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Keywords:

  • gender;
  • females;
  • physics education;
  • identity;
  • survey;
  • career choice;
  • pedagogy

Abstract

This study explores how students' physics identities are shaped by their experiences in high school physics classes and by their career outcome expectations. The theoretical framework focuses on physics identity and includes the dimensions of student performance, competence, recognition by others, and interest. Drawing data from the Persistence Research in Science and Engineering (PRiSE) project, which surveyed college English students nationally about their backgrounds, high school science experiences, and science attitudes, the study uses multiple regression to examine the responses of 3,829 students from 34 randomly selected US colleges/universities. Confirming the salience of the identity dimension for young persons' occupational plans, the measure for students' physics identity used in this study was found to strongly predict their intended choice of a physics career. Physics identity, in turn, was found to correlate positively with a desire for an intrinsically fulfilling career and negatively with a desire for personal/family time and opportunities to work with others. Physics identity was also positively predicted by several high school physics characteristics/experiences such as a focus on conceptual understanding, real-world/contextual connections, students answering questions or making comments, students teaching classmates, and having an encouraging teacher. Even though equally beneficial for both genders, females reported experiencing a conceptual focus and real-world/contextual connections less frequently. The explicit discussion of under-representation of women in science was positively related to physics identity for female students but had no impact for male students. Surprisingly, several experiences that were hypothesized to be important for females' physics identity were found to be non-significant including having female scientist guest speakers, discussion of women scientists' work, and the frequency of group work. This study exemplifies a useful theoretical framework based on identity, which can be employed to further examine persistence in science, and illustrates possible avenues for change in high school physics teaching. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 47: 978–1003, 2010