STEM Identity and Engagement Among Diverse Youth

January 1st, 2016

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It has been widely noted that diverse youth living in underserved communities often lack access to quality science instruction in schools and therefore, might be particularly well served by opportunities to engage in and with science in quality ISE programs in their community (National Research Council, 2009). Diverse youths’ engagement with science in ISE over time may also help tackle their on-going underrepresentation in STEM careers and make possible the development of identities as insiders to science. Yet, as also suggested by much research, engagement in and with science and achievement in science over time has to be understood in light of a complex sociocultural system. The system that constitutes the ISE landscape suggests that there exist a vast variety of settings, spaces and programs that make different dimensions of science literacy and identities in science available to youth—if those opportunities are effective in ways that youth judge valuable and meaningful to them given their local community in which these ways of knowing, doing and being can then be mobilized for action.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

There is some evidence within science education research that combining urban youth’s interest in movie making with science increased their interest in scientific topics (Basu & Barton, 2007).

Other recent research explored diverse youths’ engagement within three very different ISE settings: a girls-only afterschool program, a youth garden program and a Math and Science Upward Bound program (Rahm, 2010). It focused on youths’ forms of participation and identity work in science within each program through in-depth qualitative research over extended periods of time. It also explored some youths’ participation and identity work spatially, across programs, and over time within and beyond programs.

Through engagement in science fair projects over the course of an academic school year in the afterschool program, the girls had opportunities to pursue questions in science that were meaningful to them. Gardening on the other hand entailed challenges for which science had to be mobilized as a tool for action. For instance, through observation and action in their garden plots, youth gained insights into the complex relationship between water, sun and pest control and its effects on plant growth and harvest. By listening in on conversations among instructors and youth that were driven by questions that emerged from gardening work, youth also developed expertise in the kind of scientific knowledge needed for a good harvest. In contrast, the mentorship projects in the Math and Science Upward Bound program offered youth with a means to become members of and active participants in science practices at the elbows of scientists. They became apprenticed into scientific communities through data collection, analysis and presentation of results in ecology, physics and biochemistry. Through three years of participation in that program, youth also contributed to the collection of data on changes in a local ecosystem following a forest fire. Given the possibility for participation over time in all three programs (3 years and longer), youth had many opportunities to question their perceptions of science, scientists and self as insiders to science.

The study of learning and identity trajectories of some of the participating youth in all three programs made clear, however, that such ways of knowing and identity work were marginalized for most. The actual pursuit of and success in the pursuit of a STEM education at the University level or related area, had little to do with their interest in science, identity in science or developed science literacy. What counted most was the kind of cultural capital needed to successfully navigate that system that made available to them very few desirable identities in or beyond science (Calabrese-Barton, 2007; Hughes, 2001). The study suggests, that we need to know much more about youths’ repertoires of cultural practices in science and their learning ecologies in general. It would help us better understand what meaningful engagement with science for youth entails. To better understand how different forms of engagement constitute diverse youths’ learning and identity trajectories over time and across space is also essential. As is, the study suggests that diverse youth engage with science and develop identities in science maybe more often than they are given credit for. Yet, their identity as users of science that emerged from the diverse forms of engagement that the three science practices supported, were not perceived as assets in the context of the larger educational infrastructure, making mobilization possible for only some who most importantly, had the cultural capital needed to navigate that landscape (Calabrese-Barton, 2007). It underlines well the complexity inherent to ways practices make available resources that are then picked up in different ways by youth, enriching and solidifying some youths’ repertoires of practices while marginalizing others (Nasir, 2012). It also suggests that in-depth critical studies of ISE experiences have much to offer to unpack that complexity and address issues of equity in science education.

In sum, the youths’ contacts and experiences with science were embedded in a web of educational opportunities that are of different social, cultural, instrumental and economical value in our society and for this reason positioned youth in different ways within the landscape of science.

Directions for Future Research 

We need to know much more about the learning ecologies or repertoires of practices in and beyond science that constitute the lives of diverse youth (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). We need to know more about the ways diverse youth navigate the ISE landscape that is available to them and the manner in which science literacy, tools and identity that could be developed through participation that will also translate into mobilization over time.


Basu, S. and A. Barton (2007). Developing a Sustained Interest in Science among Urban Minority Youth. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44: 466-489. Retrieved from:

Calabrese-Barton, A. (2007). Science learning in urban settings. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.). Handbook of research in science education (pp. 319-343). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

GutiĂ©rrez, K., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: Individual traits or repertoires of practice. Educational Researcher, 32, 19–25.  Retrieved from

Hughes, G. (2001). Exploring the availability of student scientist identities within curriculum discourse: An anti-essentialist approach to gender-inclusive science. Gender and Education, 13, 275-290.  Retrieved from

Nasir, N. S. (2012). Racialized identities: Race and achievement among African American youth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Research Council (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.  Retrieved from

Rahm, J. (2010). Science in the making at the margin: A multisited ethnography of learning and becoming in an afterschool program, a garden, and a math and science upward bound program. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.