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Who Wants to Learn More Science? The Role of Elementary School Science Experiences and Science Self-Perceptions


by Pamela R. Aschbacher & Marsha Ing - 2017

Background/Context: Much science education reform has been directed at middle and high school students; however, earlier experiences in elementary school may well have an important impact on young people’s future science literacy and preparation for possible STEM careers.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explores the relationships among fifth-graders’ perceived learning opportunities in school science, their perceptions of self in science, and their desire to take more science courses in middle and high school.

Research Design: To directly address concerns about the reproducibility of results of small educational studies, this study explores whether results from one sample are replicated in a second, different sample. The fifth-grade students from two different samples of public elementary students in California (Sample 1: n = 363; Sample 2: n = 327) completed surveys about students’ perceived school science experiences, sense of themselves as science learners, and aspirations to learn more science in the future. The analyses of both samples included regression analyses to explore the relationship between science self-perceptions and wanting to take future science classes, as well as whether students’ perceived opportunities to participate in science activities might influence the relationship between self-perceptions and wanting to take more science in the future.

Findings/Results: There were positive and significant relationships between both school science learning opportunities and wanting to take more science courses, and science self-perceptions and wanting to take more science courses. Analyses indicate that both factors need to be considered when predicting who is eager to learn more science. These findings were consistent across both samples and were robust even after including student-level and school-level and controlling for the nested structure of the data.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings highlight the importance of fifth-graders’ self-perceptions in understanding the effects of science learning opportunities on their desire to learn more science. Thus, school science opportunities may be necessary but not sufficient for increasing student interest in learning more science. Since teachers have influence on both learning activities and a student’s sense of self as a science learner, the results underscore the importance of preparing elementary teachers to foster student desire to learn more science in the future.



Many young children love science. They want to know all about dinosaurs and spiders, why stars seem to move and twinkle in the sky, or what’s inside a drop of pond water. But student interest in and attitudes toward science typically drop sharply by the end of middle school (Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003; Potvin & Hasni, 2014; Riegle-Crumb, Moore, & Ramos-Wada, 2011), and students often fail to see much personal use or relevance in learning science (Masnick, Valenti, Cox, & Osman, 2010; Raved & Zvi Assaraf, 2011). Educators, policy makers, and those focused on equity issues are concerned about the resulting low levels of public science literacy, low student interest in preparing for a projected increase in STEM-related jobs, and limited diversity in our science and engineering workforce despite an increasingly diverse population (see Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 2007; National Science Board, 2014). Such concerns about improving the basic understanding and appreciation of science for all K–12 students are reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and supported in position statements by the National Science Teachers Association ( National Science Teachers Association, 2002) and reports from the National Research Council (2007, 2012).

IMPORTANCE OF EARLY INTEREST IN SCIENCE

Much of the concern about achievement or aspiration gaps in science has focused on secondary and post-secondary school students (Clewell & Campbell, 2002); however, there is evidence that fostering early interest in science can influence important short- and long-term outcomes for students (Maltese, Melki, & Wiebke, 2014; Maltese & Tai, 2010; Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006). Research from several perspectives illustrates why. For example, social-cognitive career theory supports focusing on students’ early attitudes toward mathematics and science because they are relevant to future career attainment (Betz & Hackett, 2006; Lent & Brown, 1996, 2006; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994, 1996, 2000). Research based on expectancy-value achievement motivation theory indicates that students’ persistence and performance are influenced by their beliefs about their abilities and the extent to which they value the activities (Eccles et al., 1983; Wigfield, 1994; Wigfield & Eccles, 1992, 2000). Students who persist in science do so not just because they are interested in science, but because they believe they can do well in science and see value in it (Atwater, Wiggins, & Gardner, 1995; Simpkins, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2006; Wigfield, Eccles, Mac Iver, Reuman, & Midgley, 1991). Influencing these moreimmediate goals helps students remain in the science pipeline by influencing both achievement-related science outcomes (Ebenezer & Zoller, 1993; Graham, Frederick, Byars-Winston, Hunter, & Handelsman, 2013; Riegle-Crumb, King, Grodsky, & Muller, 2012) and other important outcomes such as science attitudes, identity, and self-efficacy (Archer et al., 2010; DeWitt et al., 2010). A number of studies suggest that students’ STEM career aspirations often begin before seventh grade (Barmby, Kind, & Jones, 2008; Bennett & Hogarth, 2009; Dabney, Chakraverty, & Tai, 2013), and two recent studies found that students whose science interest began by age eight were far more likely than others to persist in their STEM career interests during secondary school (Aschbacher, Ing, & Tsai, 2014; Aschbacher, Li, & Roth, 2010).

IMPORTANCE OF EARLY SCIENCE EXPERIENCES IN SCHOOL

Given the importance of early science experiences, elementary school may offer a critically formative opportunity to sustain and support those interests (National Academy of Engineering & National Research Council, 2014; National Research Council, 2007; Wang & Staver, 2001; Zangori, Forbes, & Biggers, 2013). School experiences have been shown to influence the development of students’ self-concept, career aspirations, and goals, as well as their understanding of, reasoning about, and appreciation of science in particular (Varelas, Pieper, Arsenault, Pappas, & Keblawe-Shamah, 2014).

Unfortunately, elementary school science experiences may fall short of this potential (Tilgner, 1990). Research informed by social-practice theory, which emphasizes the importance of how students work on their identities as science learners or “science-minded” people, suggests that elementary and middle school science experiences can marginalize or put off some students rather than nurture their engagement, confidence, and sense of affiliation with learning and doing science (Calabrese Barton, 2001; Calabrese Barton & Yang, 2000; Tan & Calabrese Barton, 2012). Carlone (2003) and Carlone, Scott, & Lowder (2014) illustrated how certain features of elementary school experiences, such as whether students’ ideas are respected and the norms of participation are inclusive, can influence the degree to which students affiliate with the “smart science people.” Thus, research suggests that providing opportunities to participate in science does not guarantee that students will affiliate with science or view school science as relevant to their everyday lives, which are important factors for students’ long-term, sustained efforts in pursuing science knowledge or careers (Brickhouse, Lowery, & Schultz, 2000; Calabrese Barton et al., 2013). Since much research on self-perceptions or identity work relies on small case studies with unknown generalizability, further research is needed to better understand relationships among school science-learning opportunities, student perceptions of themselves in science, and desired outcomes of science education, particularly in the elementary grades.

The purpose of the present study is to explore how elementary school science-learning opportunities and students’ perceptions of themselves in science may influence whether they want to learn more science in the future. This study was informed by previous work with middle and high school students that highlighted the importance of their science self-perception and its relationship to their classroom experiences, teachers’ opinions of them, and their emerging science aspirations (George, 2000). In particular, previous research linked science self-perceptions to career aspirations for middle (Aschbacher et al., 2014) and high school students (Aschbacher et al., 2010) and highlighted the important role of teachers in influencing secondary students’ science interests (Aschbacher et al., 2014). This study explores the applicability of these results for elementary school students and the degree to which they may be consistent across multiple science-curriculum settings.

While studies of secondary students have often focused on career aspirations, the focus of this particular study is on young students’ desire to learn more science in the future—operationalized here as desire to take more science classes in middle and high school—because academic success supports both increased science literacy and preparation for possible STEM careers. Wanting to learn more science in middle and high school is also a more proximal and concrete goal than career aspirations for elementary students, who are unlikely to be aware of the vast array of STEM-related job possibilities that exist and what such jobs entail. More specifically, this study addresses the following research questions:

Do fifth-grade students’ science self-perceptions relate to wanting to learn more science?

Do fifth-grade school science experiences influence students’ science self-perceptions?

Is the influence of fifth-grade students’ school science experiences on their wanting to learn more science similar across students with different science self-perceptions?

This study is unique in that the same analysis is replicated with two different samples of fifth-grade students. It also uses contextual information about student background, school demographics, and student achievement in the analyses for each sample. The two samples were situated in different longitudinal studies with different original purposes: the first, to explore the effects of hands-on, inquiry-based kit curricula versus textbook-based curricula on elementary students’ ability to do scientific investigations (Pine et al, 2006); the second, to explore the effects of teacher professional development (about content knowledge, inquiry practices, and formative assessment situated in science notebooks) on student understanding of content knowledge and inquiry processes, as well as teachers’ formative assessment practices (Aschbacher & Alonzo, 2006).

This study also directly addresses concerns about the reproducibility of the results of small educational studies like these by exploring whether results from one sample are replicated with a second, different sample of students, teachers, and curriculum. The Open Science Collaboration suggests that “replication can increase certainty when findings are reproduced and promote innovation when they are not” (Open Science Collaboration, 2015, p. aac4716). Their recent research replicating 100 experimental and correlational studies found that two-thirds of the studies did not replicate the original findings. To build greater confidence in educational research methodology and findings, this study provides a replication and offers increased openness and transparency in the research process (Alter et al., 2015; Open Science Collaboration, 2012).

METHOD

Our analysis utilized one year’s student survey data from two longitudinal projects involving fifth-grade students, as described above. We specifically selected the two samples to allow for using the same analysis with each sample after controlling for possible differences between samples in terms of student and school demographic characteristics. Both surveys addressed students’ perceived school science experiences, sense of themselves as science learners, and aspirations to learn more science in the future. The analyses for both samples included logistic regression to explore the relationship between science-self-perceptions and the desire to take future science classes, and regression to explore whether students’ perceived opportunities to participate in science activities might influence the relationship between self-perceptions and wanting to take more science in the future.

PARTICIPANTS

The fifth-grade students in the current analyses were drawn from two different samples of public elementary students in California (Sample 1: n = 363; Sample 2: n = 327). Sample 1 comprised nine classrooms in nine schools in five districts; Sample 2 comprised 11 classrooms in seven schools in five different districts. Each sample and its curriculum context reflected the purpose of the original project. Thus, in Sample 1, about half the classrooms used traditional science textbooks, which some teachers occasionally supplemented with their own demonstrations or hands-on activities; the other half of Sample 1 and all of Sample 2 used primarily inquiry-based kit curriculum materials adopted by their districts. Students in both samples were taught by experienced teachers (Sample 1: average of 11 years of teaching experience, range from 2–33 years; Sample 2: average of 14 years’ experience, range from 4–27 years) who regularly taught science using the district-adopted science curriculum, confirmed by science coordinators and by researcher observations. Overall, schools represented the full range of student achievement levels—with statewide ranks of 1 to 10 on a 10-point scale—and a very wide range of economic levels, from 2% to 90% eligible for free lunch. A greater percentage of students in Sample 2 reported that their mothers had attended some college (68%) compared to students in Sample 1 (51%). On average, over 60% of the students in each school were African American or Hispanic, approximately 30% were English-language learners, and over 50% were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; the schools’ average statewide achievement ranking was 5.

INSTRUMENTS

A team of researchers, elementary teachers, and scientists developed the surveys to reflect classroom learning opportunities recommended by reformers (National Research Council, 2007) and research on student perceptions of science abilities and value (Atwater, Wiggins, & Gardner, 1995; Simpson & Oliver, 1990; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Each survey was piloted with several comparable classrooms before administration, and pilot data were used to refine the surveys. A teacher and a researcher with a graduate degree in science reviewed each survey to establish face validity. The surveys were three to four pages long and were administered by researchers during class. The reading level and format were kept simple, with most items utilizing 3-, 4-, or 5-point scales. Survey items varied somewhat according to the purposes of the projects in which they were originally used, but the two surveys analyzed here both addressed student background variables such as gender and mother’s college attendance, as well as perception of self as a science learner, perceived parental value placed on learning science, perceived teacher estimate of student’s science ability, a common set of school science learning opportunities, attitude towards science, and interest in learning more science in the future (operationalized as wanting to take future science courses in middle and high school).

VARIABLES INCLUDED IN ANALYSES

Students’ Perceived Opportunities to Participate in Elementary School Science

Five survey items measured elementary students’ perceived opportunities to regularly participate in the following school science activities: Think of your own experiment and do it; observe something and record your data; make or use charts, graphs, or tables; talk about what the results of an investigation mean; and write about the science ideas you are studying (see Table 1). The items were developed by researchers, teachers, and scientists based on recommendations from science education reformers for desirable high-quality school science activities to improve science literacy and possible career interest (Duschl, 2008; National Research Council, 2007, 2012); they also reflect instructional activities recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Although this is a small subset of the many possible desirable science activities that might have been queried, the research team judged that it represented a range of activities appropriate to the curricular goals of the districts, with some reasonable expectation of being implemented at the time of the studies. The response options were most lessons, some lessons, or never.1 To simplify the analysis across multiple items with skewed distributions, we created a composite variable of the five items to measure opportunities to participate in science. A higher value for this variable indicated more opportunities to participate in science activities.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics of Perceived Opportunities to Participate in School Science and Science Self-Perception Items


 

Sample 1

 

Sample 2

 
 

Mean

SD

 

Mean

SD

t(575)

Perceived opportunities to participate in school science

     


  Think of your own experiment and do ita

0.06

0.25

 

0.35

0.48

−8.68***

  Observe something and record your dataa

0.42

0.49

 

0.57

0.50

−3.67***

  Make or use charts, graphs or tablesa

0.26

0.44

 

0.29

0.46

−0.89

  Talk about what the results of an investigation meana

0.33

0.47

 

0.43

0.50

−2.35*

  Write about the science ideas you are studyinga

0.31

0.46

 

0.21

0.41

2.58*

Science self-perceptions

     


  I like school scienceb

0.41

0.49

 

0.42

0.49

−0.19

  I usually understand sciencec

0.17

0.38

 

0.33

0.47

−4.27***

  My teacher likes my ideas in sciencec

0.14

0.35

 

0.37

0.48

−6.31***

  My teacher thinks I’m good at sciencec

0.13

0.33

 

0.23

0.42

−3.21**

  My parents think it’s important to do well in sciencec

0.38

0.49

 

0.50

0.50

−2.75**

*p < .05. **p < 0.01. ***p < 0.001.

aDichotomous variable where 1 = most lessons, 0 = not most lessons.

bDichotomous variable where 1 = like a lot, 0 = do not like a lot.

cDichotomous variable where 1 = strongly agree, 0 = do not strongly agree.


Students’ Science Self-Perceptions


Five survey items comprised our measure of elementary students’ science self-perceptions (see Table 1). The first item, “How much do you like school science?” was rated on a scale of 1 (don’t like) to 5 (like a lot). The other four items—“I usually do well in science,” “My teacher likes to hear my ideas in science,” “My teacher thinks I’m good at science,” and “My parents think it’s important to do well in science”—were rated on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Whereas prior research on secondary students focused more on students’ beliefs about their capacity to learn science and their valuing of it (Aschbacher et al., 2010, 2014), this science self-perception variable for elementary students also incorporates items related to the students’ perceptions of their parents’ valuing of science and their teachers’ estimations of their science abilities. The rationale for including these variables is based on research suggesting the importance of parents and teachers to students’ self-perceptions during the elementary school years (Beghetto & Baxter, 2012; Houseal, Abd-El-Khalick, & Destefano, 2014; Lavy & Sand, 2015).

Using the same procedures, and for the same reason described in the previous section, we again converted the response categories into two categories, with a 1 indicating that the student liked science “a lot” or “strongly agreed” with the other four items, and a 0 indicating that the student did not like science a lot or did not strongly agree with the other four items. All five items were then summed together, with higher values of the composite indicating more positive science self-perceptions.

Future Science Courses

Students were asked about their desire to take more science courses in middle and high school: “When you get to middle school and high school, do you want to take more science classes?” There were three response options: “Yes, I will take as many science classes as I can”; “Maybe. It depends on what the class is about”; or “No. I would rather take other classes.” In order to identify students who were unconditionally interested in taking more science courses (the dependent variable in our analyses), we created a dichotomous variable, with a 1 indicating that the student was enthusiastic about taking future science courses and a 0 indicating uncertainty or not wanting to take additional science courses. A similar percentage of students (35%) in both Sample 1 and Sample 2 were enthusiastic about taking future science classes.

Covariates

To statistically adjust for characteristics that might relate to science self-perceptions, information from two types of factors was included: student-level background variables—gender, prior achievement on standardized tests, and whether mother attended college—and school-level background variables—percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunch, percentage of students designated as English-language learners, percentage of students historically underrepresented in STEM (African American and Hispanic), school size, and school achievement. The measures of student-level prior abilities differed for the two samples due to the different purposes and constraints of the original studies, but both proved useful in the analyses, with similar results. The cognitive ability measure given to all students in Sample 1 was a standardized multiple-choice test of general cognitive abilities, consisting of 65 items randomly sampled from the Cognitive Abilities Test (Lohman & Hagen, 2001), which assessed verbal, quantitative, and spatial-symbolic reasoning abilities. For Sample 2, the measure of prior achievement available for all students was a standardized, nationally normed test of mathematics achievement (CTB/McGraw-Hill, 1996) administered in all California districts at the time of the study.

The school-level background variables were obtained from the publically available databases of the California Department of Education for the school year in which the survey data were collected (California Department of Education, 2015). The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals is based on the CalWorks Report (California Department of Education, 2015). The percentage of students designed as English-language learners is based on the California Language Census, which represents the students who are not yet proficient in English (also referred to as Limited English Proficient; California Department of Education, 2015). Students historically underrepresented in STEM are defined as the percentage of African American and Hispanic students reported by schools. The school size variable was the total enrollment for all grade levels at the elementary school. The achievement rank variable was a statewide ranking on an index of 1–10 created by the California Department of Education, dividing the schools’ API scores (based on standardized achievement measures) into 10 equal groups for each level (elementary, middle, and high schools). A rank of 1 comprises the 10% of (elementary) schools with the lowest API scores; the rank of 10 comprises the 10% of elementary schools with the highest API scores (California Department of Education, 2015).

RESULTS

SIMILARITY OF SAMPLES

Opportunities to Participate in School Science Activities

Students’ perceived opportunities to participate in school science activities in both samples were independent of gender [Sample 1: t(217) = 0.32, p = 0.75; Sample 2: t(324) = −0.79, p = 0.43) and mother’s educational level, a rough indicator of family socioeconomic status [Sample 1: t(177) = −1.67, p = 0.10; Sample 2: t(209) = 0.70, p = 0.48). There was a negative relationship between perceptions of participating in science activities and prior achievement for Sample 1: r(205) = −0.24, p < .001; that is, students with lower cognitive-ability scores tended to report having more of the queried school science activities in class than students with higher scores. However, there was no such significant relationship for Sample 2: r(108) = −0.10, p = 0.31. Student responses indicated statistically more opportunities to participate in science activities in Sample 2 (M = 1.86, SD = 1.30) relative to Sample 1 (M = 1.38, SD = 1.24; t(575) = −4.44, p < 0.001). This result seems to reflect the fact that Sample 1 included both textbook-based and inquiry kit-based curricula, while Sample 2 included only the latter.

Science Self-Perceptions

There were no gender differences in science self-perceptions in either sample [Sample 1: t(217) = −1.18, p = 0.24; Sample 2: t(324) = 0.50, p = 0.62], as well as no significant relationships in either sample between science self-perceptions and prior achievement [Sample 1: r(205) = −0.13, p = 0 .06); Sample 2: r(108) = 0.15, p = 0.12] or mother’s level of education [Sample 1: t(177) = −1.30, p = 0.19; Sample 2: t(209) = −0.90, p = 0.37]. Student responses indicated statistically higher science self-perceptions in Sample 2 (M = 1.85, SD = 1.45) relative to Sample 1 [M = 1.23, SD = 1.26; t(575) = −5.29, p < 0.001].

RESEARCH QUESTION 1. WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STUDENTS’ SCIENCE SELF-PERCEPTIONS AND WANTING TO LEARN MORE SCIENCE?

Logistic regression analysis revealed a positive relationship between science self-perception and wanting to take more science courses, which was consistent across both samples (see Table 2). The relationship between science self-perception and wanting to take more science was robust even after including student-level covariates—such as gender, mother’s level of education, and prior achievement—and school-level covariates—such as percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—and controlling for the nested structure of the data.2 In Sample 1, 66% of students with a science self-perception score of 1 (low) did not want to take more science courses in high school, while 75% of students with a science self-perception score of 5 wanted to take more science courses. This pattern is similar in Sample 2 (71% of students with a score of 1 did not want to take more science courses; 88% of students with a score of 5 wanted to take more science courses). Thus, across both samples, students with higher science self-perceptions are more likely to want to take more science courses, compared to students with lower science self-perceptions.

Table 2. Summary of Logistic Regression Analysis for Science Self-Perception Predicting Wanting to Take More Science


 

Without covariates

 

With covariates

Sample 1

B

SE B

eB

 

B

SE B

eB

Science self-perceptions

0.56***

0.14

1.76


0.54***

0.15

1.71

 

c2

df

  

c2

df

 

Likelihood ratio test

18.73***

1

 


22.96*

10

 
        

Sample 2

B

SE B

eB

 

B

SE B

eB

Science self-perceptions

1.08***

0.23

2.94


1.06***

0.26

2.91

 

c2

df

  

c2

df

 

Likelihood ratio test

35.91***

1

 


42.82***

8

 

Note. For Sample 1, n = 162; for Sample 2, n = 327.

*p < 0.05. ***p < 0.001.


QUESTION 2: ARE FIFTH-GRADE SCHOOL SCIENCE EXPERIENCES ASSOCIATED WITH STUDENTS’ SCIENCE SELF-PERCEPTIONS?

Despite the two samples having different levels of reported opportunities to participate in science and of students’ science self-perceptions, the correlation between these two variables was positive and significant across both samples—Sample 1: r(205) = 0.46, p < 0.001; Sample 2: r(327) = 0.35, p < 0.001. Students who said they had more opportunities to do the queried learning activities reported stronger perceptions of themselves in science.

QUESTION 3: WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP AMONG OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE IN SCIENCE, SCIENCE SELF-PERCEPTIONS, AND WANTING TO LEARN MORE SCIENCE?

When we consider both variables—perceived learning opportunities and self-perceptions in science—in models that predict wanting to take more science, the standardized regression coefficients between opportunities to participate in school science activities and science self-perception were statistically significant for both Sample 1 (see Figure 1) and Sample 2 (see Figure 2). However, in both samples, the relationship between the single variable of opportunities to participate in science activities and wanting to take more science courses is not significant, which suggests that science self-perception plays an important role and mediates the effect of opportunities to participate in science activities on wanting to take more science. This suggests that although opportunities to participate in science activities are an important factor in students’ interest in taking more science classes, the relationship is not a direct one. Simply providing greater opportunities to participate in science activities will not directly lead to higher interest in wanting to take more science classes. Instead, the relationship is indirect, because increasing interest in taking more science classes also requires attention to student science self-perceptions.

Figure 1. Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between opportunities to participate in science activities and wanting to take more science courses, mediated by science self-perceptions, for Sample 1

[39_21911.htm_g/00001.jpg]

Note. Numbers on the solid lines are statistically significant (p < 0.01) multilevel standardized regression coefficients (standard errors in parentheses). The dotted line indicates a nonsignificant coefficient.

Figure 2. Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between opportunities to participate in science activities and wanting to take more science courses, mediated by science self-perceptions, for Sample 2

[39_21911.htm_g/00002.jpg]

Note. Numbers on the solid lines are statistically significant (p < 0.01) multilevel standardized regression coefficients (standard errors in parentheses). The dotted line indicates a nonsignificant coefficient.

To estimate and test the magnitude of this indirect effect, we used an approach proposed by Sobel (1982, 1986; see also Bauer, Preacher, & Gil, 2006; Kenny, Korchmaros, & Bolger, 2003; Krull & MacKinnon, 1999, 2001; MacKinnon, 2008; MacKinnon, Lockwood, & Williams, 2004; MacKinnon, Warsi, & Dwyer, 1995). We found that the indirect effects were statistically significant for both samples (Sample 1: Sobel’s z = 2.75, p < 0.01, magnitude of indirect effect = 0.03, standard error = 0.01; Sample 2: Sobel’s z = 5.48, p < 0.001; magnitude of indirect effect = 0.06, standard error = 0.01).3

DISCUSSION

The results of this study provide quantitative evidence that fifth-graders’ desire to take science in secondary school is a function of the extent to which they have classroom opportunities not only to engage in the kinds of scientific inquiry-oriented activities that reformers advocate but also to develop positive perceptions of themselves in science. These self-perceptions, as measured here, include confidence in their science learning, a sense of support from teachers who appreciate their ideas, and parents who value the learning of science. These findings were quite robust. They held regardless of students’ gender, prior cognitive abilities or math achievement, and socioeconomic status, and they were replicated in two ethnically and economically diverse samples of fifth-graders in California public schools. The same pattern of results also held across a range of science curriculum settings, from textbooks supplemented with occasional hands-on activities to exclusively inquiry kit-based science curricula. The more students’ science classes offered opportunities to engage in activities such as talking about the meaning of their investigation results, the more positive their science self-perceptions. The more positive students’ sense of self in science, the more likely it was that they were eager to learn more science in middle and high school. Students with weaker science self-perceptions were less eager to take future science courses at school.

Importantly, the data indicate that available science activities alone do not account for the desire to learn more science in the future. We found that these fifth-graders’ science self-perceptions played a critical role in mediating the effects of science-learning opportunities on their desire to learn more science. Thus, school science opportunities may be necessary but not sufficient for increasing student interest in learning more about science. Supporting the desire to learn more science is not just about providing more of particular types of science opportunities, but also about paying attention to whether the activities and their implementation allow and encourage students to perceive themselves as the kind of people who can and want to do science. These findings are consistent with research informed by social-practice theory, which emphasizes the importance of not just what opportunities are provided, but also how students make sense of and participate in these opportunities (Calabrese Barton, 2001; Calabrese Barton & Yang, 2000; Tan & Calabrese Barton, 2012).

Across both samples in this study, there were significant differences among classrooms in both the average level of reported opportunities to participate in science and students’ science self-perceptions. Although school demographic characteristics were considered, the relatively small number of classrooms prevented us from controlling for classroom- or teacher-level differences beyond statistically accounting for the nested structure of students within classrooms. The observed classroom differences could be due to a nonrandom way in which elementary students may have been assigned to their classrooms, over which we had no control. However, such classroom differences could also reflect different instructional practices and affordances by particular teachers, a possibility consistent with previous research (Buck, Cook, Quigley, Prince, & Lucas, 2014). Our study suggests two ways in which elementary teachers may be instrumental in students’ learning ambitions. They have considerable choice in which parts of the intended curriculum they enact—units, specific lessons, and activities within lessons—and how they do so, thus shaping students’ opportunities to participate in desirable science activities. In addition, teachers can also influence the way students perceive themselves when engaged in learning science. For example, Carlone et al. (2014) illustrated how a teacher can implement a reform-based science curriculum in ways that help or hinder how students develop the feeling that they are or want to be one of the “smart science” students, regardless of their actual achievement level. Given that our measure of science self-perception included how students believe that their teachers view their abilities, our findings provide quantitative support to Carlone et al.’s (2014) conclusions that elementary teachers may play an important role in the development of students’ confidence and affiliation with learning science. One implication of our results is that teacher preparation and professional-development efforts might be more effective when informed by social-practice theory and identity development. Specifically, teachers may need explicit support in why and how they can help all students not just to access important science-learning activities but also to develop positive self-perceptions as science learners. Teachers may not realize that student interest and persistence in science reflects what they believe their teachers think of their capacity to learn it.

The logic underlying the link between self-perceptions centered in school science and wanting to take more science in school centers around the following question: Will students want to take more science courses at school in the future if they do not feel confident about their current abilities in school science? As long as the predominant path to science literacy and STEM careers requires school courses in science, students who develop their confidence, abilities, and aspirations largely within the school setting may have an advantage over those whose school science self-perceptions are low, even if they are lucky enough to have good learning opportunities and high self-perceptions in science outside of school. We are not arguing that extracurricular and family science activities are unimportant; indeed, research shows that it is possible and advantageous for students to develop a strong sense of self in science outside school (Adams, 2007; Bevan, Bell, Stevens, & Razfar, 2013; Dierking & Falk, 1994; Osborne & Dillon, 2007). However, this study underscores the importance of what happens at school in predicting later learning proclivity in school, and for many students, there may be few other free, sustained, structured spaces to develop a sense of themselves in science. School-based opportunity, including the early years, should not be wasted.

The fact that results held for two samples of diverse elementary students of all ability levels, both genders, and across a range of curriculum settings underscores the importance of attending to all students’ elementary school learning opportunities and the development of a positive sense of self in science. Of course, future research replicating this relationship with different samples and measures is encouraged (Makel & Plucker, 2014). This study also makes an important contribution to the field by extending to elementary school students our previous findings with middle and high school students linking their self-perceptions to aspirations in science and highlighting the role of teachers in this dynamic (Aschbacher et al, 2010, 2013, 2014). The quantitative results in this study also provide some validation to small, deep qualitative studies (Carlone et al, 2014) suggesting links among learning opportunities, aspirations, and sense of self in science.

Due to small sample sizes for the number of parameters estimated here and a lack of empirical evidence for unidimensionality, it was not appropriate for this study to use science self-perception as a latent construct (Wilson, 2005)—that is, to use structural equation modeling to explore the relationships among variables. Despite these limitations, however, our results were replicated in two diverse samples and therefore suggest a promising avenue for further research. Future research using a structural equation modeling approach would be aligned with how some other researchers have measured the self-perception variable with older students (Kang, Calabrese Barton, Rhee, & Tan, 2017). We encourage future exploration of whether additional items could strengthen the construct of science self-perceptions and whether triangulation using data from additional sources, such as teacher reports or direct observation of classroom learning opportunities, would enhance our understanding of relationships among the key constructs. Such research could lead to tools that would facilitate the development, teaching, and evaluation of more effective science education programs, in and outside of school, that expand the desired outcomes to include not only student achievement but also a positive sense of self as a science learner.

Overall, our results highlight the importance of science education in the elementary school years as a critical influence on whether children want to continue learning science at school in the future. It provides important empirical evidence to support improving and providing broad access to not only reform-based learning opportunities but also the identity-forming aspects of elementary science education for all students, in order to encourage more young people to want to learn science. To further this goal, we advocate the continued development of strong tools and methods for assessing the learning opportunities afforded young children in science as well as their emerging sense of themselves as capable science learners.

Notes

1. The Shapiro-Wilk W test for normality indicated non-normal distributions for all five items (Shapiro & Francia, 1972; Shapiro & Wilk, 1965). The non-normal distributions were also consistent with other statistics that took into account both skewness and kurtosis, adjusting for small sample sizes (D’Agostino, Belanger, & D’Agostino, Jr., 1990) and examination of histograms and density plots. Given the distribution of these items, a dichotomous variable was created for each of the five variables, with a 1 indicating that students did the particular activity in most lessons and a 0 indicating that students did the particular activity in only some or none of their lessons.

2. There were differences in perceived opportunities to participate in science activities between classrooms for both samples [Sample 1: F(8, 241) = 5.21, p < 0.001; Sample 2: F(10, 316) = 3.30, p < 0.001] and differences in science self-perception between classrooms for both samples [Sample 1: F(8, 241) = 5.21, p < 0.001; Sample 2: F(10, 316) = 3.61, p < 0.001], which suggests the need to statistically adjust for the nested structure of the data.

3. Consistent with the results of Sobel’s (1986) z-test, bootstrap confidence intervals for the indirect effects of 20,000 bootstrapped samples (Preacher & Hayes, 2008) did not include zero (Sample 1, 95% CI [0.01, 0.06]; Sample 2, 95% CI [0.04, 0.09]), which provides further evidence of a non-zero indirect effect for Sample 1 and Sample 2.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 8, 2017, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21911, Date Accessed: 12/8/2019 4:19:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Pamela Aschbacher
    California Institute of Technology
    E-mail Author
    PAMELA R. ASCHBACHER is the Director of Research at the Caltech Precollege Science Initiative at the California Institute of Technology. Her research interests lie primarily in assessing and supporting STEM teaching and learning. She has studied and evaluated STEM education, directed the development of K–12 performance assessments in science and other subjects, coauthored the book A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment, and published in journals such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
  • Marsha Ing
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    MARSHA ING is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research on measuring STEM teaching and learning includes publications in Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice and Educational Studies in Mathematics.
 
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