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Commentary

“When You Walk Into This Room, You’re Scientists!”

How you can promote positive, science-linked identities for all your students

As the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) make clear, equity must be a priority in today’s science classrooms (NGSS Lead States 2013). This means ensuring that all students, regardless of race, gender, and economic or linguistic background, are able to access, evaluate, challenge, and even generate scientific knowledge. To achieve this goal, students must learn to recognize and use specialized and discipline-specific ways of producing and communicating knowledge (Moje 2008). This, in turn, is dependent on their developing—at least to some extent— positive, science-linked identities. In other words, successful science students must come to see themselves and be seen by others as the “kind of person” who communicates, reasons, and behaves like a scientist (Gee 2001).

Yet, developing positive, science-linked identities is particularly challenging for students who perceive science to be in conflict with other aspects of their identities, such as gender, ethnicity, or economic class. Students’ beliefs about whether science is for “people like them” appear to be shaped by both classroom experiences (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder 2014) and popular discourse (Archer et al. 2013; Wong 2012). Thus, prioritizing equity means attending to experiences that help all students—and especially those who are historically underrepresented in science—forge positive, science-linked identities.

Promoting positive, science-linked identities

As part of a research study, I spent seven months observing Ms. Marsh (names of teacher, students, and school are pseudonyms) teaching science in grades 5–8 at the Mary Lyon Academy for Girls (see also Faller 2017). Her colleagues identified Ms. Marsh as a particularly caring and gifted teacher of students who are generally underrepresented in the field of science. Her school serves all girls. Most are students of color and eligible for free or reducedprice lunch. About half come from a home where a language other than English is spoken. As a researcher, I was interested in understanding the ways in which Ms. Marsh helped these students develop positive, science-linked identities. Through our work together, I identified four principles that all teachers can use to promote positive, science-linked identities (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Principle 1: Prioritize communication in science

Teachers can weave both informal and formal opportunities to practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking throughout science instruction. They can explicitly state the importance of communication to science and highlight discipline-specific language patterns. In Ms. Marsh’s classrooms, she regularly described communication as fundamental to science. She also emphasized the use of multiple modalities (e.g., sketch and written explanation), technical vocabulary, and specific language conventions to communicate observations or explanations to a removed audience. Teachers can also scaffold students’ understanding of how and why science content is expressed in particular ways by contrasting science texts that are more congruent with students’ everyday language with those that use more technical and abstract language patterns (Polias 2016) and by leading metacognitive discussions in which teachers model and students practice reflecting on their thinking processes as they read or write science texts (Greanleaf, Brown, and Litman 2004). For example, teachers can ask their students to reflect on what went well and what was challenging about reading or writing a particular science text and then model strategies for addressing the challenges.

Principle 2: Position all students as scientists

Teachers can use inclusive language that helps their students view themselves as people who use science to understand the world around them. They can explicitly state that being a good scientist is about persistence, curiosity, and acquiring new skills and knowledge, not a set of inborn characteristics or traits. Teachers can also set up participation norms during hands-on activities to ensure everyone makes a contribution. For example, Ms. Marsh regularly used language that positioned herself and her students as members of the scientific community (e.g., “As scientists, we…”) and made sure that each student had a role to play during handson work. She also shared stories that portrayed knowledge in science as something that did not always come easily, but could be acquired by persistence and learning from mistakes.

Principle 3: Allow students to be science authorities

Teachers can create opportunities for students to use their own judgment and explain their reasoning, rather than focus on the correct answer. This can be done through allowing students to pursue investigations where the answer is unknown by all, including the teacher. Additionally, teachers can allow students to construct their own representations of scientific processes and concepts, rather than relying solely on expert representations provided by the teacher or the curriculum. This can be especially beneficial if students are also given the opportunity to explain, justify, and refine their representations (Prain and Tytler 2012). Ms. Marsh encouraged curiosity and scientific habits of mind in her students by valuing their everyday experiences with science. For example, while studying gases and pressure, one student recounted her recent school bus ride with a carbonated beverage that fizzed over when opened. Ms. Marsh urged this student to provide the class with more details by describing “your setup, as a scientist, on your ‘bus laboratory,’” playfully indicating that we can encounter science anywhere. She then prompted the student to explain how her experience illustrated what happens to CO2 once the pressure is released. Ms. Marsh also allowed her students to use their own judgments about how best to represent observed objects through sketches and notes on properties they deemed important.

Principle 4: Demonstrate that science actually matters

Finally, teachers can build bridges to science beyond the school curricula. Teachers can provide opportunities for their students to connect with a broader community of scientists and to see science as relevant to their daily lives. In Ms. Marsh’s classrooms, these opportunities included school-wide assemblies, science camps and other extracurricular programs, field trips, guest speakers, and projects. For example, Ms. Marsh invited female engineers into her classroom to work with students on design challenges. Through these opportunities, Ms. Marsh expanded the more narrow view provided by textbooks of who scientists are and what they do, giving her students more potential sources to draw from when constructing their own positive, science-linked identities.

Conclusion

There are many different ways that teachers can consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) help their students build positive, science-linked identities. Some of these are small choices, such as using inclusive language that positions all students as members of the scientific community. Others take more effort, such as seeking out partnerships with outside organizations and individuals to demonstrate how science is relevant to our everyday lives. In either case, this work should not be viewed as an add-on to teaching important science content. Rather, it is a means of helping all students, especially those who struggle to see themselves as scientists, engage more deeply with the complex scientific problems and practices emphasized in the NGSS.

References

Archer, L., J. DeWitt, J. Osborne, J. Dillon, B. Willis, and B. Wong. 2013. Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous; Primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations. Pedagogy, Culture, and Society 21 (1): 171–94.

Carlone, H.B., C.M. Scott, and C. Lowder. 2014. Becoming (less) scientific: A longitudinal study of students’ identity work from elementary to middle school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 51 (7): 836–69.

Faller, S.E. 2017. Reading and writing as scientists? Text genres and literacy practices in girls’ middle grade science. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 61 (4): 381–90.

Gee, J.P. 2001. Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education 25 (2000–2001): 99–125.

Greenleaf, C., W. Brown, and C. Litman. 2004. Apprenticing urban youth to science literacy. In Bridging the gap: Improving literacy learning for preadolescent and adolescent learners in Grades 4–12, eds. D. Strickland and D., Alvermann. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Moje, E.B. 2008. Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 52 (2): 96–107.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. www.nextgenscience.org/nextgeneration-science-standards.

Polias, J. 2016. Apprenticing students into science: Doing, talking and writing scientifically. Melbourne, Australia: Lexis Education.

Prain, V., and R. Tytler. 2012. Learning through constructing representations in science: A framework of representational construction affordances. International Journal of Science Education 34 (17): 2751–773.

Wong, B. 2012. Identifying with science: A case study of two 13-year-old ‘high achieving working class’ British Asian girls. International Journal of Science Education 34 (1): 43–65.

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