Shaping STEM Identity Negotiation through Activity Frames

Smirla Ramos Montanez

September 30th, 2020

In Spring 2020, Smirla Ramos-MontaƱez, Family STEM Learning Researcher at the Technology Education Research Center (TERC) spoke with us about applying a culturally responsive approach to research and evaluation studies of informal STEM learning. The interview was conducted by Dr. Kelly Riedinger as a member of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) task force on evaluation and measurement. Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez shares her personal narrative that led her to work on STEM Identity research in informal contexts as well as the importance of developing tools and strategies to shift from deficit to asset-based approaches in the design, implementation and measurement of STEM learning experiences.  

One research project experience that has critically informed the work of Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez  is Designing Our World (NSF #1322306). The exhibition and associated learning experiences use design principles to engage participants in collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. This work was directly informed by Heidi Carlone and Angela Johnsonā€™s research that considered the role of performance, competence and recognition on identity development. Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez and colleagues extended this work and created the identity frame model


Defining Science Identity

Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez defines identity as a situated concept. It is actively negotiated in a variety of social interactions and contexts while being informed by complex cultural and historical narratives. The concept of activity frames or situation definitions, is at the core of that approach. Her work suggests that youth STEM identity in particular emerges from an ongoing process of performance, recognition and positioning by others during social interactions.

Measuring Science Identity

Throughout her work, Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez and colleagues have used a grounded theory approach to develop a framework that accounts for the complexity of moment by moment interactions in STEM learning contexts. This approach accounts for both the agency and the structural aspects of those interactions relative to identity for youth ages 9-12.

Implications for Practitioners 

Across project teams,  Dr. Ramos-MontaƱez and colleagues have invested in making research more accessible to practitioners. Reflective practice has emerged as a successful strategy to take abstract concepts and turn them into more concrete actions. This practitioner tool was created to explain some of the concepts that emerged from her research as most important for identity negotiation and illustrates them with examples. In addition, the STEM identity tool focuses on the concept of activity frames and outlines a process which  practitioners can apply to their own work.

Questions Still Being Explored

Dr. Ramos-MontaƱezā€™s work has advanced the conversation about the ways that identity is actively negotiated by youth across the contexts in which they engage with STEM learning. Questions still exist about whether, and to what extent, the kinds of patterns that emerge will extend over time. Future research will want to consider the role of the increased time being spent learning in family and non-peer group contexts during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, what are the strengths and challenges of STEM engagement among immigrant Spanish speaking families?  And how can programs be designed to best support successful engagement with STEM learning within these communities?

Learn More

Read the full interview with Dr. Smirla Ramos-MontaƱez, check out her member profile, or explore her areas of research at TERC.