their initial studies show they were right.

Using teenagers suffering from attention deficit problems, Dr. Chapman and BrainHealth scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino used cognitive neuroscience findings to create a program called SMART – for Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training – to teach teens how to think critically and effectively use the information they learn.

Teens were taught techniques to block unimportant details and condense critical information into main ideas or concepts, rather than try to memorize and repeat facts verbatim.

“We’ve used the SMART program techniques for the past year and a half in our ongoing study, and we’ve seen improvement in the reasoning skills for 98 percent of the children,” said Dr. Gamino.

The center’s SMART program is the only one of its kind in the nation, say researchers, who hope to incorporate a virtual-reality version as a model program across Texas middle schools.

Helping Texas students

The UTD team is ready to apply its findings to develop a Web-based training program to teach strategic reasoning to all students, teachers and parents.

Past support for the work has come from federal grants and private philanthropy.

But the center is seeking $20 million in funding from the state, corporate sponsors and private donors to translate its findings into a program for Texas schools and eventually a national model for brain-based reasoning training.

“So much of what is learned in brain science stays in science,” said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of UTD’s School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “It’s rare for practitioners and scientists to work in conjunction, translating the latest advances into programs to improve the lives of individuals. That’s what makes the center unique.”

The critical need for such a program is reflected in the fact that the U.S. ranks 24th out of 29 developed countries in critical thinking, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On standardized tests, such as TAKS, students score well in language and math, but more than 50 percent fail the short-response section that tests strategic thinking.

Testing SMART

During the segment of the study over the summer, the Center for BrainHealth scientists utilized the SMART program techniques in a classroom, setting up two groups of teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At the start of the camp, the students received tips and strategies on how to use their brains more efficiently.

Campers were then asked to employ the techniques through a variety of activities throughout the two weeks. Every participant showed overall improvement in strategic thinking.

“If kids with the ADHD camp improve, then it makes sense that those without cognitive deficits will be able to improve as well,” said Dr. Gamino.

This whole program actually got its start more than 15 years ago when UTD scientists began a study of teens with traumatic brain injury. More recently, the work was expanded to youth with ADHD, who despite normal intelligence, commonly show reasoning deficits.

“This is a problem across the nation,” Dr. Chapman said. “We’re missing the critical brain years and building a brain that doesn’t reason. The TAKS test is not the problem; we need to get the basic skills up, but we also need to find a way to get beyond fact-based learning.”

Debbie Francis, center advisory board chairwoman, has helped spearhead the center’s latest fund drive. And she will be honored for her efforts Thursday at the center’s Legacy Award dinner at Hotel Crescent Court, where first lady Laura Bush will present her with the award.

“Texas currently has the third-lowest high school completion rate in the country, but I’m hopeful,” Dr. Gamino said. “I believe that through our SMART program, Texas can become a leader in building reasoning brains, which are critical to success in higher education and the workforce.”