Problems and Potentials of Science Identity

Recently, I presented my thesis proposal, which means I shared what I’d like to do for my dissertation with a faculty committee who gave me feedback. Science identity is a major theme in my work so far and my committee members raised two questions that I’ve been chewing on ever since:

  1. What do I find compelling or useful about science identity?
  2. What are my critiques of science identity as a framework?

As I move into the next phases of my dissertation, I wanted to do some journaling to delve into my current thinking on these questions and weigh their implications for my next steps. This post is admittedly much more navel gaze-y than I typically post since I am thinking about making sense of a theoretical construct, rather than about a challenge of classroom instruction.

I see a lot of discussion about science identity, in my work as a teacher, my work as a curriculum leader, and in my research as a PhD student. Programs like STEP UP and the work of scholars including Gholdy Muhammad have helped expose teachers to the language of identity. Teachers have taken up the framework identity in their classrooms in a variety of ways, including Kelly O’Shea’s lesson on values and beliefs about doing physics and Marianna Ruggerio’s identity encounters. The fact that what started as a scholarly theoretical framework has become such familiar language speaks to how much the concept resonates with educators. The seeming pervasiveness of science identity in my work means that considering my answers to the questions from my committee will not only inform how I move my dissertation forward, but have implications for my work as an educator.

I think part of what makes science identity compelling to me is the same thing that makes it so pervasive. Every year, I hear from student after student that they “just aren’t a science person.” The short definition of science identity is being seen by yourself and others as the kind of person who does science (Carlone & Johnson, 2007), which makes it a useful tool in unpacking what students mean when they make claims about whether they are a “science person”. Science identity is also a model with some predictive power since there is evidence it is a predictor of students’ intention to persist in a science discipline (Hazari et al., 2013).

This is a tempting place to stop thinking about identity, but this understanding lends itself to a deficit perspective. Girls, especially Black and Latina girls, are less likely than their peers to report a physics identity (Hazari et al., 2013), so the solution must be we have to convince girls they can be physics people, too, right? If we can just figure out how to inspire girls, then we can solve the problem of gender equity in science! A view of science identity that accepts this answer feels like a very individualistic way of understanding identity. It is something that individuals hold and we need to figure out how to fix people who are marginalized in science so that they can hold the correct identity. It is also a view that upholds the status quo by never questioning what about the ways students interact in science classrooms and beyond shapes whether students see themselves as science people.

I’m interested in a view of identity that is deeply relational. When students are in our classrooms, part of what they learn is what kind of person does science, whether they are capable of doing science, and whether their other identities are compatible with doing science (Brickhouse, 2001). This does not happen in isolation; it happens through interactions with peers and teachers. This is part of why I like Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity, which includes competence, performance, and recognition. Competence is demonstrating skills or knowledge associated with science. Performance is behaving and interacting in ways associated with science. Recognition is being seen by yourself and others as a science person. The performance and recognition dimensions in particular make clear that if you are going to understand science identity, you need to understand how students interact and relate to each other in science classrooms. Hazari , Sadler, and Sonnert (2010) revised this framework to include a fourth dimension of interest. While I see the arguments for including interest and there are meaningful questions it helps answer, I haven’t found ways to use interest for thinking relationally about identity, so haven’t embraced this version.

Even with a more relational view of identity that includes tools to understand how identity emerges through interaction, there are still issues with science identity. I love Carlone’s (2003) question “When we ask students to participate in school science, what kinds of people are we asking them to become?” (p. 20). Whether we like it or not, students have ideas about what it means to be a science person, especially when it comes to the performance dimension. In one study middle school students said being a science person requires wearing goggles (Dare & Roehrig, 2016) and, in another study, even undergraduates majoring in science felt like they were not science people because they don’t own goggles or lab coats (Nealy & Orgill, 2019). Many of the performances that are part of a science identity are associated with whiteness and masculinity (Brickhouse, 2001), which means that asking marginalized students to become science people can mean asking them to leave behind other aspects of who they are.

But what if our goal wasn’t just to give students access to a science identity as it currently exists? Why can’t we design our classrooms to reshape and expand what students think it means to be a science person? I think part of that is making sure students are exposed to a wide range of scientists, not just the canon that portrays science as mostly white men (plus Marie Curie). But that is not enough. Ilana Horn has written about expanding what it means to be smart in math class and there is no reason we can’t do the same thing in science classrooms (Kelly O’Shea has written about her efforts to do just that). As I think about how to frame the research in my thesis and work on the framework I will use to connect identity to the other concepts I am working with, I think one piece will be shifting my reading to learn more about normative identity, which is the communal understanding students come to of what it means to be a particular kind of person (Cobb et al., 2009). What normative identity do students associate with a science person in my classroom and how do they arrive at that normative identity? How do students enforce that normative identity through interaction? And, most importantly to me, how can teachers reshape our classrooms to expand the normative identity of science person?


Brickhouse, N. W. (2001). Embodying science: A feminist perspective on learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 282–295.<282::AID-TEA1006>3.0.CO;2-0

Carlone, H.B. (2003). (Re)producing good science students: Girls’ participation in high school physics. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(1), 17–34.

Cobb, P., Gresalfi, M., & Hodge, L. (2009). An interpretive scheme for analyzing the identities that students develop in mathematics classrooms. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 40(1), 40-68.

Carlone, H. B., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187–1218.

Dare, E. A. & Roehrig, G. H. (2016). “If I had to do it, then I would”: Understanding early middle school students’ perceptions of physics and physics-related careers by gender. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2), 20111–20117.

Hazari, Z., Sadler, P. M., & Sonnert, G. (2013). The science identity of college students: Exploring the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(5), 82–91.

Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(8), 978–1003.

Nealy, S. & Orgill, M. (2019). Students’ perceptions of their science identity. Journal of Negro Education, 88(3), 249–268.

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