Mount Holyoke researcher studies how low-income urban youths' science aspirations develop


$411,530 NSF grant funds five-year study

Researchers have justly spent much time studying what influences low-income urban youth to pursue careers in the sciences at the college level. But little attention has been given to another group, those who have scientific aspirations but have chosen to follow a non-traditional educational path.

"Are we interested only in people who are engineers, doctors, and PhDs, or might we be interested in what influences a young person to decide between being a video technician and being a nail technician?" asks Becky Wai-Ling Packard, an assistant professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College who has been awarded a $441,530 National Science Foundation grant to continue her studies of low-income urban youth develop and pursue interests and careers in science and technology.

Through the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program grant, Packard will examine three interconnected topics: the social negotiations of educational and career aspirations, including how the students' science and technology aspirations develop over time and across social contexts; the nature of effective mentoring strategies, including ways students and teachers can optimize students' access to mentors; and patterns of science and technology learning and motivation across contexts.

Through her five-year project, "Educational Trajectories of Low-Income Urban Youth in Science and Technology," Packard and her team of 10 student researchers will seek answers to these important questions, working with youth from Springfield and Holyoke, two nearby cities with high ethnic minority populations.

Much of the research she and others have done on science career aspirations has focused on college-bound students, or those already enrolled in college, Packard said. But beyond that group, she said, are many young people who may have interests in science and technology, but are following a non-traditional educational path. These students, she said, may spend their post-high school years in the workplace before returning to higher education through the community college system.

Packard said much of the literature on low-income urban youth focuses on negative factors, such as delinquency, gang involvement, and teenage pregnancy. "No one is really looking at educational planning, educational trajectories, successes. In what ways are young people participating in their educational planning? Many just assume they're not," she said.

Another major element of the research will involve effective mentoring strategies, and an examination of how youth are able to take responsibility for their own mentoring. Packard plans to incorporate her theory of "composite mentoring," which argues that a student unable to connect with one "ideal" mentor in her field may be able to obtain the support she needs from a group of mentors, each reflecting a different facet of her identity. "We cannot have one mentor that fits our every need, we need to develop a composite that fits that framework," she said. For women and students of color, "since the (science and technology) field is such that there are not that many demographically-similar mentors out there, then you basically have a catch-22: how do you get more people out there to serve as mentors for the people who are underrepresented? You can't." A composite mentoring strategy may be one effective solution.

The study will also examine how learning takes place outside the classroom, and how home, school, and community organizations can come together to support motivation and more positive effects for students. "I believe that young people will naturally develop in a positive way when provided with the support and resources to do so," Packard said. She said she hopes her work will challenge stereotypes about urban low-income youth, and raise awareness that many are actively involved in their own education, helping to identify ways for schools, parents, and community organizations to support them.

According to the National Science Foundation, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards for new faculty members. The CAREER program recognizes and supports the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative, career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their institution, and should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education.

Packard is the fifth CAREER awardee at Mount Holyoke College. Others who have received CAREER awards are Jill Bubier, assistant professor of environmental studies; Craig Woodard, associate professor of biological sciences; Janice Hudgings, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics; and Sean Decatur, associate professor and chair of chemistry.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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