“Science helps me figure things out”: Authoring science identities across time & place

By Kerri Wingert - March 2014


Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., Tan, E., O’Neill, T. B., Bautista-Guerra, J., & Brecklin, C. (2012). Crafting a future in science: Tracing middle school girls’ identity work over time and space. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 37–75. doi:10.3102/0002831212458142


Research Design 

In this paper, Calabrese Barton and colleagues examine the beliefs and science practices of two students in a two-year study across settings. The case study seeks to answer the question, “What do girls from non-dominant populations do to author themselves into or out of science, in spite of – or because of – their grades?” The study also examines how systematic structures promote or hinder opportunities for these students to author identities in science through observation and interview work across settings.


The first student profiled was Diane, an African American seventh-grader from a small Midwestern city. She frequently made such comments as “Science helps me to learn new things” and said that she valued “figuring things out” more than “getting things done on time” (p. 39). The authors point out a number of instances in which Diane’s curiosity, perseverance, and design skills led her to deep understanding of scientific concepts. However, both of her teachers indicated that “Diane needs extra time,” placing her in lower-track science in eighth grade despite her A- grade in high-track seventh-grade science. By the end of eighth grade, Diane expressed far less positive feelings about science than she had the previous year, and her engagement dropped substantially.

In the second case study, Chantelle, a sixth-grade African American student, was not engaged in science when the study began. She spent many classes with her head down and “used good behavior and silence to create a safe space in the classroom for herself” (p. 59). In the first two years of study, the researchers never observed her speaking up with an idea or answer. However, Chantelle found a place where her science identity could flourish in a local Green Club, where she leveraged her skills as a dance performer to become involved in an energy conservation campaign. Eventually she made an Earth Day presentation to her science class at school, winning the approval of her science teachers.

These contrasting stories – one of growing interest in science and one of growing disinterest with school science – illustrate the “contentious and cumulative” nature of girls’ identity work in science. The systematic norms and structures of the school day, such as time constraints and pressure to speak up, may well inhibit many students from authoring identities in science.

Implications for Practice 

In classrooms and museums, it is easy to mistake “good student” work as “good-at-science” work. For example, students who follow norms and exhibit good behavior in learning spaces are often the ones who receive the most positive attention. These misperceptions are particularly influential when they come from people with power, whose many small moves may eventually contribute to students’ self-perceptions for better or worse, as they did in the cases of Diane and Chantelle.

Practitioners and educational designers at all levels should ask what kind of behavior is most privileged in their settings. Is it silence? adherence to rules? other types of normative behavior? The conclusions of this article dare practitioners to focus on doing science so that students do not confuse acting engaged with being a good scientist. Privileging scientific expertise rather than normative behaviors expands the scope of possibilities in science to include those who may not identify as “good students.”

Theoretical Basis 

This study emerges from the extensive body of work on student identity development in science as a community of practice. That is, science is conceived of as a field with experts and novices who work together toward meaningful, shared goals. Science education should seek, as much as possible, to build these communities. In this study, Calabrese Barton and colleagues seek out the ways in which the two students’ identity work –actions that develop identities – result in strong or weak identification with science. Because this study also seeks to broaden participation in science by focusing on girls from non-dominant backgrounds, it fits into the growing literature on equity in STEM education.