Impact on science identities over time

By Heather King - December 2014


Carlone, H. B., Scott, C. M., & Lowder, C. (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), 836–869. doi:10.1002/tea.21150

The development of productive science identities is considered a central dimension of science learning (see NRC, 2009). But what does identity development look like in practice, and how can educators intentionally design learning opportunities to support it?

In this paper, Carlone, Scott, and Lowder describe changes in the science identities of three students from ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse backgrounds as they moved from fourth to sixth grade. The authors discuss the processes — heavily mediated by race, class, and gender — by which the students positioned themselves, or were positioned by others, as being more or less competent learners in science.

Research Design

The authors conducted ethnographic case studies comprising interviews with the students, their parents, and their teachers, together with classroom observations. They document the experiences of William, Amy, and Aaliyah as they navigated new learning environments and encountered new social rules and expectations. The accounts highlight the difficulties some students face due to their race, gender, or class. They also shed light on the reasons that students who may be capable of and interested in performing scientifically in one setting cannot easily do science in another.


The paper documents how a shift in a class’s social norms from one year to another posed significant challenges to the young people’s science learning identities, with some proving more resilient than others. In the fourth grade, the children’s teacher, Ms. Wolfe, encouraged students to share their knowledge and experience and to engage in genuine inquiry. From the children’s perspective, being smart in science meant asking good questions.

However, in sixth grade, Mr. Campbell favoured more traditional techniques including the IRE discourse pattern of teacher initiation, student response, teacher evaluation. He presented science as a body of knowledge that was not easily learned. His communication style was affable, but his teasing of the students underscored his dominant position in the knowledge hierarchy.

In the fourth grade, Aaliyah, an African-American student, was one of the smartest and most science-engaged students. However, by sixth grade, the researchers found that she was unable or unwilling to position herself in the particular way — submissive, receptive, unquestioning — Mr. Campbell expected. As a result, Aaliyah began to disengage with science.

Amy, a white student from an economically privileged background, had to do considerable work in order to retain her position as scientifically able while not appearing “too smart” in front of her peers. To meet the expectations of the sixth-grade classroom, Amy learned to balance a degree of feminine submissiveness with more traditionally masculine expectations of success.

William, a Latino student, was described by his parents as conscientious. He did not align himself with the mischievous behaviour of his Latino friends, nor could he engage in joking repartee like the white boys in the class. Although he was studious, William was unable to attain the coveted position of being good at science in the eyes of Mr. Campbell — he was deemed too cautious and quiet.

The detailed case studies demonstrate the varied ways in which the students enacted their science learning identities and document the extent to which they weathered the shift in expected science classroom behaviour from asking good questions to having correct answers.

Theoretical Basis

This paper applies the theoretical lens of social practice (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Crain, 1998) to consider the cultural, historical, and social structures shaping the science learning environment. The analyses build on the identity studies literature (Archer et al., 2012; Tan, Calabrese Barton, Kang, & O’Neill, 2013), in which attainment of learning is understood as being wrapped up in each student’s developing science identity.

The longitudinal ethnographic approach, meanwhile, offers a way of studying changes in students’ identities over time. Moreover, it enables Carlone and colleagues to “peek into the black box of school science” to understand better the processes and structures that affect students’ learning and ultimately their science trajectories.

Implications for Practice

This classroom study highlights the central role teachers play in shaping student identities. Indeed, the pedagogical practices and classroom management behaviours of the two teachers could spark a useful discussion amongst informal educators about the nature of effective facilitation. Of course, any discussion of this type should also note the impact of other social and physical factors affecting the young people’s engagement (which are not fully discussed in the paper) such as the effects of puberty.

The paper could also provide a useful resource for contrasting the effects of the institutional narratives and expectations for behaviour found in formal schooling with those in informal science settings. Many informal science programmes, for example, encourage students to follow their own interests, thereby facilitating the development of their science identities.

The paper reminds us that some young people have more access to cultural resources than others. Although all three children were interested in science and had parents who supported their academic achievement, the paper details the ways in which Amy’s background gave her more opportunities to retain her emerging science identity despite changes in classroom expectations. William’s science identity, on the other hand, appears to have suffered as a result of his experiences in grade 6. School was the only science learning environment to which he had access. This finding speaks to the need to provide young people with science-rich learning environments in addition to school.


Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2012). “Doing” science versus “being” a scientist: Examining 10/11 year old school children’s construction of science through the lens of identity. Science Education, 94, 617 – 639.

Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A.W. and Feder, M.A. (Eds). Learning science in informal environments; People, places and pursuits. Washington DC: National Academies Press

Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Crain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tan, E., Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., & O’Neill, T. (2013). Desiring a career in STEM-related fields: How middle school girls articulate and negotiate between their narrated and embodied identities in considering a STEM trajectory. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50, 1143 – 1179.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Multiple routes for the development and pursuit of interests: An ISE research brief discussing Barron’s "Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective."
  • Bevan, B. (2011). Accessing identities: An ISE research brief discussing Esmonde's, "Mathematics learning in groups."
  • King, H., & Osborne, C. (2013). Identifying with science? An ISE research brief discussing Wong, “Identifying with science: A case study of two 13-year-old ‘high achieving working class’ British Asian girls.”
  • King, H. (2014). The effect of parents’ attitudes on student achievement in science: An ISE research brief discussing Perera, “Parents’ attitudes towards science and their children’s science achievement.”
  • Kong, F. (2011). Designing afterschool programs to meet developmental needs of middle schoolers: An ISE research brief discussing Morehouse's, "Making the most of the middle: A strategic model for middle school afterschool programs."
  • Sindorf, L. (2013). Culturally relevant strategies to build student interest in science: An ISE research brief discussing Xu, Coats, & Davidson, “Promoting student interest in science: The perspectives of exemplary African American teachers.”
  • Wingert, K. (2014). “Science helps me figure things out”: Authoring science identities across time & place. An ISE research brief discussing Calabrese Barton et al., “ Crafting a future in science: Tracing middle school girls’ identity work over time and space.”