Processes of Identity Development and Science Engagement Among Under-Represented Youth

Sunday, February 14, 2016: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hoover (Marriott Wardman Park)
Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Edna Tan, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Greensboro, NC
“When I think of STEM pathways I think of science fairs and stuff. I don’t think I was ever that kind of a person... It makes me feel like an imposter to call my pathway a STEM pathway.” - Cathy, pre-med university freshman.


Large gaps in achievement and interest in engineering and the physical sciences persist for minoritized youth across all levels of education attainment. For example, in the United States the percent of bachelor degrees awarded to African Americans in engineering has hovered around 4%. That lower-income communities of color experience the greatest levels of environmental injustice in the US, and often have the least voice in STEM-related decisions affecting their communities, are further evidence of the impact of persistent inequities in access to the sciences and engineering. Our work is in response to these vast inequities that minoritized youth face. We draw from social practice theory and mobilities of learning perspectives to interrogate pathways as one way to understand how youth move within/across/through learning spaces toward possible futures. Critical ethnography was selected as our methodology because of its explicit focus on participatory critique, transformation, empowerment, and social justice. The data were generated over 12 years, allowing us to follow 21 youth over the middle grades and into high school, and in some cases into college in three geographical contexts. In this presentation we present in-depth cases of two youth to illustrate the importance of two different grain-sizes of longitudinal ethnography and a focus on different spaces. Their stories help us to see how identity work, in the moment and over time, make authoring paths into STEM more or less possible. At the same time, we selected these two cases because they reflect a profound difference in how identity work in the moment and over time juxtapose in ways that productively yield possibilities for the future, both real and imagined. Quentin’s case is representative of the youth cases where informal STEM participation is foregrounded, while Melanie’s case highlights her pathhacking endeavors in the formal science classroom. Whereas Quentin eventually both narrates and embodies a possible future in STEM, Melanie struggles to connect who she is and what she brings to the STEM table as something that holds potential, despite her moments of success. We discuss how Quentin’s and Melanie’s identity work in STEM allowed them to hack a path towards STEM experiences where they could experience varying degrees of success, and try out STEM identities and ways of being. The support structures and obstacles in their pathhacking identity work is discussed, with particular focus paid to the role relationships (with teachers, adult mentors, caregivers, peers, community members) played.