Is Science Me? High School Students’ Identities, Participation and Aspirations in Science, Engineering and Medicine

22 June 2010

A report by P.R. Aschbacker, E. Li and E.J. Roth, Journal of Research in Science Teaching 47: 564-82

The article describes the findings of a study based on interviews over three years with 33 high school students in California to investigate the role of ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background in shaping students’ motivations, persistence and success in pursuing science, engineering or medicine (SEM) majors or careers. The authors examine how students’ experiences and interactions within ‘communities of practice’ over the three years from tenth grade affect their persistence and achievement in pursuing their initial interests in SEM, their ‘science identity development’.

  • Over three years, three groups emerge: Lost Potentials (students initially interested in SEM careers but who drop out of this ‘pipeline’ or opt for alternative interests), Low Achieving Persisters and High Achieving Persisters.
  • Socioeconomic status, ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, gender are noted as contributing factors to students’ trajectories.
  • All Low Achieving Persisters attended the same academy school, leading the authors to question the efficacy of mentors, professional knowledge and contacts that such academies are purported to provide.
  • Access to networks of knowledge and information are noted by the authors to be vital contributing factors in science identity development: family attitudes and understanding of SEM careers, careers advisors in school, teachers and other role models, such as professionals encountered during paid or unpaid work experience opportunities. These all affect students’ likeliness to develop “identity connections to science”.
  • Low Achieving Persisters lack the extracurricular activity, tutoring, information, coaching and family SEM role models that allow High Achieving Persisters to consolidate the science identities that they form in multiple ‘communities of practice’. Such multiplicity allows SEM careers to appear exciting, secure and attainable, even when school science alone may be perceived as ‘hard’ or uninspiring.

The authors recommend instituting programmes of regularized partnerships between schools and other SEM ‘communities of practice’ such as technical laboratories, while noting that among Lost Potentials, extracurricular activities were of insufficient quality and intensity to balance negative ‘school science’ experiences – they failed to build students’ self-confidence or and enable them to discuss and explore the relevance of their work to their own future potential. Thus, students’ eventual participation in SEM study and careers is enabled through their differing school, home and extracurricular environments that either buoy or hinder the development of a scientific sense of self and the correspondence between aspiration and achievement. The authors recommend systematic research into “how the overall culture of a district, school or academy constrains or enhances development of students’ identities and the depth of learning that occurs”.

Is Science Me? High School Students’ Identities, Participation and Aspirations in Science, Engineering and Medicine

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