Broadening Participation in STEM by Focusing on Identity Development

Posted by: Iris R. Wagstaff, PhD on April 5, 2023
Identity as a Lever for Broadening Participation and Persistence in STEM


Identity has been found to be a critical factor in the persistence and success of individuals in educational and career pursuits. The role of identity is especially important as it relates to the recruitment, success and persistence of minoritized groups in STEM that include African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos(as), persons who identify as Native American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, and persons with disabilities. There is widespread agreement among the key workforce sectors (academia, industry, government, and non-profits), policy makers, educational systems and the general public, that in order for the US to maintain it’s global competitiveness in science, technology, and innovation, it must embrace and engage ALL of its human capital – especially those that have been historically disenfranchised and discouraged from scientific pursuits. 


Given that STEM identity plays such a critical role in the overall goals of attracting, preparing and sustaining a diverse workforce, we must examine the various ways that STEM identity is developed and how we can leverage identity as a tool and source of capital to not only broaden participation in STEM at the K-12 and higher education levels, but to also ensure that we have a diverse, prepared and sustained workforce that is needed to address critical issues that affect us as a nation and globally.  A generally accepted definition of STEM identity based on seminal research is the degree to which an individual or group relates to, “fits in”, or feels a part of scientific-related concepts, content or environments (Carlone and Johnson, 2007). While there have been numerous constructs developed to assess identity over the last 10 years, there is agreement among the research community that there are two main dimensions of STEM identity – how an individual perceives themselves, and how others perceive them. It has also been established that STEM identity has several mitigating factors that include intersectionality (race, gender), environment, socioeconomic status, family and community influences, and access to quality education, teaching and career information (Armstrong and Jovanovic, 2017, Bottia et al. 2021, Chemers et al. 2011, Jamil, 2017, Parker, 2013, and Perez et al. 2014). Identity has also been found to have positive effects and impacts and also serve as a mediating factor on other motivational constructs in STEM such as sense of belonging, self-efficacy, STEM career intent, and persistence (Mau, 2016, Niu, 2017, and Wagstaff, 2014).


Identity also plays a critical role in encouraging interest in STEM, especially among underrepresented minorities, along the education continuum. It can also serve as an on-ramp to active engagement with STEM concepts. Conversely, under-developed identity dimensions can be a source of attrition in STEM at critical junctures along the pathway such as the transition from middle school to high school, and from high school to college. Some best practices and promising strategies for improving STEM identity at the K-12 level include positive environments such as informal science contexts where students can leverage their lived experiences and explore science outside of the formal classroom at their own pace, hands-on, inquiry-based learning, and opportunities for career exploration. At the higher education level, promising practices include mentoring, engagement with STEM professionals from diverse backgrounds, and opportunities to build community.  As an African American female from a rural area in the South: first-generation and low-income background, I am a living testimony to the impact of STEM identity development. Growing up, my mother - Alyse Wagstaff – was my biggest motivator. She was a divorced single parent who made ~$20k a year as a librarian at a state center for the intellectually disabled and she viewed education as a vehicle to change my trajectory in life and set me up for success. She never knew a Black scientist, but she created one, and I dedicated all of my successes in her honor and memory. Even though I was an A student, due to discrimination and inequities in the education system, I was placed into lower-level classes that did not align with my ability.  It was due to my Mom’s persistence and advocacy that I was eventually routed to higher-level and advanced placement science and math courses where I was able to demonstrate my capabilities. It is that early experience of “being seen” as having potential in STEM that provided a foundation for my later pursuit of a career as a research chemist.  Moreover, while I did not have access to informal science experiences growing up, I did have excellent teachers at the K-12 level. We know from the research that one of the most important factors in a student’s educational success is the teacher. In fact, today I work with my high school chemistry teacher – Mrs. Cheryl Alston – leading K-12 informal outreach programs in my hometown of Goldsboro, NC for low-income students of color that leverage agriculture and gardening as contexts to embed STEM concepts.


This month’s theme and expert panel webinar will illuminate the challenges and barriers to STEM identity development - particularly among minoritized groups, offer some best strategies to addressing this issue, and highlight promising research and impacts by leaders in the field. Panelists from three projects with videos in this month’s playlist will be featured:


Preeti Gupta from the Longitudinal Study of STEM Pathways project will share longitudinal research and impacts from a study of high school students who participated in a summer research and mentoring program and how that experience along with other factors, mediated sense of belonging, identity, STEM career intent and persistence in STEM as current college students. 

Daniel McGarvey will present about the Broadening Participation and Leadership in Freshwater Science project, which leverages peer-mentoring and environments that provide a sense of belonging as key program elements in their Emerge Program to encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in the freshwater sciences.

Finally, Gabbi Haynes from the Advancing STEM Identity in URM Emerging Researchers project, will share research and data on the positive impacts that the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM has on motivation in STEM – specifically improving science identity, science self-efficacy and sense of belonging for underrepresented undergraduate and graduate student STEM researchers.


We welcome discussion from the community over the coming weeks regarding the importance and promise of employing identity as a lens for addressing challenges and a lever for broadening participation and improving persistence in STEM.




Parker A. D. (2013). Family matters: Familial support and science identity formation for African American female STEM majors [Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Charlotte].


Niu L. (2017). Family socioeconomic status and choice of STEM major in college: An analysis of a national sample. College Student Journal, 51(2), 298–312.


Mau W.-C. J. (2016). Characteristics of US students that pursued a STEM major and factors that predicted their persistence in degree completion. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 4(6), 1495–1500.


Jamil C. (2017). At the intersection of relative risk aversion and effectively maintained inequality in STEM majors: A multilevel approach [Master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte].


Green A., Sanderson D. (2018). The roots of STEM achievement: An analysis of persistence and attainment in STEM majors. The American Economist, 63(1), 79–93.


Armstrong M. A., Jovanovic J. (2017). The intersectional matrix: Rethinking institutional change for URM women in STEM. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 10(3), 216–231.


Bottia, M. C., Mickelson, R. A., Jamil, C., Moniz, K., & Barry, L. (2021). Factors Associated With College STEM Participation of Racially Minoritized Students: A Synthesis of Research. Review of Educational Research, 91(4), 614–648.


Wagstaff I. R. (2014). Predicting 9th graders’ science self-efficacy and STEM career intent: A multilevel approach [Doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University].

Google Scholar


Johnson, D. R. (2012). Campus racial climate perceptions and overall sense of belonging among racially diverse women in STEM majors. Journal of College Student Development, 53(2), 336–346.


McClain, O. L. (2014). Negotiating identity: A look at the educational experiences of black undergraduates in STEM disciplines. Peabody Journal of Education, 89(3), 380–392.


Hughes, R. M., Nzekwe, B., & Molyneaux, K. J. (2013). The single sex debate for girls in science: A comparison between two informal science programs on middle school students’ STEM identity formation. Research in Science Education, 43(5), 1979–2007.


Beier, M. E., Kim, M. H., Saterbak, A., Leautaud, V., Bishnoi, S., & Gilberto, J. M. (2019). The effect of authentic project-based learning on attitudes and career aspirations in STEM. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 56(1), 3–23.


Anthony, A. K., Walters, L., & McGrady, P. (2017). Creating connections between authentic research and the development of science identities in undergraduate Marine Biology experiences. Florida Scientist, 80(2/3), 61–76.


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


Chemers, M. M., Zurbriggen, E. L., Syed, M., Goza, B. K., & Bearman, S. (2011). The role of efficacy and identity in science career commitment among underrepresented minority students. Journal of Social Issues, 67(3), 469–491.


Perez, T., Cromley, J. G., & Kaplan, A. (2014). The role of identity development, values, and costs in college STEM retention. Journal of educational psychology, 106(1), 315.



View playlist related to this theme »