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Defining and Measuring STEM Identity and Interest in STEM Learning

Connected Science Learning October-December 2019 (Volume 1, Issue 12)

By Jamie Bell, Kevin Crowley, Martin Storksdieck, John Besley, Matthew A. Cannady, Amy Grack Nelson, Tina Phillips, Kelly Riedinger, and Melissa Ballard

Defining and Measuring STEM Identity and Interest in STEM Learning

A growing number of educators are focused on increasing students’ interest in and developing their identity in relation to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as an intended outcome of their out-of-school activities and programs.

In everyday language, one might define identity as the way that people answer questions such as: “Who do I think I am, or who can I be? Where do I belong? How do I think other people see me?” People who are developing identities related to STEM will navigate questions such as these along the way.

Interest is a complex concept to define; because the term is used in everyday language, it can be laden with personal meanings. But, researchers generally agree that interest can be described as a long-term pattern of choices and pursuits, and has a multidimensional structure that includes affective, intellectual, and social components.

An evolving field of research

The landmark National Research Council report, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (2009) posited that learners in informal environments “experience excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world” and that informal learning experiences position participants to “think about themselves as science learners and develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses and sometimes contributes to science.”

Over the past 10 years, researchers across STEM education, the learning sciences, social psychology, and science communication have been working to understand and build models of STEM interest and identity, and how out-of-school education experiences foster these constructs. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE)’s Evaluation and Measurement Task Force recently conducted a series of interviews with 23 experts to take a snapshot of current research and thinking around these concepts. For each expert we interviewed, you can find a short video clip, interview highlights, and the full interview transcript online. There are also summary documents for identity and interest. Below are some highlights of what we learned.


When people engage with STEM, where they are on a continuum of STEM identity influences their expectations of how interesting and successful the experience will be. If they find an activity to be engaging and satisfying, the experience may strengthen their STEM identity, leading to a positive feedback loop that can reinforce ongoing participation and learning. Conversely, when learners have less engaging or unsuccessful experiences, a negative feedback loop can result—and might erode a developing STEM identity and make it less likely a learner will choose to participate in related activities in the future.

Across the interviews, there were varied opinions regarding whether identity can actually be measured or observed. Some researchers noted that a variety of data collection strategies can provide some evidence of aspects of an individual’s identity, including open-ended interviews, observations of learners, long-term ethnographic studies, implicit association tests, or self-report surveys. Several of the interviewees reminded us that these data collection efforts capture only a snapshot of an individual’s identity in a moment and a context.


Several researchers we spoke with, who work in informal STEM education, use Hidi and Renninger’s Four-Phase Model of Interest Development (2010), in which initial “triggered situational interest,” with sufficient support, becomes “maintained situational interest,” developing over time into “emerging individual interest” and ultimately “well-developed individual interest.”

We also heard insights such as the importance of taking into account historical and cultural factors that affect interest development in different populations, and that building and supporting ecosystems with multiple, varied, and connected opportunities for exposure and engagement are key for STEM interest to take hold. Some researchers don’t use the term “interest,” and instead used terms such as “preference” or “choice” to describe the same or similar phenomena. Researchers studying what they call the “activation” of learners conceptualize interest as consisting of (at least) two dimensions: fascination and value.

Interest is often measured using surveys that directly ask individuals to rate their preference for a particular topic or activity type. However, many researchers continue to debate self-reports—whether they are objective, how robust they are over time and within different contexts, and how much they can actually tell us about an individual’s interest. One alternative to using surveys is conducting open-ended interviews that reveal a more nuanced picture of the role of interest in learning, or ethnographic studies that track the development or loss of interest over time. Some researchers are studying “family interest pathways” by piloting strategies such as video observations, family-created journals, and artifacts.

More resources

  • In August 2019, CAISE hosted a webinar during which our task force members highlighted the perspectives from the interviews that they found most striking. We also responded to audience questions related to capturing longitudinal outcomes, and whether one should be thinking about a more generalized STEM identity or interest, or if discipline-specific measures are important to consider. Watch the recording on our YouTube channel and download the presentation slides.
  • also has several evaluation-related resources, including our “Design Evaluation” guide, a list of evaluation tools and instruments, and a recent blog post that gathers evaluation resources from across the web.


Jamie Bell ( is project director and principal investigator at the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education in Washington, DC. Kevin Crowley ( is professor of learning sciences and policy at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and co–principal investigator at the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education in Washington, DC. Martin Storksdieck ( is director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, and co–principal investigator at the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education in Washington, DC. John Besley ( is professor of public relations and advertising at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Matthew A. Cannady ( is research group director at The Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, in Berkeley, California. Amy Grack Nelson ( is evaluation and research manager at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tina Phillips ( is evaluation program manager at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Kelly Riedinger ( is senior researcher at the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Melissa Ballard ( is communications and community manager at the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education in Washington, DC.


Hidi, S., and S.A. Renninger. 2006. The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 111–27.

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

Research STEM Informal Education

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