Science learning, group membership, and identity in an urban middle school

Stacy I Olitsky, University of Pennsylvania


The issue of inequalities in science education outcomes among students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in the U.S. is related not only to access to resources, but also to schools' inability to facilitate students developing identities associated with science. While some of the obstacles to identity development in science relate to issues over which teachers and students have limited control, others are more amenable to local efforts toward change. This dissertation describes an interpretive case study of a racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse eighth grade science classroom in an urban magnet school in order to explore the relationship between school and classroom structures, student and teacher agency in enacting positive changes within classrooms, and identity formation in science. The results of this study indicate that structural issues such as the high status ascribed to science, the school's selection process, discourses surrounding the purposes of learning, resource inequalities, and negative stereotype threat can contribute to classroom interactions in which some students' claims to membership in a community centered on science are rejected, thereby interfering with group membership. While some teacher practices accentuated the impacts of these structures, others, such as de-emphasizing standardized tasks and providing students with opportunities to make unique, science-related contributions reduced them. In addition, the teacher's strategies when she was teaching out of field, which included positioning herself as a learner and making visible her “backstage” performance of exploring ideas and accessing resources were associated with a greater diversity of students participating. Further, students were able to develop interest and a sense of solidarity surrounding even new, abstract content when such content became associated with successful interaction rituals during which science language and procedures served as a mutual focus and there were sufficient opportunities for physical and emotional entrainment. Overall, the results of this study suggest that by focusing on efforts to promote classroom interactions that students will experience as successful regardless of content, teachers can facilitate a supportive environment in which students feel comfortable experimenting with using science language, asking questions, and supporting each others' learning, thereby developing a sense of solidarity and identity surrounding science.

Subject Area

Science education|Educational sociology|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Olitsky, Stacy I, "Science learning, group membership, and identity in an urban middle school" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179785.