The Transformative Power of Science Identity

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Christine Goedhart

I wasn’t very interested in science in high school, so as an undergraduate I put off taking a science course for as long as I could. Two years into my degree, I was finally told that I couldn’t move on until I completed a science course, so I enrolled in an introductory biology course. I walked into class that first day expecting to hate it, but something transformative happened that term – I became a “science person.”

Becoming a science person involves taking on a new identity – a science identity – and joining the culture and community of science. This is important, because students who develop science identities are more likely to persist in science, especially students from underrepresented groups (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Espinoza et al., 2011; Hazari et al., 2013; Royse et al., 2020; Alvarez-Berrios & Haynes, 2023).

There are five major components involved in the development of science identity (Trujillo & Tanner, 2014):

  • Recognition Seeing oneself as a “science person” and being recognized as such by other science community members
  • Competence Having knowledge and understanding of science content and skills
  • PerformanceDoing scientific activities, such as speaking about and practicing science
  • Interest Wanting to engage in science and participate in the scientific community
  • Sense of Belonging Feeling like a valid and accepted part of the scientific community

Experiences that impact these five components have the potential to either facilitate or hinder students’ production of science identity (Le et al., 2019).

For example, students who regularly answer clicker questions correctly, participate in class discussions and study groups, and are recognized by their peers as someone who knows the answers are more likely to develop a science identity, whereas students who are excluded or ignored by group members, don’t do well on exams, and don’t see anyone in science who looks like them are less likely to develop a science identity.

Students enter our courses with varying degrees of science identity (or lack thereof), based on their prior experiences. But like many other identities, science identity can change over time, and there are things that we can do to help students develop positive science identities. Here are some ideas:

Showcase scientists that students can relate to

When students can relate to scientists on a personal level, they are more likely to see a place for themselves in science and to develop a science identity (Schinske et al., 2016). Expand students’ perceptions of who can be a “science person” by incorporating diverse scientists in your course, particularly those who share common identities and characteristics with your students. This can be done by intentionally choosing images, names and examples of scientists that reflect your students’ identities, using Scientist Spotlight assignments, and inviting scientists into your course as guest speakers to share their own personal stories.

Provide opportunities for students to do science

Allowing students to engage in authentic scientific activities will help them to build competence and confidence in their ability to do science, promoting the development of a science identity (Starr et al., 2020). Scientific activities can take place in a classroom, lab, or field setting, and can range from a simple hypothesis formulation or figure interpretation activity to a more complex research experience in which students work through the steps of the scientific process. But make sure that the activity is of appropriate challenge – if it is too difficult, students might get discouraged and think that they can’t do science, hindering their science identity production.

Make the course content interesting and relevant to students

Using real-world examples, stories, case studies and data will bring the course material to life, allowing students to form personalized connections to the course content and strengthening their interest in science. As you engage with the news or popular media, look out for anything that relates to the course material and share it during class or incorporate it into your lessons. Getting to know your students will also help you make better decisions about what material to include and how to present it in a way that is of interest to students.

Incorporate cultural competency into the course

Students may hold identities, values, or beliefs that they perceive conflict with science, interfering with their ability to develop a science identity (Diekman et al., 2010, Barnes et al., 2017). Integrating cultural competence into your teaching and classroom environment can help to alleviate these conflicts, allowing students to reconcile perceived incompatibilities between personal and scientific identities. Tanner and Allen (2007) provide an overview of cultural competence in the undergraduate biology context and strategies for developing cultural competence as a biology instructor.

Provide collaborative learning opportunities

Giving students opportunities to work together in group learning experiences has several benefits. It allows students to practice with course concepts and socially construct knowledge, it builds classroom community and students’ sense of belonging, and it results in improved student performance (Tanner et al., 2003, Gaudet et al., 2010, Wilton et al., 2019), all of which contribute to the production of science identity. Decisions concerning group work structure may vary with course context, but there are some key elements that influence the effectiveness of group work experiences.

Establish classroom norms early in the term

Taking time to establish classroom norms early in the term provides structure for the course, helps students feel welcome and safe, and builds a sense of community. They also explicitly communicate course values and ways of working with others in the course. Having these guidelines set in place will help students have better interactions with each other and a better experience in the course. If possible, co-create classroom norms with students. Students tend to feel more ownership for and commitment to the norms if they play a part in their design.

Encourage students to participate in research and science community events

Participating in research experiences, Co-op, groups (e.g., BIOSOC and SUS) and events (e.g., symposia, poster sessions) will allow students to socially perform science and form ties with the larger science community, influencing their science identity development. However, students might not know about these opportunities, or they may need to be explicitly invited. You can help students feel welcome and empowered to participate by advertising events and opportunities during class and by offering personal invitations to students who you think might be interested.

Recognize your students as science people

Your students see you as a scientist, or in the very least, a science person. When you recognize them, you validate them as an accepted member of your classroom science community. Congratulating students on a job well done, acknowledging their thoughts and ideas, encouraging them when they are struggling, and reminding them that they are doing science when they perform scientific activities are all ways that you can communicate to students that you see them as a “science people,” making a big impact on how they see themselves.

What about you? What conditions and experiences helped you develop your science identity?

Think back to any formative moments or influential circumstances that you experienced on your journey to becoming a “science person” and consider how you might provide something similar for your students.

For me, the seed of my science identity was planted in class one day when my instructor told the story of Francis and Frank Robinson, who in the 60s and 70s led a citizen science movement in Southern California to save the Newport Back Bay from development and establish it as an ecological reserve. A week later, we took a class field trip to the reserve, and the course material came to life for me. I had a powerful sense that what we were learning was important, and I felt a deep connection with the course material and with my class community.

But the key moment really happened toward the end of the term. I was talking to my instructor after lab one day and he casually asked if I had ever considered pursing biology as a major. Honestly, until that moment, I hadn’t. But the recognition that I could be a science person – by someone who I considered to be a science person – caused me to seriously think about whether I wanted this identity. And this one simple question gave me the confidence I needed to explore and eventually accept it as my own.


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