Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The study uses the concept of STEM identity, which can be interpreted as how individual perceive and align themselves with their conceptions of STEM based on their experiences with STEM. A strong STEM identity for students is connected to enrollment in STEM courses and interest in pursuing STEM related careers. Among the factors that appear to develop a STEM identity, researchers have identified encouraging role models, supportive environment, and positive learning experiences. The study is focused on the last factor, in particular on early positive engagement in STEM for young students. Considering that students begin to show signs of gendered views about STEM already at a young age, the study also tries to offer a broader view of the effects of early experiences on STEM identity by gender.
Prior to the formulation of the research questions the paper explains the terminology and the framework that will be used in the study. The notion of “STEM capital” is introduced, which represents skills, dispositions, and resources that individuals accumulate over time, enabling them to secure benefits within a STEM community. STEM capital is strictly connected to STEM identity because accumulated experiences and resources that people have influence their identity development and how they see themselves. Moreover, a subset of the STEM capital, called “STEM identity capital”, exists and is “accessed” every time individuals need help in maintaining and reinforcing their STEM identity. STEM identity capital can be both tangible and intangible: Specific experiences and artifacts (e.g., degrees) can serve as STEM identity capital as can intangible factors such as internal assets (e.g., ego strength, self-esteem, critical thinking, moral reasoning abilities, etc.).
The research questions that the study explores are:
1) How are specific early STEM experiences related to STEM identity? What differences, if any, exist in the effect of early STEM experiences on STEM identity for female students?
2) Do the significant early STEM experiences translate into STEM identity capital by contributing to STEM identity in college after accounting for middle and high school STEM interest?
3) For significant early STEM experiences, is there a difference in the likelihood of female and nonfemale students reporting these experiences?
The study uses a survey consisting of 33 questions focused on different aspects of STEM: career plans, interests and identity, early experiences, and program/activity participation. In addition, several demographic questions are included pertaining to race, gender, year in college, parental education, and others. 17 of these questions pertain to STEM identity and are rated on an anchored scale of 0 to 5. 12 of these questions, named “identity variables”, are selected and grouped under the categories of “interest”, “performance/competence”, and “recognition”. Each category is averaged into three proxy variables, in turn averaged and grouped in a single proxy variable dubbed “STEM identity”. This is the dependent variable used in the study.
The predictor variables are a total of 24 experiences (ranging from baking/cooking to watching STEM related TV programs) that students may have had in elementary grades (age 5-9). Two other early experiences included in the study are: elementary school teacher encouragement, and rating of science experiences in elementary grades. The study also uses several control variables: a set related to familiar factors, a set related to academics, and a set related to race/ethnicity and gender.
To address the research questions, they develop 3 models to perform blocked regression analyses. The first model is used to test the control variables (added and removed to ascertain their statistical significance). The second model retains the significant factors of the first one and adds the early STEM experiences (predictor variables) and is used to answer to the first research question. The third model retains the significant factors of model 2 and includes the control variables related to middle and high school to answer the second research question. To answer the last question, they performed a logistic regression based on the gender.
The summary results are:
- Six early STEM experiences are positive predictors of STEM identity (Observing stars, Playing STEM videogames, using STEM toys, watching STEM related TV programs, elementary teacher encouragement, quality of elementary science) and two are negative predictor (baking/cooking/kitchen chemistry and writing about STEM). Focusing on the negative ones, the first one is often view as a feminine activity and possibly antithetical to STEM, the second one may be perceived less connected to STEM and more to literacy. The positive predictors are associated with agency for students, highlighting that if students’ early interests are nurtured their STEM identity grows and is reinforced. No experiences have different outcomes between males and females, which can be interpreted as both gender viewing the qualities that constitutes a STEM identity in the same way. Nevertheless, several significant experiences were reported with lower rates by female students.
- Early STEM experiences from elementary have a positive effect on STEM identity in college even after accounting for STEM interests during middle and high school years. Five of the six positive predictor remain significant. The negative predictors remain significant.
- Female students are 1.5 times more likely to be involved in baking/cooking/kitchen chemistry and are less involved in three of the five positive predictors of STEM identity. These results reveal a structural issue with what constitutes STEM identity capital. Activities that are typically seen as “feminine” need to be promoted as ways in which the STEM aspect can be highlighted.