How Families Motivate Mexican-Origin Adolescents to Pursue Physical Science in High School

Principal Investigator: Sandra Simpkins

Funder: National Science Foundation

Duration: 2011-2017  


Latino youth and women are underrepresented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and, the gap has widened over recent years for Latinos in the physical sciences. The first critical juncture at which talented youth opt out of the STEM pipeline is enrollment in high school physical science courses. The PI's research has shown that Caucasian adolescents' motivational beliefs are the most immediate precursors of physical science coursework and that parents are instrumental in supporting those beliefs. Despite that Latino STEM professionals proclaim that families are the main reason they succeeded and families are more important than peers and teachers in supporting Latino adolescents academically, we know little concerning how families impact one of the earliest and most severe leaks in the STEM pipeline. The existing survey measures, which form the backbone of scientific research, conflate indicators and inadequately investigate target populations. This study will extend previous work by developing precise survey measures for English- and Spanish-speaking Mexican-origin youth and by studying critical but overlooked subgroups known to exist, such as high achievers, avoiders, and youth who lose their interest in the physical sciences.

The PI integrates motivation and ecodevelopmental theories to describe how mothers and older youth in the family (i.e., sibling or cousin) motivate Mexican-origin adolescents to pursue physical science in high school. Older youth in Mexican families are important cultural brokers with their advanced English language skills and knowledge of the school system. In spite of their significance, older youths' support in physical science has yet to be considered. The PI will examine a tripartite model to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how Mexican families support youth through their (1) general educational strategies, (2) beliefs about physical science, and (3) science-specific behaviors. The current literature on these behaviors provides largely untested possibilities. This proposal will counter these trends by through a mixed-method, multi-reporter study guided by four specific aims:

  • Specific Aim 1: Develop reliable, valid measures of Mexican-origin adolescents' motivational beliefs and family supports in chemistry and physics.
  • Specific Aim 2: Test whether family supports predict adolescents' motivational beliefs, which in turn, predict their coursework from 9th to 12th grade.
  • Specific Aim 3: Test how indicators in Aim 2 and relations among those indicators vary based on gender, culture, English language skills, and relationship quality.
  • Specific Aim 4: Examine if family alters the support from critical school-based relationships.

A mixed-method study will be executed to develop measures of motivational beliefs and family supports for Spanish- and English-speaking Mexican-origin youth under Aim 1. After integrating feedback gathered through 12 focus groups, statistical measurement equivalence will be tested with 300 Caucasian, and English- and Spanish-speaking Mexican-origin high school students. Aims 2 to 4 will be examined through a longitudinal study of 150 Mexican adolescents and their families from 9th to 12th grade. Science coursework will be reported annually by adolescents, science teachers, and school records. Adolescents will describe their motivational beliefs from 9th to 11th grade. Supports from mothers and an older youth in the family will be reported through surveys by each individual and adolescents. In addition, in-depth qualities of adolescents' interactions with each family member will be collected through audio recordings of typical family mealtime conversations in 9th grade and videotaped dyadic discussions about adolescents' coursework and careers in 10th grade.

We cannot prevent the increasing alienation of Mexican-origin youth from the physical sciences without taking families into serious consideration. The global family factors theorized to cause some of the STEM disparities, like socioeconomic status and nativity, are too vague to produce any formidable change. Findings from the current proposal will provide scientifically-based solutions on concrete behaviors amenable to interventions. Unparalleled in previous research, the current innovative approach will delineate whether supports from an older family youth compliment or supplement supports from mothers. The valid survey measures developed in this study will be available for future research and implemented immediately to evaluate a summer high school internship program. The invaluable insight garnered from this study will be disseminated directly to science teachers through science education journals and guest lectures to the future generation of science instructors and scholars at ASU, which has one of the largest student populations in the U.S. This multi-tiered approach will notably advance current scholarship and practice concerning Mexican-origin adolescents' pursuit of physical science.

This study will (1) build knowledge on positive development of Latino youth, (2) advance scholarship on the measurement and processes of settings, and (3) provide essential tools for practitioners struggling to maintain participation.