The fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are at the forefront of today’s modern innovations and inventions, but without a positive STEM identity in early education, students may end up avoiding STEM subjects for the remainder of their academic careers.
STEM identity plays a vital role outside of the subjects of STEM education, too. When students feel confident in their learning capabilities regarding STEM subjects, they find greater success in other school subjects as well. This confidence carries over into the opportunities they see for themselves after graduation, the majors they choose to pursue in higher education, and their future careers.
As educators, one of our crucial responsibilities—and honorable opportunities—is to foster a strong STEM identity in our elementary school students. STEM identity refers to a student’s sense of belonging, interest, and self-conception in relation to the subjects of STEM. By nurturing their STEM identity early on, we can instill a lifelong passion for these subjects and empower them to become future innovators and problem solvers.
What is STEM identity?
STEM identity is how a person sees themselves in relation to the subjects of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
For elementary students, this can be seen as being a “math person” or not, or the ability to envision themselves as a future scientist, astronaut, or engineer.
A positive STEM identity is one where students view themselves as capable, competent, and connected to the world of STEM.
How to Develop a STEM Identity
STEM identity is a product of many different factors, including early experiences with STEM subjects, perceptions of STEM disciplines, interactions with STEM mentors, and a sense of belonging within the STEM community. That’s why representation is such an important factor when developing positive STEM identities in elementary students.
Why representation matters in STEM
Students who see diversity within their STEM mentors can more easily envision themselves within the STEM community. This representation is especially crucial for minorities within STEM, including people of color, women, and those who are differently-abled.
Diverse representation creates a more inclusive learning environment. When students see that their identities and experiences are acknowledged and respected in the classroom, they feel a sense of belonging, which leads to increased engagement and participation.
In a study published in 2020, researchers discovered that when students learned in an environment of diversity and inclusion, they developed a more profound sense of belonging, along with more positive STEM identities—envisioning themselves as scientists.
To help elementary students develop a positive STEM identity of their own, educators can employ numerous tactics to build enthusiasm and long-term interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
How to Support STEM Identity in Elementary Students
Elementary students’ STEM identity benefits from having positive STEM mentors who provide encouragement, support creativity, and build students’ confidence. Here are ten classroom activities to build STEM identity in elementary students.
8 Activities to Build STEM Identity in the Elementary Classroom
- Positive Role Models: Invite diverse STEM professionals from various fields and studies of STEM to share their personal experiences with students. Having relatable and representative role models of different backgrounds can inspire students and challenge stereotypes.
- Hands-On and Inquiry-Based Learning: Engage students in hands-on learning activities and inquiry-based learning experiences to encourage their creative thinking and confidence in their contributions to discussions. For some inspiration to get started, here are some ideas to incorporate STEM into your summer activities.
- Encourage Collaboration: To foster a collaborative and inclusive learning environment, encourage your students to work together in teams where everyone’s ideas are valued and respected. By providing a platform for open collaboration, students will be exposed to diverse perspectives while growing their own confidence and STEM identity by sharing and pursuing their creative ideas.
- Celebrate Successes: Recognize and celebrate students’ achievements in STEM. To encourage a positive STEM identity, acknowledge more than just their accomplishments, and celebrate their efforts, problem-solving skills, and creativity. STEM is all about experimentation and discovery. When you reward students for pursuing creative ideas and learning from them, no matter the outcome, you are encouraging students to persevere and enjoy the process of learning STEM.
- Integrate STEM Into Other Subjects: Show your students how STEM connects to other subjects like art, history, and literature. This approach helps students see the broader application of STEM knowledge and how it fits into their everyday lives, making STEM more approachable and accessible for students.
- Encourage Personal Projects: Find activities where students can choose STEM-related topics related to other personal interests. They might explore the mathematics within the music they play or investigate their favorite plants in the garden. This autonomy enhances their engagement and motivation to explore and learn independently.
- Embrace Mistakes and Failure: So much of STEM involves experimentation. It’s essential for young students to feel confident in STEM, even when they fail. Encourage a growth mindset in students by emphasizing that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Help them see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than a setback.
- Create Informal Learning Opportunities: In 2009, a landmark report by the National Research Council found that students in informal environments experienced “excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world.” Without the pressure of formal lessons, students can apply their genuine curiosity and creativity to understand the world around them. Try to bring in as many real-world, informal learning experiences to school hours to support your students’ positive STEM identity growth.
By bringing these strategies into your elementary classroom, you can help elementary students develop a positive STEM identity—setting the foundation for continued interest and success in STEM subjects as they progress through their educational journey.
How to Measure STEM Identity
STEM identity is a multidimensional concept that encompasses a student’s attitudes, beliefs, and self-perception. So how do you measure STEM identity in your students and know that you’re on the right track to lead confident and inspired STEM learners?
Here are some common approaches to measuring STEM identity:
- Surveys and Questionnaires: Researchers often use surveys and questionnaires to gather qualitative data on students’ attitudes and beliefs toward STEM. You can also conduct informal surveys and questionnaires with your students to find how much interest your students have in STEM subjects, their confidence, and future aspirations. Questions may involve how often they participate in STEM-related activities outside the classroom or how excited they are about solving STEM problems. These answers can give you a snapshot into your students’ minds to see how their STEM identity is developing.
- Observation: Observing students as they encounter STEM-related activities can offer valuable insights into their level of interest, motivation, perseverance, and any trends in their behavior when interacting with STEM subjects. Your observation in the classroom helps form a more comprehensive picture of their overall STEM identity.
- Standardized Tests and Academic Performance: While it doesn’t directly measure STEM identity, students’ academic performance in STEM subjects and their performance on standardized tests can indicate their overall interest and engagement in STEM. Sudden changes in academic performance can also indicate a shift in STEM identity—a trend that can emerge from gendered stereotypes or external influences.
STEM Identity Scales: For a more formal assessment of STEM identity, some researchers have developed specific scales or indices to measure STEM identity directly, such as the SciID scale or the National Science Foundation’s STEM-PIO-1 for professionals. While these measurements are not conducted in the classroom, learning more about their measurement goals might inspire you to find your own measurable data points when assessing the progress of your classroom’s STEM identity.
The STEM Identity Framework
There are many dimensions and factors within STEM identity. These core factors are the most significant contributors to the STEM identity framework.
- Interest and Enjoyment: Are your students engaged and showing excitement around STEM topics? A positive enthusiasm when new STEM topics are introduced, and a lasting curiosity while engaging in STEM projects are indicators of a positive STEM identity.
- Self-Confidence: Do your students believe in their own ability to succeed in STEM-related tasks? Higher levels of self-confidence correlate to strong STEM identities.
- Perceived Relevance: Do your students believe that studying STEM subjects is relevant to their lives? Are they able to see the connections between STEM and real-world scenarios? Students who perceive STEM subjects as relevant to their daily lives have more positive STEM identities.
- Identity Alignment: Can your students personally connect and identify with STEM fields? Do they see their values and versions of themselves represented in STEM? To cultivate this dimension of the STEM Identity Framework, introduce your students to the diversity within STEM so that they can build confidence in the possibility of pursuing a career in STEM.
- Belonging in the STEM Community: Do your students feel like they belong, and are accepted, into STEM events, discussions, and opportunities? The support that students find in the STEM ecosystem can contribute to their overall success and achievements in STEM.
These five factors of the STEM Identity Framework contribute to an overall positive STEM identity. As an educator, you can use this framework to help measure your students’ STEM identity and trajectory throughout the school year.
Encourage Positive STEM Identity with Kid Spark Lab Kits
Our comprehensive STEM curriculum encompasses grades Pre-K through 8 and provides an all-in-one solution for STEM education in elementary school and beyond.
Our lab kits come equipped with all the tools and resources needed for multiple lesson plans and activities; educator guides and instructions; complete lesson plans and design challenges; grading rubrics; student workbooks; and assessments.
We know that confident educators inspire confident students, that’s why we also include educator learning resources to build your own STEM identity before teaching a new concept to the class.
To learn more about our elementary and middle school STEM programs, contact us today.