Using Technology to Support Struggling Students: Student Engagement and Identity with Science

In an increasingly complex world, all students need to be scientifically literate. While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students.

In an increasingly complex world, all students need to be scientifically literate. While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students. All students need to understand what it means to think like a scientist, and how to evaluate information that is called "scientific". Many of the careers of the future will require that students have the ability to collaborate and solve problems using STEM skills. Struggling students are no exception — they will need the same types of knowledge and skills, and will often require additional supports to be successful.

Research has shown that the most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in authentic activities that ask them to think and behave like chemists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers or archeologists — that is, when they are engaged in activities that mirror the real-life tasks of STEM professionals. [i] These activities might include the use of virtual environments and simulations, developing models of scientific phenomena, and using collaborative tools like email, video conferencing, and classroom wikis. These types of activities can present new challenges for struggling students and students with disabilities. In this series of science info briefs, Using Technology to Support Struggling Students in Science, we'll examine five different dimensions of science learning, the areas that may be challenging for struggling students, and how technology tools may help.

Student engagement and identity with science

Perhaps one of the most important dimensions of science education for all students is their ability to engage with science and see themselves as scientists. [ii] Do students understand the importance of science in their lives? Even if students do not plan on pursuing STEM careers, scientific literacy is still critical in enabling students to engage productively with scientific language and content in their daily lives.

Identity, and perception of oneself as a scientist, is a key element of motivation and engagement with science content. When students can see themselves as potential future scientists, they are more engaged in science learning. Students who can envision themselves as scientists or mathematicians are more likely to pursue STEM coursework beyond middle and high school. [iii]

An important element of both identity and engagement are authentic activities that encourage students' active involvement in scientific inquiry. Project- and problem-based learning (PBL) is one way to give students an opportunity to try on the role of "scientist". As students work towards solving the central problem (or addressing a driving question), they become more engaged in the learning process, take more control over their own learning, and are more likely to see themselves as scientists.

Some features of educational technology that can support students' engagement and identity in science are:

  • Science curricula that encourage student questioning and an inquiry process
  • Scenarios and immersive environments that let students practice being scientists
  • Distance technology that connects students with practicing scientists

Inquiry-based science curricula

Technologies that are based on scientific inquiry are more likely to contain a driving question or a project/problem-based design. These tools and curricula are becoming more common and popular as the technologies to support inquiry-based learning online are becoming more widely available.

Scenarios and immersive environments that let students practice being scientists

Scenario-based instructional technologies that provide authentic experiences, including using and manipulating data, producing scientific documents, and portraying the user as a scientist can help students engage in and envision themselves pursuing STEM careers. These can be simulations, such as a virtual laboratory, or immersive worlds that allow students to explore and learn progressively more complex tasks and topics. Simulations are perhaps the most widely available technology tools for science content at every grade level. They can range from incredibly complex virtual worlds that allow students to explore an ecosystem in depth, to more focused simulations focusing on a specific activity.

Distance technology

There are many ways to use technology to bring scientists into your classroom. For example, students can visit official web pages, email questions and participate in online discussion forums. New technology tools can also allow students to virtually participate in actual research with STEM professionals — posing questions, watching research activities, even helping with data collection in their hometowns as citizen scientists (i.e. helping to collect water samples to submit to a larger database or monitoring firefly populations). Research has shown that these types of interactions can support student learning in a variety of ways, such as engaging students, increasing participation in discussions, and encouraging the shared construction of knowledge. [iv]

Many research organizations, museums, government agencies and universities offer outreach programs to allow classes and students to engage in activities and discussions with scientists. Some programs even allow students to join scientific expeditions virtually through live streaming video and real-time chat. Using videos, data collection, virtual labs, simulations, and streaming satellite videos of scientists in the field, these types of projects enable students to participate in ongoing research, interact with STEM researchers, and engage in scientific discourse with their peers.

Implications for educators

To encourage students who have a difficult time imagining themselves as future STEM professionals, teachers can consider some of these approaches:

  • Look for examples of scientists on the Internet and show how many came from what seemed to be unlikely backgrounds and were successful in science.
  • Identify games and simulations that can provide students with opportunities to model being scientists through their virtual activity.
  • Identify programs of resources and technologies for aspiring scientists on the Internet that can help students see the type of support they could receive.
  • Search the TechMatrix for tools that support science education, are built using authentic scientific inquiry, and allow students to practice being scientists.
  • Consider incorporating the resources listed below into your science curriculum.

Technology resources

EEK! Environmental Education for Kids — Get a Job
Resources and information are presented for elementary and middle school students about possible careers in environmental sciences.

The EngineerGirl website is part of a National Academy of Engineering project to bring national attention to the opportunity that engineering represents to all people at any age, but particularly to women and girls. Find resources and information to encourage young girls to consider careers in engineering.

Engineer Your Life
The Engineer Your Life Web site is the centerpiece of a national campaign designed to encourage young college-bound women to consider pursuing careers in engineering. Encourage your students to see themselves in STEM careers as they learn more about what life and work are like for engineers.

We Choose the Moon
Use this interactive simulation from the JFK Library and Museum celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing to encourage your students to learn more about the people and places involved in sending a mission to the moon, and to gain a personal perspective on the landing.

Ask a Scientist
Browse previously answered questions, or submit a question of your own in the areas of human biology, animals, medicine, biochemistry, microbiology, genetics or evolution, and encourage your students to explore different areas of science.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

[i] Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.; Tan, S. C., Yeo, A. C. J., & Lim, W. Y. (2005). Changing epistemology of science learning through inquiry with computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 367-386.

[ii] Aikenhead, G. S. (2001). Students' ease in crossing cultural borders into school science. Science Education, 85, 180-188.; Lynch, S. (2000). Equity and science education reform. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.; Parker, L., Rennie, L., & Fraser, B. (Eds.). (1996). Gender science and mathematics: Shortening the shadow. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

[iii] Tai, R. H., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., & Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143-1144.

[iv] Han & Hill, 2007; Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P., & Wheeler, D. (2008). The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.

National Center for Technology Innovation (2010)


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