Understanding urban, low socioeconomic status, African-American Girls’ attitudes towards science

Aug 29 2009 Published by under public communication & engagement

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

8 responses so far

  • MadScientist says:

    "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?"
    Why would be anyone's guess - it is even possible for every guess to be different and yet correct. Perhaps the families don't value education in the same way as others' families. Perhaps the families value education but there is no one with the capacity to help the child at home. From decades ago I remember one lady from Puerto Rico who worked as a cleaner at a motel for her living. She'd always tell her daughter that she should study hard so she can get a better job (which I always thought meant 'more interesting for you' rather than 'pays more'). So the mother was keen on her child learning - but she could not help the child with all the math and science homework nor could she explain anything to the child - the kid was on her own and one of the few chances she'd have for learning more would be to make friends with other kids who did work hard and were happy to help eachother learn. Jumping forward a few decades, my neighbors are immigrants from Vietnam. They're both well educated and they spend time teaching their daughter and giving her things to think about in addition to whatever school work she's got to do. It's not hard to imagine how one kid would have an advantage over the other.

  • Sigmund says:

    Perhaps Razib from Gene Expression could add something useful to this question. He's occasionally posted on topics of relevance to this particular discussion. One point of order might be the question of the religiosity of the participants. I think there are some data to suggest that (in contrast to most other communities) more religious members of the African American community tend to be more successful at school. However this religious subgroup also has the most fundamentalist teachings about science (rejecting evolution by a wide margin for instance and being distrusting of science in general
    From my own experience I never got the impression that it was a problem with ability, rather the problem was that science is not seen as a viable career choice (there is no great shortage of African American applicants for other difficult disciplines, just not academic science.)

  • zayzayem says:

    Student ability; interest; and engagement are three different (but interrelated factors).
    Teachers need to work on all three.
    A student may be very interested in wanting to learn science; but may not do well if they lack basic ability (and/or self-concept of ability), or if lessons do not engage them.

  • Raymond says:

    What about poor white girls from Boston's South Yard, or Detroit's Hamtramck, or West Virginian cities? Or Flint Michigan, or Toledo Ohio?
    Poor white trash still represent the majority of under $14 an hour workers in the U.S. today. The difference of course is that poor whites can easily segue into the crap jobs of small towns, suburbia and richie yuppy land far more easily than blacks, hispanics or asians. Where the hell do you think the mid-west rust-belt and new england white poor went? They went everywhere else, out west, down south, or they stayed at home.
    I admire Martin Luther King, he was slaughtered, not for exposing racism, but trying to reveal classism. The Memphis Garbage strick situation was just one of many where Dr. King spoke truth to power. He saw the real deal, that the majority of humans, irrespective of race, were playthings and popsicles to be slowly sucked dry for maximum enjoyment by the reigning psychopaths of this world.
    I beg, do not hang yourself up about race, (not that it hasn't had an enormous impact over the millenia) but look to who profits over suffering and poverty.

  • @MadScientist - for some of these girls, it was surprising how supportive and interested their families were. It might actually be something about ability or even a failing of the teacher to teach what's needed for the standardized tests. Future articles from these folks might say.
    @Sigmund - religiosity wasn't brought up in the article at all, but that also might be a marker of a more supportive community. WRT seeing scientist as a career choice - the authors definitely developed a profile from the study of girls who saw no future for themselves in science and didn't get any connection with their real life. Others, though, really got science as a process, were curious, and knew that they needed it to, say, become a veterinarian.
    @zayzayem exactly
    @Raymond - you don't know me, but I'm very concerned with rural students. They (like I, when I was in school) just don't have the teachers, the classes, the opportunities, the competition needed. BUT - this article is not about them and this is was an attempt to review an article!

  • Alpha says:

    I think this is all dumb I'm sick and tired of us being categorized as people that can't get anything done. Hey I am plenty into science and so was my sister before she was died so get off my nuts not our fault we went to a run down elementary school, I learn just fine with that crap room they called a library. I'm just as smart as any other, it's just I fought a lot. I didn't like how in high school whites saw me a delinquent that made it into honors class out of luck. Hold that cry me a river line because it's only funny when I can punch you. Not all researchers are skinny or overweight people that can't fight or look down on others some are born with nothing and work their way up. Criticize as you will but this this is me.

  • Jason Dick says:

    Well, hey, I now have a Ph.D. in physics and am working at my first postdoc, but I got a D in my first physics class in high school.
    Granted, I probably was one of the best students in that class as far as the exams were concerned. I was just really, really bad at doing any homework. At all.
    My problem was never one of ability, or interest, or understanding. It was always a problem of self-motivation: there was always something else that I'd rather be doing than homework. It's still something I struggle with.
    Fortunately I don't think these girls had to deal with any of that (at least not before college). They were in a nearly all-black school.

  • Bob Wilkerson says:

    Low socioeconomic status may or maynot have a major impact on the attitudes of African American and white girls towards science. After spending 6 weeks and 24 hours per day with nearly 200 females math and science campers of three different engineering camp structured programs; I can honestly say that attitude towards math and science is an essential factor. It really didn't matter whether the individuals came from a middle or low income environment. Their attitude towards applying math and science vary. It should be noted that some low socioeconomic status individuals out performance the middle to high class.
    How facilitators and mentors interact with low socioeconomic females have a major impact on their attitude. In sum, I have to agree from experience attitude does may a different in their approach towards science.