Education researchers study how middle school students develop a STEM identity

Two middle school girls smile while one holds a robot made out of legos.
Middle school students participate in a STEM summer camp hosted by Starbase Robins. Photo by Jessica Whitley

Mercer University researchers are exploring how students develop a STEM identity — that is, how they come to see themselves as people who understand and use science, technology, engineering and math.

Elaine Thurmond headshot
Dr. Elaine Thurmond, primary investigator

This summer, researchers in the Tift College of Education partnered with Starbase Robins to study how middle school students’ participation in a summer STEM camp impacted their learning and development of a STEM identity.

The research, conducted by primary investigator Dr. Elaine Thurmond and project researcher Dr. Meenakshi Sharma, was funded by the Georgia Space Grant Consortium.

“We would hope that camps like this support student agency by providing a collaborative space for figuring out the real world problems,” said Dr. Sharma, assistant professor of science education. “Formal classroom environments can be restrictive; however, an informal learning environment has potential to provide opportunities for students to show their agency as knowledge creators. Conversations and discussions among students and facilitators can look like brainstorming ideas for design and problem solving. Student engagement of such nature can possibly lead to positive attitudes toward STEM.

“With a research point of view, examining agency and students’ interests within the context of an informal summer camp helps us to see if and how students begin developing a STEM identity — in simple words, begin seeing themselves, get recognized by others and develop a sense of belonging that they can do STEM.”

Dr. Meenakshi Sharma headshot
Dr. Meenakshi Sharma, project researcher

Dr. Thurmond, assistant professor of clinical practice, and Dr. Sharma observed 42 middle school students in Starbase Robins’ STEMpowered Girls and Super STEM Boys academies, which took place at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins. They also gave camp participants online surveys and interviewed them about their experiences. Parents provided feedback as well.

During the two-week camp, students engaged in STEM activities related to robotics, coding, space, conservation, cybersecurity and agriculture. This included building a simple robot and coding it and participating in online gaming related to cybersecurity, said Wesley Fondal Jr., executive director of Starbase Robins.

Students also worked on a weeklong project in which they solved real-world problems. For example, one problem involved figuring out how to mitigate the effects of high temperatures on playground equipment, he said.

At camp, students learned the advantages of pursuing STEM careers, but exposure to STEM is important even for students who don’t plan to go into those fields, Fondal said.

“STEM is all around them, and they’re going to be using it, so what we try to do is make sure they’re STEM literate,” he said. “Even if you’re just a consumer, you need to know how STEM works.”

The researchers chose to study students in middle school because that’s when young people often lose interest in STEM, Dr. Sharma said.

“That’s when they fall out of the interest pipeline,” she said. “That’s when they start saying, ‘I’m not a science person,’ or ‘I’m not a math person.’ They don’t see themselves as someone who can do STEM.”

In particular, researchers looked at how girls developed a STEM identity. Often, girls aren’t afforded the same STEM opportunities as boys, Dr. Thurmond said.

“The girls need that same exposure that boys need, so they can have the confidence to be able to work with those different types of technologies that are out there,” she said.

The researchers have not compiled their findings yet but hope they can inform the future of STEM education.


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