Blog for October: Identity Development and STEM Learning

Posted by: Carrie Tzou on October 14, 2020

In 2009, the National Research Council’s Report, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits established identity as a key factor in learning science. Research has shown that identity is important for learners seeking out and persisting in science learning and even in pursuing STEM-related courses and career trajectories. STEM-linked identities are developed by early adolescence, with middle school being particularly powerful years to affect learners’ identity trajectories. Identities can be nurtured by identity pathways, or trajectories of activities that engage learners in increasingly deep activity and communities of practice. Further, engaging with what learners value, their ways of knowing, and their community contexts are all important ways to connect learners’ everyday lives and identities with STEM learning environments. For these reasons, identity can be characterized as a “strand” of science learning, in which an essential part of STEM learning is to support learners to “think about themselves as science learners and develop and identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science” (NRC, 2009). In order to do this, however, we need to take into account the many dimensions of identity that learners come to learning environments with. 


In 2017, CAISE (the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education) conducted a series of interviews with 13 leading identity scholars in education, to understand the spectrum of ways that identity is theorized, documented, and measured. In a subsequent 2018 summary of those interviews, identity was defined as “an individually and socially constructed sense of self”. Most recently, in August and September, CAISE featured interviews with scholars who explore how social contexts can influence identity development. Through those interviews, several aspects of the connection between identity and learning were highlighted. These include:

  • Identity and motivation are deeply intertwined
  • Learner’s expectations of how interesting an experience will be is shaped by aspects of identity and in turn contributes to STEM identity—creating a kind of positive feedback loop to encourage further activity and learning.
  • Researchers study, document, and even measure identity in a variety of ways—through both quantitative and qualitative approaches.


The global COVID-19 pandemic, economic and climate crises, and global uprisings against racism have brought identities to the fore in urgent ways. We are realizing anew that our individual health is deeply tied to community and public health more broadly, which is deeply tied to historic inequities, structural racism, and, increasingly, our degree of privilege. COVID-19 has unearthed the complex systems within which we all reside—and the importance of a shared understanding of scientific processes, epidemiology, data, and evidence. Whether and how we engage with scientific information, which sources we trust, and how we make decisions are deeply tied to our identities, and these identities are multi-dimensional and intersecting. The issue of developing a STEM-linked identity is crucial in these times—not only to build a STEM workforce, but more urgently to develop a literacy and sense of agency to make decisions not only for one’s own health, but to understand that one’s individual health is dependent on one’s family and community health as well. 


This webinar is therefore timely and highly relevant to our current context. How we nurture and measure a STEM-linked identity in youth has consequences for the ways in which those youth will engage STEM to make decisions and solve problems that affect not only themselves but on a broader community and even climate scale. Each of the participants on the panel has been theorizing, designing for, and studying identity in STEM in different ways. Heidi Carlone’s BRIDGES (Broadening Identities for Diverse Groups Engaging in STEM) program engages science, engineering, and computing in an integrated approach to support a sense of youth agency in solving local, community-based problems. The program encourages growth not only in STEM learning but in interest and identity development and leadership in problem-solving and community-based action. By beginning with the assumption that all youth are scientific, the program connects with youths’ interests to, as one youth puts it, “bring the science out of me”. Nichole Pinkard’s Digital Youth Divas program connects coding, circuitry, and making with youths’ interests and everyday lives to form a community of “Diva sisters” to develop a sense of belonging in computer science. Program mentors meet regularly with researchers to analyze how the girls are doing and what factors in their lives might be challenging their participation in the program.  In this way, Digital Youth Divas creates a kind of wrap-around community that not only encourages computer science learning but does so within a context of a community of caring, inviting the whole youth into the learning setting.  Building from Nasir and Cook’s (2009) notion of identity resources, these two projects engage material, ideological, and relational resources to build STEM identities in youth, towards what Calabrese Barton and Tan (2019) call a rightful presence. Zarha Hazari directly takes on the issue of measurement of identity in her work. She has developed tool to measure discipline-specific identity formation in high school physics students. Hazari focuses on how youth come to see themselves as knowers and doers of physics, and has developed a quantitative tool to help teachers measure physics-related identity growth in students. 


The webinar will invite discussion of the following questions, each focusing on a key dimension of identity and learning:

  1. Learning Ecosystems: How can researchers use an ecosystems approach to document learning opportunities across the settings and times of learners’ lives? How can research practice partnerships facilitate this work?
  2. Social justice/Implicit bias: How can research be done in collaboration with communities that will help to name and confront inequitable histories of inclusion and begin to address/ counteract injustices and create more inclusive pathways and opportunities for identity development?
  3. Asset based approaches/ models: What is the potential role of narrative/ trying on possible future selves through designed experiences in increasing interest/ awareness in STEM+C opportunities?
  4. Designed Learning Experiences: In what ways could identity development be further supported through the design of informal and formal learning experiences? What are key design principles we should be thinking about to support identity development?

It is well-documented that learning science always involves learners navigating across multiple ways of knowing and doing. STEM learning in classrooms has typically focused on a narrow range of discourses, or ways of knowing and doing, that privilege white, middle class male discourses over others. This has left nondominant youth and their cultural practices, identities, and histories less visible in STEM learning environments. In this way, connecting STEM learning to identity development is an equity issue with implications for questions about how we engage nondominant youth in STEM, what shape STEM learning takes if we do, and how we engage youth in STEM learning that helps them imagine more just and thriving futures for themselves and their communities.



Bell, J., Besley, J., Cannady, M., Crowley, K., Grack Nelson, A., Philips, T., Riedinger, K., & Storksdieck, M.(2018). The Role of Identity in STEM Learning and Science Communication: Reflections on Interviews from the Field. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.


Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2019). Designing for rightful presence in STEM: The role of making present practices. Journal of the Learning Sciences28(4-5), 616-658.


Nasir, N. I. S., & Cooks, J. (2009). Becoming a hurdler: How learning settings afford identities. Anthropology & Education Quarterly40(1), 41-61.


National Research Council (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

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