Girls’ science identity development in and out of school

By Melissa Ballard - February 2014


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 identities-in-practice in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(10), 1143–1179. doi:10.1002/tea.21123

Using critical ethnographic case studies, researchers examined middle school girls’ participation in school-day science classes and out-of-school time (OST) science clubs to understand the girls’ identification with and relationship to science. The authors cite several studies suggesting that girls, particularly girls of color, do not identify with science regardless of their achievement levels. This “science identity gap” explains the low participation of women in post-secondary STEM education and the STEM workforce.

The girls in this study had previously articulated interest in a future STEM career and did well in science in one or more settings. The researchers analyzed the girls’ experiences across settings that supported or worked against the girls’ future trajectories in STEM.

Theoretical Basis

This study is informed by Lave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of situated learning, in which identity is actively formed through participation in a learning community. The science classroom, understood as one type of community, has established norms, rules and expectations that structure how its inhabitants behave, interact and what roles they can take on. The rules of participation vary according to the situation—for example, teacher-led lectures, small-group work, or student presentations. By participating in these situations over time, students “author” and “re-author” their identities and their relationship to science. The girls in the study participated in a second learning environment, an out-of-school time science club, which has a different set of norms and expectations.

The researchers further analyze identity development using the concepts of narrated identity, or how people tell the story of who they are, and embodied identity, how they actually perform this identity. Embodied identity is shaped by how people choose to act in a particular context and by what others expect. The powerful expectations of such social actors as parents, teachers, and peers are communicated both implicitly and explicitly. The girls in this study had included in their narrated identities the possibility of a future STEM career. Their experiences and interactions with others in science learning environments contributed to the formation of their embodied identities.

Research Design

The 17 middle school girls studied were part of a larger research project in four diverse urban U.S. schools. The girls’ class backgrounds were identified as middle class, lower middle class, low socio-economic status (SES), and very low SES. Most of the girls were African American (11), and the rest were White (3), Chinese (2), and Vietnamese (1).

All participated in a school-day science class and in an OST science club. Two sites had lunchtime science clubs and two had afterschool science clubs. School science classes varied in content, but all had a similar style: The teacher acted as the authoritative source of knowledge while students followed directions and were required to work in particular ways. Club activities were generally co-selected by the students and teachers.

Data was collected over two school years. Although with some girls, this was extended to three years. To capture the girls’ narrated identities, researchers used interviews and small-group reflections. To explore girls’ embodied identities, researchers examined girls’ digital self-portraits and other artifacts, observed classes and science club meetings, and interviewed teachers and parents.

The researchers collectively analysed the data with a focus on the following questions:

  1. How was the girl positioned in each setting by both peers and teachers?
  2. What roles did the girl enact in within each setting?
  3. How did the girl leverage external resources and knowledge in each setting?
  4. How was the girl’s participation received and what was the response of peers and teachers?
  5. How was the girl’s participation recognized?

Research Findings

On analyzing the data, researchers defined four distinct relationships between the girls’ narrated and embodied identities:

  1. Significant overlap. Girls in this category viewed themselves as good at science both in and out of school. Teachers and peers also recognized their mastery. In both settings, they “played it safe” by following directions and not taking risks. These girls strongly valued achieving good grades over understanding the material or developing deeper connections to science. The researchers saw this tendency as less than ideal, because the girls acted as consumers rather than producers of scientific knowledge. However, the close relationship between narrated and embodied identities helped these girls to maintain interest and high achievement in science throughout middle school.
  2. Partial overlap. Similar to the first category, girls viewed themselves as being good in science and are recognized as such. However, they demonstrated a gap between their narrated and embodied identity in one setting—the school classroom. In school, these girls tended to be on the quiet side, sometimes displaying behaviour similar to girls in the first category, although they did take more intellectual and social risks. In their OST clubs they took on greater leadership roles and conducted themselves as active scientists and experts. These girls also maintained interest in science through middle school. 
  3. Significant conflicts. Girls in this category had developed positive science identities through their experiences in OST programs, but their negative experiences in school changed how they felt about themselves and their aspirations in science. They valued problem solving over good grades, in conflict with established classroom expectations. This stance barred the girls from engaging in a meaningful way with science in school as they did in their OST clubs. 
  4. Transformative. Girls in this category were most interested in doing science that “mattered” to them. They enjoyed science when it had personal and community meaning but didn’t necessarily see themselves as being good at science, in or out of school. Good grades were not their primary motivation, and their OST experiences significantly supported their success. These girls’ narrated and embodied identities reinforced one another to sustain a desire to pursue STEM.

Implications for Practice

It is often stated that girls and women are not attracted to STEM fields because STEM work has been stereotyped as masculine, impersonal, and individualistic. These reasons did not emerge in this study. For the girls whose science identities diminished during middle school, the social dimensions of their science education were the most critical influence—whether their teachers and peers recognized them as science thinkers and doers. This recognition, or lack thereof, greatly contributed to girls’ negative experiences, and were mediated by racialized and classed assumptions about their abilities and potential for achievement. The results of this study confirm that supporting identity work with girls and underrepresented populations is key to sustaining their interest and success in STEM.

Interestingly, no girls in the study reported having any in-school science experiences that sparked their interest in a STEM career. Girls who strongly identify with the way science is practiced in OST may struggle to conform to the norms and expectations of school science. Other girls may use their OST experiences to add meaning and context to school science. For several girls in the study, positive science identity development in OST programs helped mitigate negative experiences in the classroom. Still, achievement in school science remains the gatekeeper to post-secondary opportunities. Although OST STEM programs can have a positive effect on girls and underrepresented populations, they cannot be relied on as the only solution.


Anderson, G. L. (1989). Critical ethnography in education: Origins, current status, and new directions. Review of Educational Research, 59(3), 249–270.

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

Perin, S. M. (2011). Challenges to forming a science identity for women of color: An ISE research brief discussing Malone & Barabino, "Narrations of race in STEM research settings: Identity formation and its discontents." Retrieved from