Building a physics identity
Posted by Melissa on February 14, 2010
When physics is mentioned in social situations, I often hear the comment, “Oh, I’m just not a science person.” The question of how one develops a science identity is interesting and relevant to the discussions of increasing participation and retention of students in STEM fields. Thus, an article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by Zahra Hazari and colleagues about students’ physics identities caught my eye.
Of course, identification with physics is only one small part of an individual’s identity; it cannot be separated from personal identity (the characteristics and experiences by which individuals define themselves) and group identity (due to associations with family, religious, and cultural groups). Hazari builds a notion of physics identity that intersects with personal and group identity, and is primarily based on four elements: interest, performance, competence (belief in an ability to understand physics), and recognition by others (as being, or potentially able to be, a good physics student). Using this physics identity framework, Hazari and colleagues explored how physics identity is related to student goals and how teachers might influence students’ physics identities.
The result that surprised me most was what impacted the physics identity of female students. In particular, having female scientist guest speakers or discussing the work of women scientists had no impact on the physics identity of female students. However, explicit discussion of the under-representation of women in physics was found to positively impact female physics identity, while not having any impact on male physics identity. This suggests tackling issues about the status of women in physics directly is more effective than band-aid solutions that attempt to paint gender-balanced pictures of science.
Another interesting, though unsurprising, result was the correlation between student career outcome expectations (job characteristics deemed important for future career satisfaction) and physics identity. Namely, student desire for a career providing intrinsic fulfillment by working with knowledge and skills was the strongest predictor of a student’s physics identity. As is pointed out in the paper, this is both a blessing and curse for physics:
“Anyone who has a physics background or has worked with physicists knows that there is truth to the claim that the physics culture promotes ‘physics for the sake of physics.’ The benefit of this cultural standard is that those who end up participating usually love the theoretical basis of what they do….However, there is a fundamental imbalance in this norm because mainly those who come from backgrounds with the luxury of affording knowledge-based motivations will opt into physics. Others who have additional motivations, like socio-economic concerns, will need to have a passion for physics above and beyond the norm in order to disregard such concerns and opt into physics….Perhaps if the physics community promoted and supported more balanced motivations, physics would be more successful in attracting members of under-represented groups.”
The study also found a negative correlation between physics identity and career outcome expectations that include the availability of personal time and working with others. The stereotype of physicists working long hours, all alone, for the glory of science seems to impact student physics identity. To me, this is a cause for concern, particularly for efforts aimed at increasing the number of physics majors, as it suggests that individuals from privileged backgrounds with no burden of economic concerns or family/communal commitments are most likely to consider physics. How can we convince a broad range of students that a career in physics can be something other than an all-consuming research career for the sake of research? And how can we remind physicists that the beauty and universality of physics is not sufficient for selling the field to a wide audience?