Fostering a positive identification with science is an important part of many programmes trying to make STEM more diverse. This is vital, as underrepresented groups may be faced with cultural stereotypes about science: that scientists are mainly White men, for example. These kinds of experiences can reinforce inequalities: governmental research from 2019, for example, found that girls were far less likely to see themselves as good at science-related subjects, and enjoyed them less — despite outperforming their male peers at exams. .
Identifying as a ‘”science person” might also help other groups currently underrepresented in STEM. A new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that a strong scientific identity can foster belonging and help first-generation and Black and minority ethnic university students feel more at home in the classroom.
Susie Chen from the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues first looked at whether science identification was predictive of academic performance. On the night before an exam, 368 students enrolled in an Introductory Biology course were emailed a survey asking how much they agreed with statements including “I am a science person”. The team also looked at participants’ course grade and general academic history.
Results confirmed that those who identified more as a science person achieved higher grades. But the impact of science identification was greater for minority (Black and minority ethnic and first generation) students: the grade difference between students with a low and high science identification was larger in that group than among White, continuing-generation students.
A second study looked at whether science identification was related to better grades because it fostered students’ sense of belonging. At the start of the term, a teacher asked students in the Introductory Biology course to form groups of three to five people based on some similarity, such as living in the same halls.
Those in the belonging condition then wrote for ten minutes about difficulties they were experiencing in the transition from school to university, and were given three quotes from other students addressing the same concerns and reminding participants that initial difficulties tend to be temporary and not an obstacle to belonging at university. Teams then discussed similarities and differences between their experiences.
In the control condition, students took part in regular ice-breaking activities including drawing a mascot and choosing a biology-themed team name. Finally, science identification and belonging were both measured again.
Again, science identification was more predictive of course outcomes for minority students than majority students. But the belonging manipulation had an effect too. Course outcomes for minority students in the social belonging condition were no longer dependent on science identification. This suggests that science ID does in fact invoke a sense of belonging that helps students perform well in class, and that other ways of fostering that sense of belonging can buffer against the negative effects of having a low science identification.
Why does the intervention work? The authors suggest it’s because minority students may suffer from a lack of belonging due to stereotypes about what a scientist looks like: they might feel they don’t fit that profile. For example, previous research has found that minority groups are more likely to experience imposter syndrome — and that that can have a negative impact on levels of achievement, engagement, attendance and performance.
Of course, there are many reasons minority students might not feel like they belong, including institutional racism or other discrimination, so looking more closely at why students don’t feel they fit in or identify with their chosen topic could be helpful in developing more robust solutions. Future research could also look at intersectionality — how different backgrounds or identities work together to influence sense of belonging, science identification or other factors.