How urban girls negotiate school science

By Heather King - November 2015


Calabrese Barton, A., Tan, E., & Rivet, A. (2008). Creating hybrid spaces for engaging school science among urban middle school girls. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 68–103.

Calabrese Barton, Tan, and Rivet examine the ways in which urban middle school girls engage with science whilst they develop and maintain identities and practices that support who they are and who they want to be. The broad context for this 2008 study remains pertinent today: Girls’ achievement in science is equal to boys’ achievement, and yet girls tend not to identify with science or to pursue science education or careers.

Research Design

The researchers conducted ethnographic case studies of students in grades 5–8 in three U.S. schools between 2003 and 2005. They regularly observed science classes, interviewed the students, and collected examples of student work. Using this longitudinal body of data, the researchers traced the girls’ participation in science over time. They identified three distinct practices the girls used to create hybrid spaces, through which they entered into the discourse of science.

Theoretical Basis 

Previous studies have described the way in which the science classroom is its own subculture with particular ways of knowing, talking, and doing (see Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999). This subculture may not always align clearly with the cultures that young people bring to learning science.

To make sense of how young people participate in new cultures and work to create hybrid spaces, the researchers drew on lenses of practice and identity. Building on the work on Lave and Wenger (1991) and sociological perspectives on education (see Brickhouse & Potter, 2001), the research is framed by an understanding that learning science involves learning not only content, but also how to participate in science practices. In addition, it requires aligning or merging one’s identity with that of the dominant authority—in this case, the values of school science.

Implications for Practice

This study reminds us that when planning efforts to support girls (and indeed all young people) to engage with science, informal educators need to consider not only students’ varying funds of knowledge and cultural experiences but also the ways in which students may apply these resources in order to support who they are and who they want to be.

By allowing and legitimating the efforts of young people to merge their knowledge and identities with those of the science learning environment, informal educators can support the creation of hybrid spaces. Such spaces are generative: They facilitate young people’s alignment with science by rendering it less foreign and more connected to their everyday living.


Aikenhead, G. S., & Jegede, O. J. (1999). Cross-cultural science education: A cognitive explanation of a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36, 269–287.

Brickhouse, N., & Potter, J. (2001). Young women’s scientific identify formation in an urban context. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(5), 441–458.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Related Briefs:

  • Bulalacao, N. (2014). Navigating through figured worlds: Making projects more engaging for students: An ISE research brief discussing Jurow, “Shifting engagements in figured worlds: Middle school mathematics students’ participation in an architectural design project.”
  • Dancu, T. (2014). Girls with scientific aspirations: Negotiating femininity: An ISE research brief discussing Archer et al., “‘Balancing acts’: Elementary school girls’ negotiations of femininity, achievement, and science.”
  • Shea, M. (2013). Negotiating Science Identities with Gender, Race, and Perceptions of Expertise Across Settings : A JLS research brief discussing Rahm’s article, “Collaborative imaginaries and multi-sited ethnography: space-time dimensions of engagement in an afterschool science programme for girls”.