Positive informal science experiences help students persist in STEM majors

By Melissa Ballard - January 2016


Adams, J. D., Gupta, P., & Cotumaccio, A. (2014). Long-term participants: A museum program enhances girls’ STEM interest, motivation, and persistence. Afterschool Matters, 20, 13–20.


Adams, Gupta, and Cotumaccio examined the interest and identity development of a small group of young women of color who participated in a multi-year museum-based out-of-school time (OST) science program as middle and high school students. The authors tracked students into college and career pathways. Although this study is based on a small sample, it offers evidence that intensive OST interventions can be highly effective in supporting the trajectory of non-dominant youth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Youth apply to participate in the Lang Science Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Accepted students, who are often previously motivated in science, remain in cohorts throughout the program, which begins in sixth grade and continues through high school graduation. Young people participate in approximately 165 contact hours per year, meeting for three weeks in the summer and on alternating Saturdays during the school year. Youth are introduced to a diverse array of STEM topics through hands-on activities, scientist talks, visits to the museum’s research labs and collections, and field trips. Older youth perform authentic science research and participate in college and career readiness activities. The Lang program is intended to support youth who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

Research Design 

The authors investigated how long-term participation in the museum-based OST science program shaped the STEM interest and motivation of young women of color and their ability to pursue and persist in STEM majors.

The authors convened a volunteer focus group with six female alumnae of the Lang Science Program, including three African Americans, one Latina, one South Asian, and one European American, and asked them to reflect on their experiences in the program. All participants were either currently majoring in STEM fields or in the early stages of STEM careers. The researchers followed up with individual women by conducting interviews or exchanging emails. Additionally, the authors interviewed people who were on the museum staff during this group’s participation in the program.

Research Findings  

Adams and colleagues identified four key themes in the alumnae’s reflections on their time in the Lang program:

  1. Building a collective identity. Alumnae reported that they found like-minded peers in the program, which became a safe and affirming space where they could share and explore their excitement about science.
  2. Belonging and ownership tied to a physical place. Lang students were granted special access to the museum building and its staff and scientists. Formal and informal interactions with these professionals over several years contributed to their sense that they belonged to a scientific community and institution.
  3. Broad exposure to STEM topics and careers. Alumnae reported that experiencing a variety of science careers and disciplines helped them identify careers and topics that aligned with their individual personalities, interests, and dispositions.
  4. Persistence in college and careers supported by positive program experiences. Four of the girls had negative experiences in their college STEM majors: Their courses and departments did not offer the sense of community and good will they had come to associate with science due to their participation in Lang. Some young women stated that reflecting on their positive science experiences in Lang helped them to persist in their STEM major.

Implications for Practice

Informal science educators interested in the long-term impacts of OST science learning on youth should find the results of this study encouraging, especially since all study participants had elected STEM majors and made the clear connection to positive OST STEM experiences.

The authors point to the concept of a “continuum of participation” (previously developed by Adams & Gupta, 2010), or continuous opportunities for youth to participate in STEM learning opportunities (also called a “pathway”), as an important factor in the study’s findings. They also emphasize that the design of the Lang Science Program is critical to its effectiveness.

The authors suggest that to provide a broad array of opportunities, smaller institutions can seek community partnerships to expand their capacity to offer, for example, lab-based experiences, interactions with science professionals, and access to animals and collections. Additionally, in order to ensure that youth have access to continuous opportunities for STEM learning from elementary to high school, informal science practitioners might consider collaborating with STEM education stakeholders in their communities to develop programs and to connect youth to what already exists.

Related Briefs:

  • Perin, S. M. (2011). Challenges to forming a science identity for women of color: An ISE research brief discussing Malone & Barabino’s, "Narrations of race in STEM research settings: Identity formation and its discontents." http://rr2p.org/article/213
  • Price, N., Shea, M., & Bell, P. (2015). Gender identities in STEM education. http://rr2p.org/rr/rr2im/RR2P-Gender-Connected-Collection.pdf
  • 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”. http://rr2p.org/article/306
  • 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.” http://rr2p.org/article/298