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Science Isn’t for Me, or Is It?

Integrating STEM for Equity Through Environmental Problems

How often have you heard a student say “I’m not a science person” or “Science isn’t for me”? Too often, school science does little to disrupt these narratives (Carlone, Haun‐Frank, and Webb 2011). School practices that encourage memorizing of vocabulary or formulas over conceptual understanding, overly formal and sometimes off-putting ways of talking (Brown 2019), and the celebration of “the” right answer over problem-solving and creative thinking alienate learners. These traditional practices prompt many students to attribute low value to science and engineering (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder 2014). Too often, youth also feel as though their knowledge, identities, and interests are too far afield from what science and engineering demand (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder 2014).

STEM identity work involves acts of performance, recognition of self, and recognition by others (Carlone and Johnson 2007). When students describe themselves as “a STEM person,” they are making an identity bid or claim about the kind of person they are and how they would like others to see them (Gee 2000). Simultaneously, others assign youth to identity categories in relation to the setting’s celebrated identities—for example, as “smart,” “struggling,” or “difficult.” Identity bids, then, can be supported and thwarted by others. Social categories like race (King and Pringle 2019), gender (Archer et al. 2012a), social class (Archer et al. 2012b), and heteronormativity (Carlone et al. 2015) shape who gets counted as STEM-competent. These categories become more influential in middle school than they were in elementary school (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder 2014). Thus, when working with diverse groups of youth, it is important to find ways to cultivate youths’ STEM identity work so they feel that they can bring all parts of themselves—their multiple identities—to the learning setting.

There are many ways to be a STEM person, but traditional science and engineering learning settings tend to only recognize very narrow competencies (Suárez 2020). How can we shift the narrative so that all students come to see science and engineering as thinkable (Archer et al. 2012b)? How can we design STEM learning experiences to be more inclusive and attend to students’ multiple identities? These questions sparked the BRIDGES project (BRoadening Identities for Diverse Groups Engaging in STEM). Our goal was to design experiences for middle school youth emphasizing that they all have strengths and interests to contribute to the group’s STEM work.

Our approach centers on designing and engaging youth in curriculum that attends to multiple STEM identities. This involves providing youth opportunities to engage in STEM problems in multifaceted ways so that they recognize themselves as competent knowers and doers (Mercier and Carlone 2021). The purpose of this article is to describe the BRIDGES framework that we created to design curriculum that allows for multiple modes of engagement within a STEM setting.

The BRIDGES framework

Our design approach followed guidance from the National Research Council’s (2015) consensus report on STEM learning, which recommended that integrated curriculum should (1) support a wide range of knowing; (2) enact problem-based approaches that connect to youths’ interests; and (3) focus on problems relevant in local communities. We emphasized the investigative, inventive, communicative, and affective domains of STEM work to support multiple ways of knowing. Our focus on environmental problems stressed problem-based learning with multiple interest hooks and pathways to accommodate youths’ wide-ranging interests. In a study of 98 youths’ STEM identity work in BRIDGES, we found that these categories prompted new recognitions of self, unexpected recognition by others, and/or new ways of belonging in STEM for all participants (Mercier and Carlone 2021).

The BRIDGES framework (see Figure 1) leverages middle-school youths’ inclination to make a difference (doing “good,” the left-hand side of the framework; Wegemer and Eccles 2019) and their curiosity and motivation to solve problems that impact their communities (sensemaking and problem-solving, the right-hand side of the framework; Davis and Schaeffer 2019) in designing and advocating for solutions to environmental problems (computing tools and practices, the bottom of the framework). The BRIDGES framework gives insight into possible ways youth might engage with or see themselves in STEM settings. It can also be a guide to envision curriculum design in new ways to include STEM entry points and learning experiences that speak to multiple modes of engagement and multiple STEM identities (see Figure 2).

Figure 1
The BRIDGES framework.

The BRIDGES framework.

Figure 2
How modes of engagement potentially appeal to youth in stream table.

How modes of engagement potentially appeal to youth in stream table.

The BRIDGES framework centers six modes of engagement, or ways that youth can engage with environmental problems:

  • Altruism: Youth might engage with an environmental problem through altruism if they care deeply about the well-being of people and their communities. Here, youth might use science, engineering, or technology to help people and make the world a healthier and safer place.
  • Conservationism: Engaging with a problem through conservationism means caring and thinking deeply about the impact of humans on lands and animals and helping the natural world.
  • Tinkering: Youth may also engage with problem-solving by tinkering. These youth work to solve environmental problems by exploring ideas through trial and error, working with their hands, and making and creating tangible digital or material solutions.
  • Designing: Some youth enjoy the aesthetics and functionality of a solution. Youth who engage with a problem through designing create or design things through drawing, painting, photography, or technology.
  • Investigating: For others, investigating how and why things work and deducing patterns in evidence become a driving mode of engagement. When engaging in this way, youth examine relationships and themes in information and try to understand as much as possible about the world around them.
  • Inventing: Still other youth see an environmental problem and work toward inventing creative, material, and engineered solutions that are helpful in solving the problem.

Designing inclusive curriculum with modes of engagement

We designed BRIDGES activities to allow youth to engage with and explore environmental problems in ways that made sense to them. In designing the curriculum, we intentionally planned ways that youth might explore problems through each mode of engagement. In the section that follows, we present a BRIDGES activity, highlighting connections to the six modes of engagement (designing, investigating, inventing, tinkering, conservationism, and altruism) and youths’ engagement with and responses to the activities.

Lessons about water flow and erosion are commonplace in middle school learning experiences. Though many teachers may have seen or done a version of a stream table activity, we modified the BRIDGES lesson to be more inclusive and emphasize multiple modes of engagement by providing youth multiple opportunities to engage with the activity in multifaceted ways (see the 5Es Conceptual Flow Chart). For example, when planning for youth to engage with the stream table as a driving phenomenon, we worked to include ways for youth to sketch observations and handle and experiment with materials as we elicited their questions and curiosities. We leveraged their connection to the phenomenon by localizing it and referencing recent major flooding of their neighborhoods and schools, pressing youth to think about the impacts of erosion and deposition on the local environment and the humans that share that space. These design choices provided youth multiple ways in which to engage with the phenomenon and in the activity—with altruism (human impact), through conservationism (environmental impact), by designing (sketching observations), through tinkering and inventing (testing physical materials), and through investigating (eliciting youth’s questions and ideas).

Figure 3
5E conceptual flow chart

5E conceptual flow chart

Using a standard four-foot stream table, with water flowing down the sand lining, youth were tasked with observing, predicting, and understanding how water moves; discussing the systemic nature of water and its impact on our communities; and suggesting engineering solutions for erosion and flooding. Close by were science notebooks, colored pencils, research guides, tiny signs that list features of a stream and effects of erosion, and a variety of objects (e.g., pebbles, craft sticks, cheesecloth, twigs, and mulch) for a design challenge where youth engineered ways to diminish the stream flow’s effect on the surrounding environment and the town below. Although this lesson uses a four-foot stream table, many science educators also use smaller, less expensive versions that can be made using aluminum roasting pans, sand, rocks, wooden blocks, and containers of water (see link to Science Friday Stream Table in Online Resources).

The activity began with youth observing the stream flow and its impact on the surrounding pieces of land. As they dug into their observations, they investigated water movement and the features it forms, labeling them with signposts to indicate the anatomy of a stream (investigating). Youth made connections between the stream table and the stormwater flow in their own communities, considering the larger impacts of stormwater on both the local environment and ecosystem (conservationism and altruism). With these problems in mind, youth spent about 30 minutes devising strategies, such as adding stones or riparian areas, to mitigate the water flow’s effects by redirecting water or supporting the banks’ integrity (inventing). Given a variety of options of how to design and communicate strategies for addressing the stormwater runoff, some youth sketched out their ideas and planned (designing), while others began testing various ideas and objects in the stream table to observe their impact (tinkering).

A STEM profile survey initially introduced youth to the modes of engagement at the beginning of their BRIDGES experience. Youth used this survey as a tool to reflect on their STEM identities, discussing in what ways this STEM profile represented (or did not represent) how they saw themselves. After their BRIDGES experience, youth reflected on the highlights of their day and their engagement and participation using an activity we called Identi-beads. Youth selected beads associated with each mode of engagement as a way of recognizing themselves for their participation and engagement (Mercier and Carlone 2021). This gave youth opportunities to connect their experience to the modes of engagement and open up space for STEM identity work. The modes of engagement presented in the BRIDGES framework were not explicitly taught or referenced during a lesson or activity; however, they were planned for and embedded. This allowed youth to participate in the activity without feeling pressured to perform in specific ways, but rather able to engage in multiple modes and reflect on their participation later.

Why design for modes of engagement?

The erosion activity represents how rethinking typical curricula while considering multiple modes of engagement can broaden the access to STEM for more students. It is our hope going forward that educators will see how designing for these modes of engagement broadens the inclusivity of curricula and the accessibility of STEM identity work. We challenge teachers to consider reimagining STEM activities in their classrooms to include pathways for conservationism, altruism, designing, tinkering, investigating, and inventing. When students feel as though “their” ways of understanding, investigating, and solving problems are legitimate and helpful to the community of learners, they are more likely to engage and affiliate with that community.

Last, we recognize the proposed framework is dynamic and does not include other entry points that are equally valid and compelling for youth. We encourage teachers who are intrigued by this framework to make it their own (see Table 1 that describes modes of engagement and possible teacher moves in Supplemental Materials). Others may want to emphasize social and emotional engagement like collaboration or communication, as well as ethical decision-making as a mode of engagement. Once we understand that the STEM engagement is not restricted to a single mode of engagement, our thinking expands considerably in designing more inclusive learning environments.

When students come to science spaces proclaiming that they are not “science people,” the BRIDGES modes of engagement provide tools for conversations about what that means, ways to expand historically narrow and exclusive meanings of “science person,” and language for students to use to begin to claim STEM identities that were previously unavailable to them. In this way, they can embrace their current selves and possible future selves as learners and contributors of STEM.


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1657194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Online Resources

Science Friday Stream Table—

Supplemental Materials

Table 1— 

5Es Instructional Model Plan—

Alison Mercier ( is an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Heidi B. Carlone is the Katherine Johnson Chair of Science Education at Vanderbilt University—Peabody College in Nashville.


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Engineering Environmental Science Equity STEM Middle School Informal Education

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