STEM Identity: Everything You Need to Know

By Kelly Glass on March 26, 2020

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Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have always been important for learning about and impacting the world we live in. But these days, there's even more emphasis on the importance of STEM, especially understanding how to use the four subjects together to create new solutions to old problems.

But despite the importance of STEM, by 4th grade, 1 of 3 children have decided that science isn’t for them, by 8th grade, it’s half of all students; the number rises for girls, children of color, and children from
low-income families. Yet, 80% of jobs in the near future will require math and science skills. The key to disrupting that pattern is introducing STEM to children early and often.

The good news is, kids are typically quick learners with an intense curiosity for the world around them. In many cases, kids achieve their earliest intellectual stimulation through play. Kids may not know it, but they learn about many subjects through their structured and unstructured play time.

  • Science: Kids play basketball, tennis, soccer (physics), plant a garden (biology), cook with an adult or make volcanoes and slime with household pantry items (chemistry), or dream about the planets and stars (astronomy). 
  • Technology: Kids create and communicate rules for made-up group games (coding), use found objects to pry open a jar (simple technology), or take apart and reconstruct an old toaster (advanced technology). 
  • Engineering: Kids construct tall block towers (structural engineering), create intricate pillow fort communities complete with bridges between them (civil engineering), or build giant ramps for their cars (mechanical engineering).
  • Math: Kids race each other around a playground to measure and record speed (time), count and redistribute trading cards (arithmetic), or figure out how many pieces of candy they can buy with their $5 allowance (algebra). 

No matter who they are or where they live, kids from every walk of life interact with science, technology, engineering, and math. And while some kids experience and learn about STEM in formal ways (like attending school), for many, the lessons learned are informal.

But the increased prioritization of STEM in formal education has led to different outcomes for different kids. Some have opportunities to build a STEM identity, which sets them on a path to becoming immersed in these subjects and eventually applying them in everyday life, while others unfortunately may not.

What is STEM Identity?

The basics of STEM identity are pretty simple. According to Wendy Ward Hoffer, “how you think of yourself as a scientist, technology user, engineer, or mathematician is your STEM identity.” In other words, if you think of yourself as a scientist or mathematician, you’re probably going to feel empowered in those subjects and excited to follow those academic and career paths.

Most people don’t just wake up one morning and just decide that they're a scientist, so STEM identity can and must be cultivated. Even more importantly, it must be cultivated from a young age. Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Emerita Susan Hockfield advocates it is critical that children be exposed to STEM regularly and as early as possible—ideally starting in kindergarten. This is especially true for children from underrepresented communities. These children have to push against stereotypes that those who are successful in STEM come from very specific, narrowly defined backgrounds, different from their own. That's why it's important to ensure that a STEM identity is accessible to all kids, no matter their background.

Who gets to have a STEM identity?

Race, ethnicity, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, disability status, and other identities generally aren't well represented when it comes to STEM.

Too often, traditional media representations of scientists, engineers, technology specialists, and mathematicians lack qualitative diversity. Famous television scientists (real and fictional) tend to be white men; just think of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Sheldon Cooper from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. In many books and TV shows, it’s often a young, slim, white boy who is the example of a scientific genius. It’s only more recently that wider representation has become more common in the United States.

On the children’s television show Ready, Jet, Go, Astronomer Amy Mainzer explains STEM concepts to kids. The book, and successful movie, Hidden Figures revealed to many for the very first time, a number of exceptional Black women mathematicians (such as Katherine Johnson) who went publicly unrecognized for decades. But we still have a long way to go. Even English mathematician and computer programmer Ada Lovelace is not highly recognizable to many young STEM students.

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What messages do we get about STEM identity?

Even though play is a basic, often accessible way to learn about STEM subjects, a large number of STEM toys are marketed along stereotypical gender lines. For example, more complex building sets are often sold in primary colors with boys on the box, and the toys marketed toward girls are in pastels and tend to be less complex and engaging. 

And, these distinctions don't stop at childhood. Society's idea of who and what makes a successful STEM student and leader are present from grade school all the way to college and career. 

In an article about the influence of STEM culture on the retention of people of color in STEM fields, Kimberly A. Griffin noted, “According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, while over a third of Black, Latino, and Native American students enter college with an interest in studying STEM, only 16 percent go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees in these fields.”

Even for students that attain a STEM degree, it's less likely that they'll stay in STEM careers due to white, male-centered work cultures and societal expectations/perceptions. In an article published in the International Journal of STEM Education, Viviane Seyranian and colleagues studied the long-term effects of STEM identity and gender in college physics. They found that STEM identity has a clear impact on how dedicated a student is to their STEM career. They noted that "an identity as a scientist predicts commitment to a science career (Chemers et al. 2011; Robnett, 2012).”

The authors also cited a 2018 paper that states, “individuals from underrepresented groups are less likely to feel that they belong (in STEM).” Considering that many demographic groups don't have proportionate representation in STEM careers—and work cultures and societal expectations that suggest that they don't belong in the fields—it's clear that creating a STEM identity in children from a young age is critical.

Maybe you know a little girl who wants an engineering kit to practice what she's read about, but nothing is marketed toward her. Or a promising child from an underrepresented background who adores taking apart and rebuilding electronic gadgets but doesn't have the financial means to attend a technology and engineering camp. You might also know a teacher who felt isolated or disrespected while working in a STEM field, so they chose to teach the younger generation instead. 

These examples all have something in common, they show how STEM identities can be weakened by expectations and attitudes that were set for them. Interested, would-be, STEM scholars and innovators are discouraged in many ways and their confidence gets eroded to the point where they feel like they can’t be successful in STEM. Or, they may decide that fighting through the barriers and never-ending obstacles just isn't worth it. 

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Building Better STEM Identities Together

STEM identity isn't innate—it develops over time with early, consistent exposure to STEM. As mentioned earlier, free and structured play can help kids can build their STEM interest and confidence. But our own research with University of California San Diego shows that independent play isn't enough: children need the support of a STEM mentor (a parent/guardian, a teacher, etc) to really build their STEM skills and ultimately their STEM identity. Why? STEM mentors encourage children to engage and persist in more challenging tasks. They help children stay at their learning edge, the zone where skills and fluency may be just shy of what's required to accomplish the task at hand. A STEM mentor’s encouragement can mean the difference between a child giving up on their STEM abilities and excelling in STEM subjects.

So how can you be a STEM mentor? Identify the kids who have shaky STEM identities, and encourage them regularly. Point out when they're using the Design and Engineering Cycle. Inspire them with books about women and people of color who have made an impact on the world using their STEM skills. Work with them side by side on weekly STEM projects. And remember that any caring adult can be a STEM mentor—no specialized training required.

Developing kids’ STEM identity is about naming the STEM practices they already do naturally, teaching them how to apply their knowledge and skills across different disciplines, and giving them hands-on experiences and mentoring to explore new STEM concepts.

Putting these ideas into practice

In Arizona, the Maricopa County Education Service Agency (MCESA) created a program in their district to better engage students and teachers in STEM subjects. They noticed that more than half of the high school students in their district were not even eligible to apply to college because their math and science scores were too low. In response, the Engineering STEM Identity project was started to support both teachers and students to improve academic outcomes in the district. The project helps young students build their confidence in learning and applying STEM principles, and create STEM role models within the program. Teachers receive curriculum support, coaching, and other professional development opportunities. The Engineering STEM Identity project also has an interactive video component to ensure students in rural areas have access. This strategic move could have positive, long-term effects. The program’s project director, Gale Beaucamp, stated the goal simply: 

“We want kids to identify with science, math and engineering so they keep growing in their interest in STEM careers, and we have developed a plan for them to do that. As we focus on supporting identity development, we will increase student achievement and engagement and also increase teacher confidence and pedagogical content knowledge. This is how we will have an impact on STEM education and, ultimately, the Arizona economy.” 

This school-based example is just one way to address the problem. Nonprofit organizations have been popping up for years, aimed at filling in the gaps. Black Girls Code (which now has offices in San Francisco and New York) is another example. With Black Girls Code, girls from elementary school up to early high school have the opportunity to work on coding with mentors. Their goal is to increase the number of women of color in the digital space and to provide African-American youth with the skills they need for the STEM economy.

These two examples are very different from each other, but they have something in common: they're facilitating support and dialogue between adults and kids. Kids receive instruction and feedback that can help them think of themselves as mathematicians, scientists, technology experts, and engineers. Adults are putting their experience to good use while helping kids learn and problem solve in real-time. Even the instruction and feedback cycle are valuable: these tools help the kids and adults involved challenge what they know and apply what they’ve learned in new ways. 

Increased Diversity in STEM Starts with STEM Identity

In her article, Kimberly A. Griffin also noted that longstanding stereotypes played a significant role in how people were treated in STEM-tracked educational paths and career trajectories.

She wrote,

“First, scientific norms shape the perceptions of faculty, who are the gatekeepers that identify and train the next generation of scientists. The often-unconscious messages we are sent about what scientists look like, value, and do can form the foundation for biases, leading faculty to miss the talent and potential women and men of color bring to the laboratory. Second, the discomfort many faculty feel in recognizing their students’ identities outside of 'scientist' leaves them more vulnerable to perpetuating stereotypes and assumptions about minoritized students’ capabilities.”

Addressing how underrepresented groups are treated in STEM fields may take time to take root, but it's not an impossible task. It starts with building STEM identity in children from underrepresented groups, and evolves to all people checking their assumptions and appreciating the rewards that come from including different kinds of people in STEM work.

For example, an engineer who uses a mobility device such as a wheelchair will have a much different perspective and approach to constructing a building—largely since most buildings are not wheelchair accessible in a meaningful and useful way. If there are stairs at the front of the building’s design, and the accessible ramps are in the back and out of the way of view, that’s not going to be helpful for a lot of people who use mobility devices. Imagine how different a design for a building would be if a physically disabled engineer was leading the effort—those improvements would benefit everyone, not just those with physical disabilities.


STEM Identity, what’s next?

STEM Identity, and the diversity in STEM that will follow when more people develop strong STEM identities, is an important part of a world in which all people thrive. Adults and kids alike can benefit from the confidence and self-assurance that come when they see themselves as part of a group that is contributing to scientific and technological advancements. We'll all benefit from nurturing generations of kids, and supporting groups of adults, to see themselves as leaders and innovators in science, technology, engineering, and math. 

This is the reason Kid Spark Education exists. We’ve seen firsthand the power of accessible STEM programming, connected with mentorship and support. Our goal is that all children, especially children from underrepresented communities, develop STEM identity and technology fluency so they can thrive in the 21st century. 

Topics: STEM mentors, STEM Activities, Elementary STEM Education, STEM Education

Kelly Glass

Written By Kelly Glass

Kelly Glass is a writer, editor, and content creator whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, diversity, and mental health.

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