Research Summary

‘Unthinkable’ Selves: Identity boundary work in a summer field ecology enrichment program for diverse youth

Supporting Diverse Students’ Environmental Science Identities

International Journal of Science Education

Youth from non-dominant groups—whether racial and/ or ethnic groups, or others—often face identity-related barriers to participating in nature-based activities and science practices. Shared notions of “outdoorsy people” and “scientists,” for example, may be at odds with some people’s sense of self and the ways their identities are expressed in the place they live, what they do, and with whom they associate. Identity-based obstacles can pose a serious challenge, then, if environmental educators desire for all young people to understand and care about biodiversity.

From a social justice perspective, such obstacles are compounded by the fact that youth from non-dominant groups are more likely to grow up in communities impacted by environmental hazards. This paper’s authors investigate how an environmental program’s norms, practices, and tools might support environmental science identity development among youth, with a particular emphasis on those from areas where environmental hazards are paramount.

In 2011, the authors examined a high-school summer enrichment program focused on herpetology, or the study of reptiles and amphibians. Called the Herpetology Research Experience (HRE), the program was offered as a summer elective as part of a year-round college access initiative for high-school students with great financial need or no family history of college attendance. Students attended the four-week program for two hours per day, four days per week. Of the 16 HRE enrollees, nine identified as female and seven as male; and 38% indicated their racial/ethnic background as Black/African American, 31% as White (non-Hispanic/Latino), 25% as Hispanic/Latino, and 6% as Native American. The program primarily consisted of working alongside field scientists to collect and analyze data on the activities of reptiles and amphibians living in the local area.

The researchers used ethnographic methods, including observing and writing field notes, as well as recording audio and video of the program activities. They also conducted 45-minute interviews with 15 of the 16 participants at the end of the program. As the authors analyzed their notes and recordings, an emergent pattern of instances in which the youth were working through fearful emotions struck the authors. Many of those instances related to the students’ reluctance to interact with or handle the animals. The HRE program put students in situations that many had never encountered before, pushing the boundaries of their sense of self. As a result, the authors called those moments when students were out of their comfort zones instances of “identity boundary work.”

Since the authors saw those moments as potentially productive for aligning students’ identities with the identities of environmentalists or scientists, the authors analyzed the moments to determine what program elements seemed to help the students as they worked through their discomfort. The authors identified the following important factors: boundary objects, time and space, social supports, collective agency, and knowledge.

By “boundary objects,” the authors refer to physical tools that helped students try new activities and move out of their comfort zones. The use of waders, for example, helped students overcome their fear of entering the water, which represented an important hurdle to overcome in order to take snapping-turtle measurements. Using cameras to record data also helped some students get closer to the animals, as they were able to focus more on getting a good photograph than how afraid they initially were to approach the wildlife.

“Time and space” refers to the flexible and responsive way in which the program allowed students to gradually increase their participation as they gained confidence. This aspect of the program, which contrasted with schools’ traditionally strict schedules and calendars, was crucial for students grappling with new ideas of themselves and what they could accomplish.

As the students worked through new experiences, their social relationships also proved important. In the face of challenges, the youth cheered for each other, and more adventurous students modeled research activities for their peers. The students cared what others thought of them, and collaborating on activities made new things possible with which individuals would have struggled had they worked on their own.

Finally, the researchers found scientific and anecdotal knowledge to be important. As the students gained understandings of the animals’ physiology and behavior, they better understood how to interact with those animals in safe ways. Some students also reported learning, for the first time, that frogs do not, in fact, give humans warts. In those ways, knowledge contributed to the students’ willingness to push beyond their normal behaviors and concepts of self. The “field stories” told by program scientists further supported the students’ growing sense of a community of field ecologists with shared experiences. By the end of the program, the students told their own field stories on bus rides returning from the field, signaling their early feelings of belonging to that community.

Although the program was relatively short and, therefore, the identity boundary work seen in the study may not necessarily be indicative of permanent shifts in the students’ identities, the paper suggests several qualities of environmental education programs that could be promising. Those qualities include the use of boundary objects, the cultural norms of social support, flexible timing and space, and scientific and informal knowledge.

The Bottom Line

Students from non-dominant groups may face significant identity-related challenges to participating in environmental education and ecological science-focused programs. It has become commonplace to assume that such students will learn most effectively when educational offerings are made “culturally relevant” to them. Allowing some fear and discomfort, however, may be productive for learning if handled in an empathetic and caring manner. Educational program designers might consider how physical tools, social supports, flexible timing that allows for gradually increasing participation, and forms of scientific and informal knowledge may help learners overcome trepidation and stretch their self-identities.