So often we hear of large studies like the GSS being used for attitudes towards science. We also hear the results of science achievement metrics and are disappointed. This article provides a great mix between generalizable quantitative understanding gained through use of a validated instrument and more individualized understanding gained through qualitative research using a critical feminist lens. The authors choose this sequential mixed-methods approach to attend to “questioning how to meet the needs of the many while coming to understand the uniqueness of the individuals among the many." The other problem they address is confounding categories. In other words, typical studies study either urban/suburban/rural OR majority/minority OR gender OR socioeconomic status, but they seek to understand attitudes in this population who are urban AND low SES AND African-American AND female. There’s definitely a tension between grouping this category and exploring the heterogeneity within the category – and what will be most useful in eventually promoting the participation of this group in science. Attitudes are important because they are predictors of choosing science classes.
The study participants were 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at a school in the midwest. The school population is 99% African American, 1% Multiracial, and 88% qualify for free lunch (this is a typical measure in the US for the SES of a school). Eighty-nine students completed the questionnaire (the modified Attitudes Toward Science Inventory). Thirty were purposively selected to participate in group interviews. The selected students represented each grade and level of academic achievement as shown by their results on a statewide standardized test. All participants qualified for free lunch and were African American.
The questionnaire was administered by an African American teacher who is part of the research team. The group interviews consisted of 3 or 4 participants and were semi-structured. They were conducted by a Caucasian (or shall we say European-American) researcher who is a former science teacher. The authors mitigated the impact of this choice by having her introduce herself and make several site visits prior to the interviews. However, IMO, this is still a problem, particularly with this group of participants.
The girls generally had positive perceptions of science, were confident, were not anxious, and had a desire to do science. The girls either had content-related definitions of science (it’s about plants, the moon, keeping your body healthy) or process-related definitions (a way of learning about…, help you be a detective…, “an adventure of fun”….) (yay process girls!). In discussing the importance of science a third mentioned things like knowing what to eat, how to stay safe from a tornado, and what not to touch on a nature hike. A few mentioned science’s importance for doing well in school or for an eventual career like in forensics or as a teacher or veterinarian. Some girls didn’t see science as important for them at all (as in, well you need to know how to read to get a job, so that’s important). Some of the girls experimented with their families at home or even at home on their own. Others saw it as just another thing done in school where you read the book, do what the teacher tells you to do, and then answer questions. They saw no relationship to things outside of school. Some of the students felt that they were very successful in doing science and if they ever got stuck, some help from the teacher would be enough to get them past it. Others were very frustrated and didn’t understand the questions they got in their labs or projects they did.
From these results the authors created profiles of some girls who, for example, viewed science as a process, did work outside of school, and are successful as high confidence/anti-anxiety, high desire/value and other profiles that were low on one or another of these areas. What’s really interesting is that there were some girls in this group with positive attitude, with high confidence, high desire, and who valued science who were C students in science. Why?
The authors are going to try “connected problem based learning” to try to challenge the girls with real world problems, have them work together in small groups with a teacher as a facilitator, etc.
This article is one of what will, I hope, be a series as these authors continue to work in and with this school.
Buck, G., Cook, K., Quigley, C., Eastwood, J., & Lucas, Y. (in press). Profiles of Urban, Low SES, African American Girls’ Attitudes Toward Science: A Sequential Explanatory Mixed Methods Study Journal of Mixed Methods Research DOI: 10.1177/1558689809341797