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STEM Identities: A Communication Theory of Identity Approach

Abstract: Education and psychology research has established STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) identities as an important factor in explaining student persistence in STEM fields. Few studies in social psychology of language or communication have investigated STEM identities, despite the fundamentally communicative nature of identity. Identity talk produced in semi-structured interviews with undergraduate engineering majors (N = 16) at three U.S. universities was analyzed qualitatively using the Communication Theory of Identity (CTI) as a sensitizing framework. The analysis showed that these students’ STEM identities emphasized personal attributes such as work ethic and a desire to make a positive difference in the world as well as relationships with peers in engineering. A number of potential identity gaps which might present barriers to forming a STEM identity were also evident in the data. These results underscore the importance of a communicative (interactive and relational) perspective in understanding students’ development and expression of STEM identities.
Keywords: identity / education / science / engineering / qualitative analysis

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