SAGE Musings: Developing Students' Science Identity

Jan Hodder, University of Oregon
Author Profile
published Jan 23, 2017

Several studies show that science identity influences science persistence. How would we describe a person who has a strong science identity? Carlone & Johnson (2007) indicate that three interrelated dimensions are the keys to identifying as a scientist: competence, performance, and recognition. A competent student demonstrates meaningful knowledge and understanding of science content and is motivated to understand the world scientifically. This leads to performance: she uses scientific tools, is fluent with scientific language, and knows how to interact in various formal and informal scientific settings. She recognizes herself, and gets recognized by others, as a ''science person.''

Using these three dimensions, we can consider ways in which our courses or programs support building a science identity in our students. This is especially important for students who traditionally have not seen themselves as being represented in STEM professions, including women, underrepresented minorities, people with disabilities, and first-generation college students.

Rodriguez et al. (2016) have built on Carlone and Johnson's work and explored the potential of using their model of science identity development as well as a consideration of race, ethnicity, and gender to improve success for women of color attending community colleges. They point out that the intersectional aspect is key to understanding the complex identities and experiences of women of color at community colleges, who have to negotiate multiple aspects of their identities in becoming scientists. They include practical suggestions for promoting each of the components of the science identity development model both in the classroom and outside. For example, they stress the importance of connecting science subjects to everyday life such as highlighting relevant topics in the news or events on and off campus. Resources on the InTeGrate web page, "Attract Diverse Students to STEM," support this idea. Another of Rodriguez et al.'s suggestions is to run focus groups with students that meet regularly to give voice to their experiences. They also suggest that college administrators implement a research, application-based, or a problem-based learning requirement for students interested in science disciplines.

Jeff Schinske, a biology faculty member at De Anza College, and his colleagues have explored ways to increase science identity by using a series of "Scientist Spotlights" as homework assignments. The featured scientists present diverse perspectives on who scientists are and how science is done and match the content areas being covered at the time of each assignment. Each spotlight has an article about the scientist's research and a resource about the scientist's personal history. Schinske et al. (2016) give further details of this activity. Their paper discusses the importance of science role models, noting "that students needed to identify someone who cared about them and shared common interest/experiences in order for role models to be effective." They imply that to enhance a students' science identity and sense of belonging in STEM, faculty should, "in addition to identifying diverse role models in terms of gender/race/ethnic­ity, place a priority on featuring individuals to whom students might personally relate, based on interests and experiences." They introduce the concept of possible selves and suggest a subtle but important difference between the con­cepts of role models and possible selves. A role model represents people students are expected to become more like, while seeing one's possible self in a sci­entist involves seeing someone in science you already are like.

What are you doing to help develop science identity in your students? Does this research give you ideas about what you want to do differently in the future? Tell us about it!


Carlone, H. B., and Johnson, A. 2007. Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187–1218.

Sarah L. Rodriguez, Kelly Cunningham and Alec Jordan, 2016. What a Scientist Looks Like: How Community Colleges Can Utilize and Enhance Science Identity Development as a Means to Improve Success for Women of Color: Community College Journal of Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/10668926.2016.1251354.

Schinske J., Perkins, H., Snyder, A., and Wyer, M. 2016. Scientist Spotlight Homework Assignments Shift Students' Stereotypes of Scientists and Enhance Science Identity in a Diverse Introductory Science Class. CBE - Life Sciences Education 15 (3).

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