Background: Two-year colleges are uniquely positioned to diversify science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Yet limited existing scholarship sheds light on how 2-year college students view themselves as learners as they experience STEM courses and programs. An in-depth and nuanced understanding of 2-year college STEM students’ self-perceptions as learners presents a powerful vehicle for identifying venues of interventions aimed at cultivating and supporting the STEM talent pool toward success through and beyond the 2-year college sector.
Purpose of the Study: We address the following research question: How do 2-year college students participating in STEM classes and programs perceive themselves as learners? Our inquiry is aimed at revealing the fundamental structure underlying these students’ experiences as their self-perceptions as STEM learners are formed and transformed.
Study Setting and Participants: We collected the data for this study as part of an ongoing longitudinal mixed methods study of students beginning in STEM programs or courses in Fall 2014 at three large 2-year institutions in a Midwestern state. The sample selection of the present qualitative study drew on maximum variation sampling, yielding a final sample size of 31.
Research Design: We adopted descriptive phenomenology to answer our research question. In-person interviews were conducted with each participant. Data were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using the procedures aligned with the descriptive phenomenological method proposed by Colaizzi (1978). In addition, we adopted analytical techniques from grounded theory in order to effectively organize our process of documenting, describing, and making sense of the data.
Findings: Our findings show that self-perceptions as 2-year college STEM learners are deeply intertwined with self-perceptions as mathematics learners, constantly evaluated and reevaluated in relation to others, driven by an internal process of recognizing the rewards and negotiating the challenges of studying STEM, and shaped by an external process of validation. While these themes stand on their own as prominent defining elements of the phenomenon of our interest, they are also inherently interwoven pieces of a cohesive, complex whole.
Conclusions: Our study captures how students’ self-perceptions as learners are formed and transformed, and illustrates how their prior and current learning experiences, self-perceptions as mathematics learners, background characteristics, and relationships with others interweave to shape and reshape how they view themselves as learners. Future work should further determine what specific measures and venues 2-year colleges can capitalize upon to develop confident and collaborative learners who embrace the rewards and challenges of studying STEM.