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Science Identity Development for Black Students

Two Black girls work on a science experiment, removing liquid from a vial and transferring it to a beaker.

A rambunctious first-grader, after pulling a handful of pulp out of a pumpkin, declares, “Something was growing in my hands.”  His teacher uses the moment to generate a discussion, offering the boy and his peers spaces to talk about what he meant: that the pulp was stretching and retracting rather than being alive.

This young boy is doing science and being a scientist.  According to Danny Martin, PhD and Maria Varelas, PhD, professors of curriculum and instruction in the College, the facts that this boy is both African American and a scientist are critically important. Too often, these identities are viewed as incompatible, shunting African American children and their competencies in very narrow and limited ways. Martin and Varelas are concerned that African American children and youth are mostly framed around the so-called racial achievement gap, which suggests that African American children are less capable in mathematics and science than their peers in other student groups based on test scores. The researchers argue test scores often have little capacity to measure the true growth as a scientist of this precocious boy with pumpkin smeared all over his hands.

Their research project, Content Learning and Identity Construction (CLIC):  A Framework to Strengthen African American Students’ Mathematics and Science Learning in Urban Elementary Schools, focuses on how African American students develop identities as mathematics and science learners both in the classroom and through socialization outside the classroom, and how teachers can foster positive identity development, as mathematics and science learners and as African American children.

“Young Black kids really come to appreciate their own understandings and their own sense of power they have when they think about what they are learning, who they are and are becoming, how others see them, and imagine themselves in the world of science and math,” Varelas said. “The focus on their deficiencies, their under-achievement, their under-performance, their under-representation, always the under, doesn’t really give them a chance to tell us how they really see themselves as doers of math and science.”

Drawing from their individual research in mathematics and science education, Varelas, Martin, and co-author Justine Kane PhD, assistant professor at Wayne State University, developed a teaching, learning and research framework for content learning and identity construction (CLIC) focusing on three identities: racial (as a Black person in the world), academic (as a student), and disciplinary (as a mathematics and science person).

The trio is now studying this framework in elementary and middle school science and mathematics classrooms over the course of a year, examining how students learn mathematics and science as they also negotiate identities not only as students and doers of mathematics and science, but also as members of a social group whose racial identity is salient and often subject to negative characterizations. Their research data include extensive classroom observations, interviews with students, and regular meetings with teachers. They are also collaborating with George Karabatsos PhD, professor of educational psychology, who will conduct an exploratory statistical modeling of the CLIC framework.

Martin and Varelas say their project highlights a need to reconsider notions of success and failure.  Preliminary findings show that African American students’ narratives and classroom performances point to complex ways in which competence, choice, power, recognition, and engagement are intertwined in children’s trajectories in mathematics and science classrooms.

Martin stresses the goal of this research is not to present African American learners as idiosyncratic, nor to romanticize their learning as a response to deficit-oriented notions regarding science and mathematics education for Black learners.  Martin and Varelas want educators to view African American students as active, rather than passive, learners who are developing knowledge of mathematics and science content as at the same time they are developing identities.  Even in first grade, Varelas and Kane’s research has shown that African American students have already constructed a distinction between “being smart” versus “being clever.”  Students identify cleverness as thinking about and navigating one’s way through a task, while smartness is related to the realm of knowledge accumulation.  One of the dangers is that young learners who may not see themselves as possessing a significant amount of knowledge of science may internalize that they are not smart, even if they self-identify as clever.

“When we talk about the phenomenal realities of Black children, the phenomenon occurs in the context of what it means to be a Black child in a particular classroom,” Martin said. “This is not designed to present a child as abnormal or exceptional; it’s designed to open a lens to reveal how African American children make sense of themselves and what they do in these classrooms.”