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Developing a sustained interest in science among urban minority youth. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(3), 466-489

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Abstract

This study draws upon qualitative case study to investigate the connections between the “funds of knowledge” that urban, high-poverty students bring to science learning and the development of a sustained interest in science. We found that youth developed a sustained interest in science when: (1) their science experiences connected with how they envision their own futures; (2) learning environments supported the kinds of social relationships students valued; and (3) science activities supported students' sense of agency for enacting their views on the purpose of science. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 44: 466–489, 2007
JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING
Developing a Sustained Interest in Science among Urban Minority Youth
Sreyashi Jhumki Basu, Angela Calabrese Barton
Program in Science Education, Teachers College, Columbia University,
525 West 120th Street, New York, New York 10027, USA
Received 1 January 2005; Accepted 11 July 2005
Abstract: This study draws upon qualitative case study to investigate the connections between the
‘‘funds of knowledge’’ that urban, high-poverty students bring to science learning and the development of a
sustained interest in science. We found that youth developed a sustained interest in science when: (1) their
science experiences connected with how they envision their own futures; (2) learning environments
supported the kinds of social relationships students valued; and (3) science activities supported students’
sense of agency for enacting their views on the purpose of science. ß2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci
Teach
Many urban, low-income students describe science as a discipline that generates sentiments
such as boredom, anxiety, confusion, and frustration. One student in the after-school program
associated with this research study summarized his negative view of science by saying, ‘‘I don’t
want to be a scientist. I don’t like all of science. It’s about boring things.’’ Indeed, the rhetoric
surrounding science education in low-income urban communities in particular is that students do
not like science because it is not connected to their interests or experiences. Despite the prevalence
of this viewpoint, little research has been conducted on just how it is that ‘‘connections to personal
experience’’ might help to sustain a student’s interest in science.
Yet, those of us of who work in urban, low-income communities know that many students do,
in fact, develop sustained interest in science, although that interest is not always cultivated in
traditional venues like school science. For example, all of the students interviewed in this study
opted to participate in an after-school science program. One student in this study had an ongoing
commitment to building machines and robots. At home, another student improvised on science
activities that she had done in the after-school program and invented objects such as new types of
candy bars and tie-dye light bulbs. Another student enjoyed mixing chemicals together and
evaluating the results. A fourth young man in the after-school science program designed and built
his own action figures out of aluminum foil and sandwich ties.
Contract grant sponsor: National Science Foundation; Contract grant number: REC 0096032.
Correspondence to: S.J. Basu; E-mail: sjbasu@hotmail.com
DOI 10.1002/tea.20143
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).
ß2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
In light of the beliefs, actions, and experiences of the students just described, we chose to
explore answers to the following question: What are the connections between the funds of
knowledge a student brings to science learning and the development of his or her sustained interest
in science?
Conceptual Framework
‘Funds of Knowledge’
Science education researchers have argued that a ‘‘disconnect’’ between school and home /
community life may result in students feeling that science is impractical, alien, and in
contradiction with the beliefs and practices of their lives (Boullion & Gomez, 2001; Brickhouse,
1994). This ‘‘disconnect’’ may be one important reason that explains why many students do not
engage deeply in science. Researchers have found that this lack of connection especially
characterizes students’ experiences with school science, which has been documented to exclude
the lives of marginalized groups (Lee & Fradd, 1998). For example, many of the students
interviewed for this study envisioned the field of science as distant and inaccessible. They thought
of Einstein, lab coats, and goggles when asked about science. Without focused questioning, they
rarely mentioned their own activities or lives as examples of scientific work.
Many solutions to this gap between the world of science and the world of students have been
offered over the past two decades. For example, some researchers have proposed that students
need broader exposure to science mentors and role models who have backgrounds similar to them
(Rosser, 1997). Other researchers have argued that pedagogical strategies should be employed that
value different ways of knowing or being in the classroom, such as cooperation and multiple forms
of expression (Howes, 2002; Rosser, 1997; Roychoudhury, Tippins, & Nichols, 1995). For
example, Rosser (1997) described the need to develop female-friendly science, a six-stage process
to transform curriculum science instruction so it engages more women and men of color. Finally,
several researchers have focused on the role of grounding science instruction in students’ cultural
knowledge and experience as a strategy to make science instruction more multicultural (Atwater,
1996; Hammond, 2001).
Although researchers who have advocated the use of student experience in the science
classroom agree in principle that students’ experiences matter, research in this area highlights that
there are differences in opinion on the extent to which science instruction should be based on
students’ experiences, what counts as valid student experience in the science classroom, or how
teachers ought to be prepared to deal with the complex intersections between students’ cultural
experiences and the science curriculum of the classroom. Indeed, some researchers have argued
that drawing upon students’ home experiences is not enough unless one moves beyond the actual
experiences of students into how relationships are established between school and home, and how
the experiential knowledge of students is valued as part of the epistemological tradition of the
classroom. For example, Hammond (2001) explored why one of her student teachers, raised in a
family of horticulturalists, did not find science to be engaging, despite the clear connections
between gardening, agriculture, and biology. Hammond posed the following question as the
stimulus for her study: ‘‘Why has the link between [the teacher’s] deep knowledge of the natural
world and classroom science never been made?’’ (p. 984).
One particular avenue of research that explores the connection between students’ home
experiences and how experiential knowledge of students can be valued as part of the
epistemological tradition of the classroom is that of ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ (Gonzales & Moll,
2002). Gonzalez and Moll (2002) noted that ‘‘funds of knowledge is based on a simple
premise...that people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given
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them that knowledge’’ (p. 625). Funds of knowledge refer to the historical and cultural knowledge
of a community, such as the knowledge a young person might have about animals and plants in a
farming community. However, they also refer to experiences and knowledge that may be more
particular to a given family within the context of a community, such as knowledge a young person
might have about the care of the elderly from growing up in a family and community wherein
multiple generations live in close proximity. Furthermore, one’s funds of knowledge may be
evident in what one knows as well as in what one does. In other words, one’s disposition toward
being a particular way in a given situation can be an outgrowth of what one has learned to value in a
situation. For example, Gonzales and Moll (2002) argued that funds of knowledge are rooted in
practice—in what individuals and communities do and what they think about what they do. Funds
of knowledge therefore include knowledge, action, and disposition or habitus with a recognition of
how each of these domains are culturally constructed and refined.
What is most important about the concept of funds of knowledge is the recognition of the ways
in which the life experiences of an individual within a family or community yield knowledge that
is useful, powerful, and transferable. That is, funds of knowledge are not stereotypes about cultural
practices, but rather are the dynamic process of students’ lived experiences within a particular
family and community.
Incorporating ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ into learning environments captures the idea that
education should promote ‘‘social relations between schools and homes,’’ which in turn ‘‘establish
and maintain necessary trust among participants [keeping] the system active and useful’’
(Bouillion & Gomez, 2001, p. 894). These connections, established between school and home
through a ‘‘funds of knowledge lens,’’ are strategic for they incorporate not only what kinds of
knowledge are used at home but also how that knowledge is intentionally used toward a set of
greater goals or purposes (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzales, 1992; Moll & Gonzalez, 2002).
In other words, incorporation of ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ into academic instruction is grounded not
in a list of cultural experiences that demarcate one’s out-of-school life, but rather on strategic
knowledge and activities essential for achieving the goals a student has for his /her out-of-school
life.
The role of ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ in science teaching and learning has been explored in
several recent studies (Boullion & Gomez, 2001; Hammond, 2001; Seiler, 2001). Hammond
(2001) studied a garden project in which ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ from the community were used to
generate ‘‘science topics that have a natural significance’’ (p. 983). Her study revealed that ‘‘by
drawing on participants’ funds of knowledge, a new kind of multi-science can emerge, one
accessible to all collaborating members and responsive to school standards’’ (p. 983). Seiler’s
study (2001) examined how students utilized ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ to talk about science during a
lunch club. Her study showed both the breadth and the strength of the science knowledge held by
inner-city students.
These studies, situated in science education, revealed that utilizing students’ ‘‘funds of
knowledge’’ could enhance science engagement and learning in multiple ways. In fact, Bouillion
and Gomez (2001) argued that youth should feel that what they learn in school empowers them to
shape the communities and world in which they live. When students found education to be
empowering and transformative, they were likely to embrace and further investigate what they
were learning, instead of being resistant participants.
However, the studies just described only focused on science learning in the short term, such as
during a curricular unit or module in the science classroom. Upon looking at our data and
examining the literature in science education, as just described, we became curious about what
supported a student’s ‘‘sustained interest’’ in science. By sustained interest, we meant that students
might complete more than the task at hand in a classroom. We considered that youth exhibited a
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 3
Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI 10.1002/tea
sustained interest in or ‘‘enduring disposition’’ (Hansen, 1999, p. 399) toward science if they
pursued self-motivated science explorations outside the context of the classroom or used science
in an ongoing way to improve, expand, or enhance an exploration or activity to which they were
already deeply committed. We did not know how or to what extent understanding and using
students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ could help to establish a sustained interest in science. This study
hopes to fill this gap in understanding.
Methods
Critical Ethnography
We chose to conduct this study using a critical, ethnographic framework. Critical ethno-
graphy is a ‘‘methodology for conducting research focused on participatory critique, transfor-
mation, empowerment and social justice’’ (Calabrese Barton, 2001, p. 905). Critical ethnography
provides ‘‘a methodological framework to document, analyze and act on the discriminatory
practices supported by schooling (particularly urban schooling)’’ (Seiler, 2001, p. 1003).
We chose a critical ethnographic lens for three reasons. First, this methodology advocates
research for social change. Second, it positions knowledge construction as a socially, politically,
and culturally driven process (Calabrese Barton, 1998; Freire, 1970). Third, this perspective
supports in-depth and systemic investigations into individual and social contexts.
Research for social change. We view critical ethnography as a form of action research
because it focuses on research for social change. For this project, we both taught and interviewed
participating youth. In our interviews of youth, we specifically asked them about their experiences
in this after-school program and allowed our experience in the after-school program to shape our
research. For example, during an interview, when a student stated that he did not like writing in the
after-school science program because he wrote all day in school, we worked with him to find ways
in which he could record his observations after school in alternate ways (drawing, video-taping).
Knowledge as socially constructed. Hammond summarized a critical perspective on science
when she noted that ‘‘science [is] a human activity’’ (Hammond, 2001, p. 986) shaped by cultures
and personalities. Calabrese Barton and Zacharia (2003) summarized a critical view on school
science by writing that ‘scientific knowledge is a human-made explanation of how the world
works and therefore scientific knowledge is embedded with human values and characteristics.’
This kind of critical theory perspective challenges the notion of science as an objective discipline
and, instead, suggests that it can include many perspectives and understandings. This perspective,
therefore, argues against a positivist approach in which student failure reflects an inability to grasp
objective truths. Instead, ‘‘the failures of students who are female or of color [or in another
minority group] can be understood as students’ struggles to understand, gain access to, and find
relevance in the culture of science as framed by school’’ (Bouillion & Gomez, 2001, p. 881).
Thus, in our study, instead of simply viewing youth disenchantment with science as a failure
on the part of a student to comprehend and utilize a set of truths, we have examined how
engagement is related to whether science activates students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’—their
interests, experiences, and beliefs. This study postulates that disengagement with science cannot
be explained solely by inadequacies in learners. Instead, part of the problem may be that the
science material and skills that students are expected to learn may not be accessible or relevant
through the cultural frameworks that guide student experience in science.
An in-depth, systemic perspective. In designing our critical ethnography, we utilized a life
history approach to conducting our interviews and observations. As Muchmore (2001) suggested,
one of the primary goals of life history research is to understand ‘‘from the perspective of an
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insider looking around, and not from that of an outsider looking in’’ (p. 89). In the spirit of a life
history approach to research, we asked youth about their families, schooling, friendships, personal
philosophies, interests, and in-school and out-of-school science experiences. We also observed
them in in-school and out-of-school contexts and examined student work. From this material, we
were able to develop portraits, which summarized key issues and experiences in the lives of the
youth we interviewed.
Data Generation
The primary context for our study was an after-school program focused on invention and
exploration. We relied on the after-school program as a setting through which we could stay true to
one of the goals of critical ethnography—that youths’ lives should shape the research agenda and
day-to-day interactions. By interacting with us extensively in the after-school program, the youth
developed such strong relationships with us that they often felt comfortable vocalizing thoughts
that influenced our research agenda. For example, they discussed what science topics they felt
were worth exploring, how they viewed productive after-school teacher student relationships,
and their ideas for how we could best document their stories.
We also wanted to work in settings in which students had some ‘‘control’’ over their own
work; this was another reason for the development of the after-school program. Also, we felt that
the after-school program would offer students an unusual learning environment, which, combined
with their school experiences, would provide them with a broad range of science learning contexts
from which to develop a vision of an ideal science experience.
For this study, we relied primarily on three forms of data: reflection notes and participant
observation; interviews; and collection of student work (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Each method is
described in what follows.
Reflection notes and participant observations. Subsequent to after-school sessions and days
spent shadowing each youth featured in this study during his / her school day, we wrote reflective
summaries of our observations. These observations included descriptions of studentteacher and
interyouth interactions, of how curriculum was enacted in the classroom, of student engagement,
and of student comments about their classrooms and social contexts. Each case-study student
presented in this investigation was observed in school science at least once every 2 weeks, over the
course of 4 months. Each student was also the focus of after-school reflection notes multiple times
during the school year.
Interviews. We conducted four video-taped interviews with each student participant, each
lasting about 3045 minutes. The interviews focused on in-school science, after-school science,
relationships in in- and after-school science, and self-awareness (see Table 1). Although we
developed an extensive interview protocol in each of these four areas, interviews were open- ended
and conversational. Because we were attempting to develop rich, meaningful portraits of the
students, we often asked them to elaborate and expand on their answers.
Student work. Over the course of the year, we collected many artifacts from students: their
science binders and worksheets from in-school and after-school, and projects from any discipline
in which they took pride. We interviewed students about the work they chose to share with us and,
through these conversations, developed a sense of why students felt strong positive feelings about
particular endeavors.
Participant selection. The students interviewed in this study chose to participate in an
after-school science program, which was open to sixth and seventh grade students from the
‘high-achieving’’ sections of these grades. The choice of ‘‘high-achievement’’ students was
not ours; instead, the school wanted us to offer the science program only to those students.
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 5
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Table 1
Summary of and motivations for interview protocol
I. In-School/ After-School
Science II. Relationships III. Self-Awareness
We used these questions twice—
first to explore youth ideas about
science class in school and then
with a focus on after-school
This section was designed to
find out about the important
relationships in students’ lives
We used this section to
understand how students see
themselves as able to make
changes in their lives
1. Tell me a story about your
science teacher and a story
about your science class.
1. Who are your best friends in
school? What kinds of things
do you do together in school?
How would you describe your
friends? How do you think
your friends would describe
you?
1. Tell me about what you want
to do when you grow up.
2. If you could do anything in
the world in science class
what would you want to do?
2. Who are your best friends in
after-school science? Are
these the same as during
school? Why/why not? Are
these the same as when you
just hang out in your neigh-
borhood?
2. If you had to list all of the
steps you have to take to be
that person when you grow
up, what would those steps
be (i.e., go to high school,
etc.). Have the student list
the steps. Ask the student to
star the most important
steps—why are these most
important?
3. How important is your science
class to you?
3. Tell me about a really good
time you had with your
friends (either in school or
after-school) and a really bad
time. What made it fun? How
did your friends make you
feel? What did they do?
3. How do you think being a
student at your school and at
after-school helps or hurts
your chances to be X when
you grow up?
4. Who are your best friends in
your science class? What are
some things you do together
in science class? What are
some things that you wish you
could do together but you
cannot?
4. Which teachers and adults do
you think have had a big
impact on you (either in
school or after school)? Why?
Would you describe any of
the adults at this school as a
role model for you? Which
ones? Why? Why not?
What does it take for someone
to be role model for you at
school?
4. How do the people in your
family and neighborhood help
you in school? How do they
help you with your plans for
when you grow up? Do the
people in your family/neigh-
borhood ever make it harder
for you to do well in school?
5. Does everybody in your
science class get an equal
chance to do things?
5. When do you feel like you
have a lot of power with your
friends? In school?
5. What kinds of things
(resources) do you think you
will need to meet your goal?
6. Do you feel like you have a
say in what happens in your
science class?
6. Tell me about a time when
your parent helped you out
with school.
6. How do you think race
matters in your school
experience?
(Continued )
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High-achieving meant that the students were tracked into the top section for their grade; these
sections were the only ones in the school with students who performed at grade level on reading
and math tests.
1
The after-school program, which met two afternoons per week, focused on an ‘‘invention’
theme for the first semester and an ‘environment’’ theme for the second semester. As part of the
program, we took field trips to locations such as Central Park and the Museum of Natural History.
Reverse engineering, creating and using natural dyes, investigating bacteria, and making student
films were four projects about which the students expressed excitement.
During the second semester of the after-school program, we purposefully selected 11 of 20
after-school students with whom to conduct in-depth life history interviews. Youth were selected
based on regular attendance in the after-school program, the strength of the relationship we had
established with the student, the comfort we felt conversing with the student, and our interest in
collecting a broad range of opinions of and interests in science and schooling.
Data Analysis
All data were transcribed and coded to develop themes connecting students’ life histories and
‘funds of knowledge’’ with their science experiences. To analyze data, we turned to the principles
of grounded theory. When we first looked at our data, we were not certain of the framework we
would use. We began coding the data along several trees, three of the most important being:
(1) What excited or motivated students about science (in general)? (2) What specific projects or
activities seemed most meaningful to students? (3) How do students describe science? From these
three initial coding trees, we worked through two stages of coding: open and axial. By completing
these two stages of coding, we were able to label and categorize information, link ideas, and
develop a theory that encompassed what we consider to be main connections in our data. It was
from this process of establishing relationships (axial coding) within and across the three trees that
we began to notice how a ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ framework might be beneficial in further
analyzing our data. We then turned to the literature on ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ and used key
constructs from it (i.e., what cultural experiences do students have or care about?) to further
Table 1
(Continued)
I. In-School/After-School
Science II. Relationships III. Self-Awareness
We used these questions twice—
first to explore youth ideas about
science class in school and then
with a focus on after-school
This section was designed to
find out about the important
relationships in students’ lives
We used this section to
understand how students see
themselves as able to make
changes in their lives
7. Do you think you are a
scientist? Do you ever feel
like a scientist in school?
What would it take for you to
feel like a scientist in school?
7. What are some things in your
life that make it hard to
succeed in school? What are
some things you have done to
try to work around those
things?8. Do you have any rules that
you have to follow in science
class? What are these rules?
Which ones do you agree with,
and why? Which ones do you
disagree with, and why? Who
made them up?
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 7
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selectively code and organize our data. The major ideas, then, that emerged from the data analysis
involved the connections between incorporating students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ into a science
learning environment and their sustained interest in science.
In making the decision to label an experience that a student spoke about as scientific, we relied
on three criteria. First, we acknowledged as ‘‘science experiences’’ those situations that a teacher
at the Javits Middle School believed to be science. Second, we recorded, as ‘‘science
experiences,’’ instances in which a student labeled an activity as science, even if it did not
originate in ‘‘school science.’’ Third, we sometimes classified a situation as a ‘‘science
experience,’’ despite the fact that teachers and youth did not explicitly describe it as such. We made
this choice if a student talked about the process of science—exploring questions by
experimenting, or observing, collecting, and interpreting data—or if a student discussed science
content—astronomy, engineering, anatomy, and more.
When we first examined the data, we tried to identify science experiences that were ‘‘exciting,
memorable, and inspiring’’ to students. Within this category of ‘‘exciting, memorable, and
inspiring,’’ we classified science experiences that students considered enjoyable (fun! cool!, etc.),
useful/applicable to real-life, or a catalyst for a long-term interest in science. Also, under the
umbrella of ‘‘exciting, memorable, and inspiring,’’ we included: (1) science learning contexts that
inspired curiosity and exploration; and (2) science experiences that students could look back on
and still visualize in detail. Many experiences that students discussed in their interviews or that we
observed fell under several of these categories.
Beyond being enthusiastic about a single science experience or finding a certain lesson to be
memorable, some youth seemed to have or develop an ongoing, sustained relationship with
science, through a particular topic or process. As we read through the transcripts, observations, and
student work we had collected, we became interested in how these sustained interests evolved.
Context
Youth interviewed in this study attended the Javits Middle School,
2
located in a large urban
center in the northeastern United States. The school was situated in a diverse neighborhood, where
residents were primarily of African American, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and other Latino origins.
The streets were filled with clothing stores, boutiques with posters of women with hair braided in a
variety of styles, crammed grocery stores, car repair shops, affordable restaurants, and apartment
buildings. Vendors sold ice cream on the streets. At the corner of the school’s cross-streets was a
Christian church with signs that promised clothing to the homeless. Across the road from the
school was a small taqueria where students, teachers, and the authors of this study often ate. Small
streets that ran through the neighborhood, particularly a walkway up a nearby hill, were filled with
trash, dog excrement, and glass. Music often blared from car radios.
Buses ran frequently in the neighborhood, but yellow cabs were difficult to find. An over-
ground subway train was a block away from the school, and an underground subway was only a
few blocks farther. Often, men sat unoccupied at benches outside the nearby subway station. The
underground subway station was clean and looked new; it contained a mural of the view one might
see while traveling aboard the over-ground subway. From the over-ground subway, we could see
the tops of apartment buildings. Many of the roofs were covered with graffiti. We could also spot
areas reserved for the disposal of spare tires and used car parts.
The Javits Middle School was housed in a new building with high ceilings in the ground floor,
an auditorium, and space for the display of student work. A grand piano, which we never
heard played by a student, was at the entryway, and a large cafeteria marked the center of the
ground floor. In our observations, we noted: ‘‘The school facilities are new, spacious, clean,
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orderly, and sometimes offer students and teachers significant resources. The school houses the
district sciencetechnology center that contains science texts, software, and supplies, such as
dissecting microscopes and rock samples. The building has stained glass windows, an auditorium,
large exhibits of student work, a teacher development office, and a well-organized library.
The Javits School served a predominantly low-income community, with over 90% of the
students receiving free or reduced lunch. It also served a significant minority community, with
65% of the students from Latino backgrounds (mainly Dominican and Puerto Rican), and 35% of
the students African American. For more data on Javits School, see Table 2. The school celebrated
the ethnic heritage of their students through posters that hung on the walls, cultural events, and a
collection of readings in the library.
The Javits School was also identified as a ‘‘poorly performing school,’’due to low test scores
in math and literacy. In response to pressure from state educational exams, the school focused on
literacy and mathematics. Science and social studies were low priorities at the school . In the year in
which the students were interviewed, middle school students had specialist science and math
teachers. Now the grades are self-contained, and very little time is spent on science. Nevertheless,
because the school houses the district science office, teachers had an opportunity to work with the
district science representative on science curriculum or brought their students to the district
science lab space, so the students could do hands-on experiments.
Despite the school’s ‘‘poor performance,’’ the conflict observed between students and
teachers, and what seemed to be a culture of underachievement, some students were motivated and
interested in learning. For example, we met Josue
´while he was reading about the relationship
between the embryonic development time of animals and their life-spans. He hoped to attend a
selective high school after middle school, and talked about the importance of reading additional
science books to get ahead.
Table 2
Javits middle school data summary (New York City Public Schools, 2001–2002).
School Data
Test scores for grades
3to8
English and Language Arts,
approximately 20% of students
met grade-level standards;
approximately 35% were far
below standard
Mathematics, approximately 10% of
students met grade-level standards;
approximately 50% were far below
standard
Population (2001– 2
Annual Report)
Total ¼2000 students
400 English-language learners
200 full-time special education
100 part-time special education
Average class size approximately
22 students
Race:
One-third African-American
Two-third Hispanic
Other <1%
Gender: even
90% students eligible for free lunch;
The school spent approximately
$9000 per student per year
Teachers (2001–2
Annual Report)
100 teachers; 20 administrators;
10 education paraprofessionals
50% of teachers fully licensed and
permanently assigned to the school;
60% of the teachers had a master’s
degree or higher; 40% had >2 years
of teaching experience at the school;
30% had >5 years teaching
experience anywhere
a
a
All numbers are rounded to protect the identity of the school.
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 9
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Findings
In presenting our findings, we first share the portraits of three students (Neil, Anna, and Omar)
and follow these portraits with a discussion of three cross-cutting themes that framed the students’
sustained interest in science: (1) connecting to the future; (2) supporting social relationships; and
(3) supporting agency. Each life-history portrait summarizes the student’s background and future
goals, his or her experiences both in- and after-school, and his/ her descriptions of science.
Drawing from their life history portraits we are able to situate our ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ claims in
a deeply contextual manner, adding both depth and rigor to our analysis. We should note, however,
that the three case studies presented serve only as exemplars and were selected because the stories
reflect the range of experiences and beliefs in the larger data set. However, to demonstrate that our
claims extend beyond these three students, we also weave in data from the other youth studied in
less contextualized ways.
Neil
Background. Neil lived with his mother, father, and three brothers. Neil’s mother worked in
the school cafeteria as an aide and in the main office to supervise students after school until their
parents arrived to pick them up. Neil’s family provided him with experiences to engage in science-
related activities. Neil mentioned that he went to the Poconos and to the zoo with his family, both of
which were memorable to him. His family also provided him with materials to make action figures
and to sketch cartoons. Neil said that he ordered ‘‘stuff from commercials or TV. I just [told] my
family.’ They also provided him with a space at home where he could spread out his materials and
work in quiet.
Neil looked to his older brother, Alfredo, for inspiration, particularly because his brother was
interested in drawing and comic-making. Alfredo inspired Neil to be an artist, because, according
to Neil, Alfredo was a good artist: ‘‘The first time I saw him draw, I just really wanted to draw
‘cause I saw how great it looked. I thought I could be like that. I thought I could get good.’’ As an
adult, Neil hoped to work with his brother drawing comics. Neil also hoped that his personal life
could be like his brother’s. He felt that his brother had ‘‘a good life. Everything balanced and
nothing that much wrong...He’s plann[ed] everything out.’
At home, Neil worked mostly alone but accepted feedback from Alfredo and praise from his
mother. He said, ‘‘I like working on my own, choosing my own project. It’s kind of fun, makes me
feel important. It’s all up to me. I have to do it, and when I’m done, I’m happy I did it.’’ When he
described the ‘‘zoid’’ that he brought in to show me, he said, ‘‘I did it by myself. I thought it would
be good for me to do something by myself. I’m proud of myself and happy.’’ During Neil’s final
interview, he showed me a bionic man that he had built. He talked with great pride about his
accomplishment of building this figure alone.
School and after-school. Neil was a seventh grade student at the Javits Middle School. He had
attended the school since he was in kindergarten and lived nearby. His younger brother, a third
grader, attended the same school. Neil brought his younger brother to the after-school program a
few times. The two boys walked home together. Sometimes their older brother met them.
When he was interviewed, Neil primarily spent time with his friend, Gabriel, within and
outside class. For example, in their seventh-grade science class, Neil and Gabriel always sat
together and helped each other. They often ignored conversations, disagreements, and games that
were taking place between other students in class. They completed assignments, projects, and
experiments together. In after-school, Neil and Gabriel worked on all their projects together,
although they divided tasks. Neither boy seemed comfortable with his peers. For example, Neil
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and Gabriel refused to present their drawings, observations, video, and models of fish anatomy in
their classroom because they anticipated ridicule.
Definitions of science. Neil felt that people must ‘‘touch things, find out why, and ask
questions’’ to be scientists. He clearly stated in several interviews that he preferred to approach
science through ongoing projects and hands-on activities, over which he had control. Neil
believed that actively using one’s senses to observe and one’s mind to analyze a situation were
essential parts of a science experience. ‘‘Doing things with ice and touching it with metal’’ and
‘taking the metal and touching it and hearing the noise’’ made him feel like a scientist. He also
enjoyed his experiences building a robot and dissecting and observing a fish to learn about its
parts.
Neil described science as the ‘‘the solving of mysteries, like about living things, why an
animal will do something, why it would die in a certain place.’’ When he dissected fish, he
described his work as scientific because he was ‘‘finding out something that no else knows about
the fish.’
Neil also wanted to have control over the science projects he pursued—he felt engaged with
science when he could decide the goals and process of his projects, as in the case of ‘‘zoids’’ and
robots he built. In Neil’s vision of science, a scientist, even a young student, was to control the
direction of the project or experiment.
Anna
Background. Anna was an only child. She was close to her mother and thought of her mother
as her role model: ‘‘My mother started a flowering business, she sells flowers, and some of her
customers don’t have much money to pay for flowers, so she gives them to them for free. And she’s
always helping people, stuff like that.’
Anna also admired her mother because she ‘‘just enjoy[ed] her life. She live[d] her life like it’s
her last. She just [went] all out for me, ha[d] fun.’’ Anna valued this spirit in her mother and, in the
conclusion of her last interview with me, chose this idea as the one important thing she would like
people to know about her: ‘‘I want to enjoy everyday as if it was my last.
To make herself and others laugh, Anna said that she had ‘‘done crazy stunts’’since when she
was a little girl. For example, she thought that her cousins would describe her as ‘‘Hilarious ‘cause
I always [did] stunts to make them laugh. Last time I was in the house, my older cousin had broken
a glass of tomatoes, and they dared me to walk in it, and I did it. And they laugh[ed].’
Although Anna spent time with several people in her family, particularly her cousin, Anna’s
mother was the family member most actively involved in Anna’s science projects. She bought
supplies for the natural tie-dye, the Annarbar (a new kind of candy bar that Anna invented), and a
food pyramid project. She contributed the idea of the Annarbar and the three-dimensional
construction for the food pyramid. Anna’s mother was also committed to investing in Anna’s
financial future—she saved money in a bank for Anna’s college expenses.
Anna mentioned her biological father as ‘‘one person I never really got to know, to speak with
‘cause my father [didn’t] live with me.’’ Although Anna did not know her father well, she did not
want to change this situation—‘‘I think that it’s better for me to stay far from him...so I just see
him once in a while. I just like hanging out with my mom.’’
Anna believed that being ‘‘Rich or poor [didn’t] matter,’’ but said that her peers use poverty as
an excuse to make fun of people. Anna used a specific example of a student in her class: ‘‘In class,
people [made] fun of people. [They] should [have] stop[ped]. They talk[ed] about Katina, how she
smel[t] like fish. This ma[de] her cry. People [did] it because they want[ed] attention. They [told]
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jokes and pick[ed] on her because her mother [did] not let her wear regular clothes. So what Katina
[did] is that a friend of hers gave her two pairs of jeans and [left] them in locker. Giving her jeans
[was] helpful even if people [thought] it’s nasty.’’
Anna, a regular churchgoer, chose ‘‘polluting, littering, violence, people dying everyday,
robberies, and fighting’’ as the major problems in her world. She particularly remembered an
incident in which there was a ‘‘boy with gun near my building chasing another boy. By accident,
the gun went off, a few blocks down. The boy got killed. He was buried near the bushes because the
teenager shot him.’
Anna hoped to grow up and become a doctor because she ‘‘like[d] helping people help
themselves and stay healthy.’’ To become a doctor, she planned to apply to Stuyvesant and
Brooklyn Tech, both highly selective, science-oriented schools, despite the fact that no one from
her school had ever been accepted at either of these high schools. Anna had a set of ideas regarding
what would make her able to reach her goal of having a ‘‘successful life.’’ She said that she
‘‘definitely want[ed] to go to school, stay in school, stay straight, don’t curve, don’t make, no, try
not to make mistakes, don’t make hang out with too much bad crowds because that’s really going
to mess you up.’
Anna was interested in nutrition because she felt that an understanding of this topic would
help her stay healthy and active throughout her life. She said, ‘‘I learn[ed] to respect my body, and
to give it good nutrients.’
School and after-school. Anna was a sixth grade student at the Javits Middle School. Her
favorite class was science. She liked her homeroom teacher but she wished the school and teachers
were more strict with ‘‘bad’’ students. She felt that many of the students in her school were
disruptive, and this, in turn, limited the opportunities she had to do the things she liked in class—
experiments, field trips, and ‘‘fun activities.’
Anna had a mixed-gender group of friends at school, although, in her discussions, she often
referred to work, conversations, and fun with her female friends. Occasionally, Anna’s group of
female friends experienced conflict—for example, when Anna was making the Annarbar, she felt
that two of her friends tried to ‘‘steal’’ her ideas and ingredients. But this conflict passed, and Anna
said that the girls were ‘‘friends again.’’
Anna was involved in many after-school activities—she played the violin, participated on the
cheerleading team, and attended the after-school science program. Sometimes these activities
overlapped, and she was forced to make choices when she, instead, would have ‘‘like[d] to do
everything.’’ Anna was particularly excited about playing the violin. She reported her favorite
pieces: ‘‘‘Amazing Grace,’ the ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ Hispanic songs, this song called ‘Minuet in
G.’’’ In addition to performing on the violin for us, Anna also brought her teddy bear (DM) to
school, so that we could meet him. She said, ‘‘I hug him if I feel alone or tired or scared. His
birthday is the same day as mine.’
Definitions of science. Anna felt like a scientist ‘‘every time I [got] it right. So when I know
stuff, I [felt] like a scientist.’’ She considered science class to be her favorite ‘‘because everyday I
learn[ed] new things that I didn’t know.’’ Anna associated science with ‘‘discovery and
exploration.’’ She said that science felt ‘‘like discovery, let’s say you didn’t know something
like blood cells, and I learn[ed] it, it [felt] like discovery to know it. And science is usually
about discovery when I put myself in that kind of position.’’ She also said that ‘‘Experimenting
and inventing are the most important part of science like making light bulbs, televisions, hot
combs.’’ Anna’s interest in exploration resurfaced when she explained that if she could be any
kind of animal, she would be a spider because it can ‘‘go places and explore stuff. If I were to be
an ant or a spider I would be able to go places where people can’t really go so check it out, so
that’s cool.’’
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Finally, Anna viewed invention as a key component of science, and her definition of invention
was again tied to personal creativity and usefulness. She described her desire to invent a candy bar
as a science project—even when she received criticism from her peers for it not being scientific—
because ‘‘they were inventing a new chocolate, including its name and ingredients,’’ a creative
project that was useful and enjoyable to people.
Omar
Background. Omar lived with his mother and little brother. Omar’s mother and father were
divorced, and his mother had a boyfriend who lived with the family. Omar’s mother was his role
model. He considered her to be his ‘‘character education teacher.’’ Omar also heeded the advice of
his grandmother, who lived in another borough of the city. He said that ‘‘If I get in trouble or
something, I can always go to her; she’ll always be there.’’
Omar said that his neighborhood ‘‘is the worst. Bad people—they might go somewhere
without their mom’s or guardian’s permission. They might beat up someone for no reason.’’ Omar
experienced and observed racism in his neighborhood. He said, ‘‘People might come up to each
other and say, ‘Hey you ugly black person. I don’t like you ‘cause you’re black and everything.’’’
Omar felt afraid in his neighborhood. He said, ‘‘I want to move. It’s a very, very bad neighborhood.
People are getting killed. People are getting shot or raped.... My neighborhood hurts me from
achieving my goals.’
Omar believed that learning is essential for the future he desires. Although he enjoyed videos
and television, he limited how much of these he watched because he did not want to ‘‘spoil [his]
brain.’’ He had already begun saving money for college. Although he expressed interest in many
different careers (oceanographer, pediatrician, or computer technician), his goal was to pursue a
science-related career. Omar was aware of the schooling required for each of these positions and
the importance of experience in each of these to gain formal entry into these professions. For
example, Omar said, ‘‘I’m already learning to take care of my brother when he’s sick.’’ He
believed that his experience at home taking care of younger siblings was training for becoming a
doctor.
School and after-school. Omar spent time with his school friends outside of school. He
‘like[d] to hang out with friends, go to the park or the video arcade.’’ Omar enjoyed spending time
with these students because they were ‘‘fun to be around, funny, crazy.’’ Omar said that his friends
described him as ‘‘Tall and skinny. Glasses. Part-crazy, part-not crazy...silly for a brief moment.’
Science was Omar’s favorite class in school because he built things and found out how things
work. Omar believed that material he learned in science class was useful to him. He said, ‘‘we do
the things we want to do when we grow up like when we study water. We know what’s under the
water, what’s dangerous and what’s not, what’s harmful and what’s not.’’ Omar also enjoyed after-
school science and hoped that it would happen again the following year. According to Omar,
during after-school, students ‘‘learn[ed] stuff, then [got] to do projects on [their] own, [got] to
decide stuff.... It [was] not so fun [at first], but at the end you learn[ed] something that you [didn’t]
even know.’
Omar pursued several interests outside of school, specifically sports, computers, and reading.
He said, ‘‘I love basketball, and I’m tall enough to play, and it’s fun to play.’’ Omar wanted to learn
about how computers work because then he could design a computer system customized to his
interests. He enjoyed Harry Potter books, adventure stories, and cartoons such as The Magic
Schoolbus.
Definitions of science. Omar described a scientist as an explorer and as a person who broke
new ground in solving important problems. In Omar’s mind, a scientist ‘‘find[s] out how to make
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stuff, look[s] under microscopes, find[s] new viruses that may attack and make[s] vaccines for
them, or invent[s] new stuff that just might help the environment.’’ Omar enjoyed science because
‘‘in science, not math and literacy, you get to build stuff and find out how stuff works. Like it’s fun,
after you learn all about it, you get to experiment with it.’’ The opportunity to experiment, to find
out what one wants to know, was a crucial feature of enjoyable science for Omar.
Omar imagined that he would feel more like a scientist if his class more closely resembled the
sciencetechnology center housed in his school, where the after-school science program took
place. Omar identified the particular features of the room that he would like to reproduce. First, he
focused on the protected space he wanted allocated to each student. Second, Omar said that
he liked having materials and resources available in the room in which he worked—he said, ‘‘I like
the fact that the balance scales are in here and the microscopes and plenty of other books that can
help you do research in here and laptops.’
Discussion of Cross-Cutting Themes: Links Between ‘‘Funds of Knowledge’
and a Sustained Interest in Science
Cutting across these cases were three themes that we believed highlighted a connection
between the students’ funds of knowledge and their sustained interest in science. Figure 1 is a
graphical representation of how we envision this connection.
In what follows we develop each theme, drawing upon detailed examples from each of the
cases to describe the theme and to draw out different nuances in how the themes played out among
the students.
Connecting With Students’ Visions of Their Future
First, we found that a strong connection existed between a sustained interest in science and
authentic opportunities for students to develop skills that advanced them toward their visions of
their own futures, which includes both personal and professional desires. These ‘‘visions of the
future’’ fell under the category of youths’ funds of knowledge because they reflected beliefs that
students had about their own interests and presented goals toward which they could direct
themselves by strategically building skills and knowledge.
For example, Neil wanted to be a cartoon artist when he grew up. His brother was an artistand
the skills he possessed were highly valued by Neil and his family for the ways in which they helped
his brother command respect within their community. Although professional art was not a career
option pursued by many close to Neil, a close look around the neighborhood showed the value of
art in everyday life. For example, intricately detailed graffiti and other forms of street art were on
subway platform walls and sides of buildings.
A close look at Neil’s story shows that he appreciated science when it helped him develop
ideas for cartoons and allowed him to build his characters that operated in realistic ways. Neil
believed in science knowledge as a starting point for his ideas for cartoons. He used science in his
cartoons to develop characters and scenarios that bridged reality and imagination. Neil described
how learning about the possible melting of the polar ice caps due to the ozone hole helped him
develop ‘‘a character that comes from water...and takes over the planet.’’ He also expressed
distaste for nonrealistic cartoons, citing an experience when the motion of the Road Runner in
Loony Tunes was not realistic. Science informed Neil’s cartoons so that they reflected reality in the
ways that Neil considered important. Because Neil connected what he was learning in science
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class to a discipline that was his passion and that he wanted to pursue as a career, science served a
purpose in his life. What he learned in science could be shaped to enhance his sketches and
cartoons, to make them grounded in reality but also creative.
Furthermore, Neil actively transformed science experiences to build on his interest in
cartooning and action figures. For example, for his invention project, Neil built a robot-toy called a
‘zoid’’ about which he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He explained its many parts, how the
parts were held together, and what the robot could do. He hoped to build many more ‘‘zoids’’ and
imagined robot-building to be an ongoing hobby of his because ‘‘robots move[d], instead of
regular toys, which just st[oo]d there.’
Neil was often quiet in science class, choosing to work alone or only with one partner.
However, one experience that stood out was when Neil and his group designed a machine so that
when a person pulled a lever, this motion would set off a chain reaction, resulting in food being
dropped. Even though the machine did not work as he had hoped, Neil clearly explained how the
machine parts should have worked together to accomplish their task. He also provided a detailed
explanation of how he could improve the machine, given time and opportunity. Once again, Neil
was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a science project because it connected to his long-term
aspirations.
shaped
Science Learning Environments
When Funds of Knowledge
(strategic interests, beliefs and experiences)
youth developed a
Sustained Interest in Science
as evidenced by
Students’ visions of the future Student agency for enacting their views
on the purposes of science
How students value relationships
Self-motivated science
explorations outside the context
of the classroom
Using science in an ongoing way to
improve, expand or enhance an
exploration or activity to which they
were already deeply committed.
Figure 1. Connections between a student’s funds of knowledge and a sustained interest in science.
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Neil’s good friend, Gabriel, regularly expressed a passion for designing and building models
and for pursuing a career in art and model-making. Gabriel identified his favorite book as ‘‘the
Animorph series. It’s about these kids who turn into animals.’ His interest in changing materials
from one form to another recurred in his interviews. For example, when asked what type of science
equipment he would like to be, he talked about wanting to be ‘‘A pipe cleaner that can be bent
around, things can be made out of it.’’ When asked about a project he would like to pursue in
science class, he said ‘‘Making an action figure. It would have parts; it would have hands; it would
move without breaking. I would move arms and legs.’’ He talked enthusiastically about his Rube
Goldberg machine that he built in response to an assignment from a visiting student teacher. He
says that he ‘‘forgot everything else in science besides this machine.’’ Gabriel had built ‘‘10 to 100
models’’ at home, by the time of his interview for this study.
From his attendance, punctuality, and diligent work until the very last minutes of after-school,
we believe that Gabriel valued the time he spent in after school science. Our program provided him
with access to materials, protected time to work on his models, and the opportunity for occasional
guidance when he got stuck. Gabriel seemed engaged in after-school science and in science
projects in school when he could connect his work in these arenas to his passion for model-
building.
Anna’s sustained interest in science reflected her admiration of the caring role that the women
played in her family and in her community and her own desire to care for others through helping to
create a healthy lifestyle. Anna viewing caring as a central ‘‘fund of knowledge’’ resonates well
with other studies in urban education, all of which demonstrate the vital role that caring plays
among African American women in the inner-city community (e.g., Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002).
Anna’s talk about her favorite lab equipment reflected her interest in health, such as when she used
a microscope to learn about her body, by looking at saliva, hair structure, and germs, or when she
learned about the food pyramid.
Yet, like Neil, Anna expressed more than simply ‘‘liking’’ those activities that connected to
her future vision of herself. She seemed to transform the science activities at hand (whether she
was expected to or not) around who she was and wanted to be. She also invested time and energy in
them beyond what was required in the classroom.
For example, when Anna and her group were working on their invention, Anna’s group went
through many class meetings of turmoil because the group could not decide what to invent. There
had also been friendship fall-outs in the class, and Anna had spent time building alliances and
allowing new members to join her group. The flexibility of the assignment allowed students to
manage project time to some degree, and to Anna, establishing a strong, happy group was
important to her. When her group finally stabilized she led her group to invent a new kind of candy
bar that was healthy yet tasty. Her group devised recipes based on health criteria such as fat and
sugars, but also based on surveyed student likes and dislikes along several criteria such as taste and
texture. Her group tested out many formulations for their candy bar both at home on their own time
and in the classroom and, in the end, made a candy bar that Anna shared with all members of the
class.
Anna’s story is interesting because it shows that when youth envision their futures, they think
of more than careers. They have goals for personal skills they want to cultivate, such as caring and
alliance-building. Furthermore, Anna and her friend, Maria, not only wanted to be doctors, but
also imagined themselves leading a healthy life, eating a nutritious diet, and teaching others to do
the same. For example, Anna felt like a scientist when she used the knowledge she acquired in
science class to teach her cousin about what junk food to avoid. Anna even wanted to utilize
science for caring about people she did not know personally. She wanted to transfer the
information she learned from constructing a food pyramid to people who might benefit from an
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increased awareness of good nutrition habits. For example, Anna said, ‘‘I’d study [the food
pyramid] because people eat too much junk food and don’t want to take care of their bodies. They
would listen to me, and they would not get sick and tired, and they’d be healthy and live longer
because if you’re young and you’re healthy, you’ll live longer.’’
Maria also wanted to become a pediatrician because she could be useful to people and help
them. She was particularly interested in science activities that moved her toward those goals: for
example, she wanted to ‘‘scratch [a toothpick] on the inside of our cheek, whatever was scratched
off with a Q-tip, we would look at it under the microscope.’’ This shared interest is one of the
reasons why Anna and Maria so often worked together in class.
Ideal science situations, for Maria and Anna, were not just those that allowed them to find out
something new or to experiment. Rather, an integral part of a positive science experience involved
developing the skills to take care of oneself and help others.
Maria, like Anna, felt that science was useful if it assisted them in caring for people. Caring for
people was a consistent theme that framed the futures of all of the girls in our study. For example,
Lia wanted to be a teacher one day so that she could ‘‘take care’’ of young people and make school
a place that was safe and meaningful. She constantly sought ways to make her projects more
relevant to the group of peers she was working with rather than just herself because she felt that
meeting the needs of the whole group was more important than just herself. This was particularly
obvious when her group was studying ‘‘biotechnology.’’ Lia cared most about how anthrax might
be spread in the school, but in working with four other peers who showed more interest in germs in
the school bathroom and movie-making, played an integral role in trying to make a video about
how germs spread in the school.
Omar was unhappy with and frightened by the neighborhood in which he lived. He saw
education as essential to his future, as a path by which he would get to college and have a
choice of careers, and perhaps as an escape from his current circumstances. Indeed, talk
about violence and how to avoid it was central to his home life. Omar’s felt his life experiences
were essential to pursuing a career in science and viewed his science education as important for
living a safe, informed life. Omar explained that science connected to him becoming a
knowledgeable, resourceful adult because it offered knowledge that was useful in being safe
everyday as well as skills that might get him out of the neighborhood. For example, he often
talked about how knowledge of things like water or the body would assist him in identifying
harmful chemicals and keeping the body safe. He also talked about and created opportunities in
after-school science to take apart broken electronic gadgets so that he could figure out how they
worked and how he could fix them. He felt that these activities would also help prepare him to
become a computer technician, which he believed was both a well-paying and respected
profession.
There are a myriad of other examples from all of the students in our study that could be
presented here. Paul consistently turned projects into ‘‘media events’’ with video technology
because of his desire to become a pop star and a scientist. Carl, who wanted to go a science high
school, and become a nuclear scientist or engineer, but who also worried about how these career
visions might make him look like a ‘‘geek,’’ sought opportunities to work wi th Paul on ‘‘popular’
projects, yet he also sought to bring in-depth research conducted at home or at the library into the
video projects.
The youth in this study had strong conceptions of the careers and lifestyles they wanted to
pursue. When science assisted them in moving toward their individual goals, they expressed an
ongoing interest in learning and exploring the world through science. When the science activities
allowed flexibility, students inserted their visions of themselves and their futures to make the
projects something that they wanted to sustain.
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Valuing Social Relationships
The second theme that emerged from this study was the strong connection between a
sustained interest in science and science learning environments in which students were able to
cultivate relationships with people and in ways that reflected their values of relationships and
community. This theme of building relationships fell under the category of funds of knowledge
because shaping relationships in particular ways reflected students’ beliefs and strategic
application of these dispositions to social environments.
Anna’s relationship with her mother was the foundation from which she learned to value
helping others as well as of establishing a strong social network among her peers. For Anna, being
thoughtfully engaged in science was predicated upon her ability to use that learning in support of
her social goals: of having fun in life; of building strong, caring friendships; and of making a
positive difference. The example of the Annabar described in the previous section also supports
this claim. In addition to using the opportunity to solidify friendships both at home and in school,
in one interview, Anna emphasized how the results of the Annabar project could be used to
encourage people to laugh. She said, ‘‘Well, the thing I liked the most was when I was making the
candy bar ‘cause they were recording us, and we acted like chefs, fooling around and stuff, so it
was a fun experience. My mother to me is a great cook, so I would show it to her so she [could] have
good laughs. I would definitely want to put it on TV, like a cooking channel or a kids’ show, so
people [could] laugh.’
Anna took the tie-dye activity for after-school and used some of the techniques and materials
she had learned at home, but brought her own ideas and her cousin into the process of doing
science. She imagined that this creative process could extend even further when she talked about
designing a tie-dye light bulb that could illuminate with multicolored light and varied patterns.
When asked where she would like to pursue the idea of building a tie-dye light bulb, she said that
she would like to work with her friends at home or at their house. Her preference reflected her
enjoyment of exploration and experimentation completed alongside her friends.
Anna’s story shows how the students in our study valued science because it allowed them to
work in groups—to cultivate and maintain friendships while doing science. While for Anna the
underlying concern was having time to have fun with peers, other students expressed desires to
engage in science projects that allowed them to cultivate relationships that made them more
popular and to gain social respect and, as the earlier example of Carl shows, to have fun and to
reduce the isolation sometimes imposed by regular school tasks. Maria explained how she
‘‘worked with other people ‘cause it’s easier. I like working in groups better; it seems more fun,
and you get to discuss the things with other people, not just be alone.’
Omar’s beliefs about working with others reflected his mother’s value of the importance of
working together to solve the real problems of real people. This belief was shown in two ways for
Omar: first, in his belief that ‘assessments’’ of student learning should be group-oriented and
should be geared toward the group being able to solve community problems or teach new ideas to
their community; and second, in his belief that teachers shoul d allow students to express their ideas
to each other and their community in multiple, and sometimes nontraditional formats. When these
conditions were met—or when Omar had the opportunity to make these two conditions come
alive—his participation and interest in science peaked. For example, Omar described assessments
such as student talks, plays, posters, and campaigns that responded to the questions of adults and
children. In particular, he proposed a student newspaper as an assessment that could synthesize
what students had learned about a topic—‘‘It would be a scientific newspaper. Information on
what each group is studying. Wewould pass it around to the teachers and see if they like it, and the
teachers would probably pass it around to the students. All teachers, not just science [would read
18 BASU AND CALABRESE BARTON
Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI 10.1002/tea
it]. It’s for free; it’s like a community newspaper for the school.’’ By focusing on their larger
community, students would do more on an assessment than reiterate what they had learned. On
Omar’s type of assessment, they also might learn how to educate and inform their community.
Omar also knew that many of his peers did not like to write or to read but did enjoy using a
video camera or watching movies. As an alternate to note-taking, Omar recommended, ‘‘A video
diary. It’s like you walk around with the camera and you examine what the kids are doing.’
Instead of youth taking notes on what other students had discovered or completed, a student
might opt to record the progress of the class using a video camera. Another student, Paul, was
bright, but highly disengaged in his classes and labeled a trouble-maker. His interactions with
his peer groups were often through talk and play around pop culture. Drawing upon Omar’s idea,
he worked closely with a group of four students to create a video documentary about germsin the
school. This form of group video production actively engaged Paul, leading him to conduct
library research on germs and other school-related activities, something he did not often pursue
in his classes.
Neil and Gabriel stood out from the others because of their desire to work together but
separate from everyone else or, if they had to work in a group, to be able to carefully select partners.
Although part of this can most likely be attributed to Neil’s and Gabriel’s introverted personalities,
we think it is noteworthy to point out that Neil often worried about whether and how his teammates
would pull their weight in a group. Neil has been taught by his family to believe in himself and
what he had to offer. He had also been taught to ignore other students when they misbehaved. We
think this is important for two reasons. His mother cared enough about her children’s education
that she sought out employment at their school so she could oversee their schooling. However, Neil
also attended a school that was known to be low-performing, and he sought to disassociate himself
from that label. Clearly, the value of an education was crucial to Neil’s home-based beliefs, and it
often seemed to facilitate his turn inward when his peers acted out.
What is also interesting was not so much that Neil preferred to work only with Gabriel and
vice versa, but also how Neil often turned group assignments into activities that he could expand
upon by himself in school-sanctioned ways. For example, when studying fish behavior, Neil
created a series of experiments and observations he wanted to conduct on the fish and often came to
visit the fish during recess, lunch, and after-school to gather additional data. Gabriel decided to
study the fish by building an anatomical model, both out of clay and aluminum.
In this study, how and for what reasons students valued social relationships within science
class or in their community had a strong impact on whether a science learning environment
sustained their interest. The importance of caring, usefulness, respect, and inclusiveness are also
three values evidenced in other studies of urban youth (Calabrese Barton, 2003; Cothran & Ennis,
2000; Finley, 2003; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Seiler, 2001). Content—or knowledge of content
related to the home—was not the only deciding factor in whether students develop a sustained
interest in science. In addition, students needed to be working in the types of groups they desired.
Whether a classroom was built around relationships and whether a science activity furthered a
student’s social priorities greatly influenced whether the youth developed a sustained interest in
science. Both Omar and Anna valued their relationships with friends and family. Omar felt that
independent work allowed him to enact the choices he desired. But Omar and Anna also wanted to
focus on relationships in their classrooms. They enjoyed their experience more and felt that they
could produce better work when collaborating with their friends either for projects or for
assessments. Omar also described the importance to student learning of a teacher who established
strong enough relationships with students such that his or her classroom was shaped around the
personalities and preferences of students. A focus on relationships, for the students interviewed in
this study, was an integral part of an engaging science classroom.
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 19
Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI 10.1002/tea
Supporting Student Agency so Youth Can Enact Their Views on the
Purposes of Science
Usefulness as a primary purpose of learning and doing science reflects both a belief that the
students hold about what science is or should be used for as well as a stance on how it is that science
should connect to their lives. Agency and usefulness are centrally connected to how students
activate their funds of knowledge in support of a sustained interest in science. As Gonzales and
Moll (2002) report, funds of knowledge are practice—they are the cultural knowledge an
individual possesses as well as how and why they act upon that knowledge. Acting upon a
pragmatic view of science cuts strongly across all of the case studies. In other research,
intersections of utility, care, and expression of self have been central to thriving high-poverty,
urban youth communities (Finley, 2003; Rahm, 2002).
By and large, the students interviewed for this study talked about the fact that science needed
to be useful. How they viewed ‘‘what was useful’’ often framed how they participated in after
school science. Some students felt that useful science was science that could be applied to the
things students cared about every day. Some students felt that science was useful if it allowed them
to have some control over their lives or made their lives easier. Some students thought science
was useful if it helped to justify activities that were not as valued in the academic sphere, such as
sports and pop culture. Finally, some students felt that science was useful if it actually helped
people or solved problems, either personal or social. These points are explained in the following
examples.
From his story, it is clear that Neil’s identity was deeply rooted in his desire to be an artist and
to do well in school, two aspirations strongly valued at home. However, it is also important to note
that, at home, Neil learned from his mother and brother that success in life happened through hard
work, planning, and being independent. It made sense to us then that Neil’s interest in science was
built around the agency he could express in both the process and product of his science projects.
Neil felt positively about learning science when he could ‘‘use’’ it to improve his cartoons and
models. Neil also felt comfortable deeply engaging in a project when he was allowed to use skills
with which he felt competent, such as drawing and building. Neil stated that, in part, the
independence and ownership he experienced when building a ‘‘zoid’’ increased his excitement
about the project. In particular, Neil valued the independence he experienced to determine how
long he spent on the project. When he described the success he achieved with his ‘‘zoid,’’ he
mentioned that the project took him many hours and that he valued the time, quietness, and space
he had to work on this project as he desired.
Joaquin emphasized that engaging science was useful when it supported him in having more
control in his life. For example, in the inventions project, he envisioned building a robot that would
help him ‘‘for everything—homework, cooking...’’ Yet, while Joaquin did not aspire to being a
scientist, because, by his definition, scientists were ‘‘very smart’’ and ‘‘discover[ed] something
new’’ (i.e., in his opinion, an airplane technician was not a scientist because he / she did not
‘‘discover’’ the airplane), he saw‘‘using science’’ as the domain of all people. Having control over
his life was a theme that arose for Joaquin especially in relation to the terrorist attacks on the city in
2001. Carl, Lia, and Paul became highly engaged in the study of bioterrorism because they felt
they needed this information to stay safe in their city. They created a series of experiments and a
movie on this topic that they wanted to share with other kids in the school.
Similarly, Melvin and Peter only became animated in after-school science when they could
use science as an excuse to do sports, such as making a video on the science in basketball and
baseball, or designing experiments intended to measure how much one’s heart rate increases and
how much one sweats when he/she ran around on the playground.
20 BASU AND CALABRESE BARTON
Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI 10.1002/tea
Omar viewed science as useful for designing a healthy life—he described the importance of
knowing science as a doctor to care for people, assess water quality, develop vaccines, and prepare
for the dangers of spaceflight. Omar felt excited about science when it carried this sense of being
useful. Omar also believed that science explorations should result in useful products, such as an
educational newspaper documenting the results of science investigations that made assessment in
school meaningful to students. Indeed, having useful products is a common value or practice in a
thriving inner-city community (Finley, 2003). Similarly, Omar structured his science experiments
at home around the idea of a useful product—in these cases, fixing an electronic device that had
been previously broken.
Anna and Maria also keyed in on how science should always be helpful to people. Although
this probably meant many things to the girls, what stood out was their consistency in talking about
and wanting to learn about healthy lifestyles, knowledge that would improve their lives for many
years. Anna, in particular, enjoyed learning a basic set of ideas from school and then extending
these concepts to new projects that she completed with her friends and family. Anna and Maria
wanted to work with friends , sometimes at home, where materia ls of their choosing were available
to them. Anna also hoped to direct her projects toward the social goals she considered important—
healthy living and caring for and entertaining others.
Implications and Conclusions
Teaching to Incorporate ‘‘Funds of Knowledge’’ Into Science Learning
Based on the beliefs and statements of youth interviewed in this study and findings from other
research, the authors could imagine the value of ‘‘supporting children in bringing their interests,
experiences, ideas, and emotional responses to science...if children are to be producers of
science’’ (Fusco, 2001, p. 862). Fusco (2001) indicated that, if students encountered ‘‘fake
problems’’ (p. 867), they were likely to dismiss their science experiences in school as ‘‘boring or
not related to their lives or futures’’ (p. 874). According to Fusco, youth disengaged from school
science if their ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ were not incorporated into the science curriculum.
For students to develop a sustained interest in science, educators must create what Moje,
Collazo, Carrillo, and Marx (2001) described as a ‘‘third space,’’ in which science experience and
‘funds of knowledge’’ (p. 469) can intersect. In this environment, because their ‘‘funds of
knowledge’’ are acknowledged as integral and relevant to learning, students are comfortable
‘drawing freely on their linguistic and sociocultural repertoires to solve a variety of problems
together’’ (Gutierrez, Baquedano, & Alvarez, 1999, p. 89).
A reading of the literature on incorporating students’ ‘‘fund of knowledge’’ into science
classrooms revealed several strategies for achieving this goal. For example, Bouillion and Gomez
(2001) recommended an educational focus on ‘‘real-world problems that have no clear answer, are
interdisciplinary in nature, are relevant to both the curriculum and students’ lives, are highly
visible and accessible’’ (p. 895). Herreid (2001) described a case-study model in which a student
‘put...learning to use in order to analyze the situation, decide what the problem is, figure out what
[he/she] need[s] to know to solve it’’ (p. 87). Project-based science, as described by Schneider,
Krajcik, Marx, Soloway, and Elliot (2002), was an approach appropriate for including ‘‘funds of
knowledge in the science curriculum. In project-based science, ‘‘it [was] assumed that students
needed to find solutions to real problems by asking and refining questions, designing and
conducting investigations, gathering and analyzing information and data, making interpretations,
drawing conclusions, and reporting findings’’ (p. 411). Project-based science included many of the
features that youth in this study value in their science experiences, in particular an opportunity to
SCIENCE FOR URBAN MINORITY YOUTH 21
Journal of Research in Science Teaching. DOI 10.1002/tea
choose science activities that matched their career interests, relationship preferences, and
definitions of science.
Incorporating students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ successfully into a science classroom is a
challenging endeavor. According to Rahm, educators may have to ‘‘stretch the boundaries of what
is typically included in science’’ (Rahm, 2002, p. 179). Seiler (2001) summarized the struggles in a
student-centered approach: ‘‘We were battling our own and others’ perceptions that science is a
collection of facts laid out in a book and not a collection of topics connected to everyday lived
experiences’’ (Seiler, 2001, p. 1007).
Educators and policymakers are often concerned that an education incorporating student
interests and beliefs may cause youth to acquire less knowledge and weaker skills. However,
Schneider, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway (2002) found that students trained in project-based
science ‘‘scored significantly higher than students nationwide on many items’’ (p. 419). Seiler
echoed this belief in the strength of student-centered science teaching: ‘‘I believe that the teaching
of many critical skills can be based on abilities and cultural attributes already within the students’
repertoires’’ (Seiler, 2001, p. 1012). Hammond (2001) found that ‘‘community-generated
materials parallel[ed] and complement[ed] standards-based curricula’’ (p. 983).
Several authors have suggested that a science learning environment that includes ‘‘funds of
knowledge’’ must include opportunities for students to solve open-ended problems. This
pedagogical choice may, in fact, prepare students well for careers in science. For example, Hurd
(2002) wrote, ‘‘there is no standard method for the practice of science. Today research in the
sciences is viewed more as a craft or an art, more like problem-solving’’ (Hurd, 2002, p. 5).
The findings and beliefs just expressed imply that curricula and classrooms that make space
for students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ can exist alongside goals for science content and skills.
Honoring and incorporating students’ ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ in a science learning environment,
however, raises the likelihood that a diversity of students will be engaged in the science content
and skills they are learning, will take the initiative and develop long-term commitments to their
science projects, and perhaps pursue careers in science.
In this study, we have explored how three middle school students from low-income, inner-city
backgrounds developed a sustained interest in science. The development of the three students’
sustained interest in science seems fundamentally related to whether their identity, beliefs,
experiences, and conceptions of the future—their ‘‘funds of knowledge’’—were built into the
science they studied. When students encountered science classrooms in which they could choose
and engage in activities connected to their visions of the future, how they valued relationships, and
their definitions of science, they developed a strong, long-term commitment to pursuing science.
Notes
1
The school is currently under registration review by the state for low student performance, which
means that, officially, at least 60% of the student body’s literacy and mathematics test scores are below
grade level. However, at most schools under registration review in the city, 80–90% of students are not
performing at grade level (Vitterreti & Kosar, 2001).
2
All names used in this article are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the research participants.
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