Despite the importance of social environment on youth career development highlighted by Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent et al., 1994
), little research has focused on the role of inclusivity and belonging in youth’s career preparation within informal science learning contexts. This study examined whether perceptions of inclusivity within informal contexts relate to the perceptions of career preparation via youth program belonging among a diverse sample of adolescents participating in youth programs. It was found that over time only perceptions of inclusivity around youth’s own social identity groups (i.e., gender and ethnicity/culture) were related to a sense of youth program belonging, which in turn was later associated with perceptions of program career preparation. These findings suggest that the social environment plays an important role in the future career preparation of the diverse, and typically underrepresented, youth within our sample. Key to a positive social environment is a perception that the informal science site is inclusive towards youth from the youth’s own social identity groups (i.e., gender, ethnicity/culture) and that the youth program in the site is associated with a sense of belonging among the youth.
The results partially supported the hypotheses. Among the diverse sample of youth from the US and the UK, perceptions of site inclusivity for one’s own social identity groups (i.e., gender and ethnicity/culture) when they began their informal program (T1) were positively associated with a sense of STEM youth program belonging (T2), and this belonging was related to participants’ perceptions of how well the program prepared them for their future career (T3). Findings suggest that only inclusivity for one’s own social identity groups at the beginning of the program was related to participants’ perceptions of program career preparation after one year via belonging, but this mediation pathway did not hold for the inclusivity for other social identity groups. The model for general inclusivity (i.e., perceptions that the site was inclusive for all people, including people like, and not like, me) was a poor fit for the data, indicating that specific types of inclusivity may be more central than general inclusivity at informal science learning sites.
The Role of Inclusivity
The finding of a positive association between perceptions of site inclusivity and program belonging supports Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1992
), since it suggests an inclusive social context within informal science learning sites is associated with the emergence of an individual’s sense of belonging to youth programs. This result extends recent research findings within formal school learning, which documented relations between inclusion and belonging (Mulvey et al. 2022
), to the informal science learning context.
Two conceptualizations of inclusivity were explored. First, there was a general inclusivity conceptualization in line with previous theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992
), which contends that perceptions of inclusion for all are key to positive psychological outcomes (i.e., inclusivity is an “umbrella” under which all can flourish). Second, perceptions of inclusivity towards different social identity groups were examined, including inclusivity for one’s own social identity groups (e.g., the context makes my group, those who share the same gender and ethnicity, feel welcome) and inclusivity for other social identity groups (e.g., the context makes other groups, those who do not share my gender and ethnicity, feel welcome). Though Mulvey et al. (2022
) documented that general feelings of inclusivity in STEM classes were associated with feelings of belonging in STEM classes, the findings in the current study did not support the association between general inclusivity and belonging in informal settings.
In this study, perceptions of inclusivity for one’s own social identity groups were related to belonging and perceived career preparation (Tajfel & Turner, 1986
). There may be several reasons why specific, not general, inclusivity mattered in the context of the present study. First, previous research has looked at formal school contexts, which often promote a strong, well-established, and shared class or school identity that students typically adopt. A generic sense of inclusivity might be seen as applicable to all social groups. This is not the case in informal science learning sites. Compared to schools, at informal science learning sites, learning opportunities are more autonomous. Young people are not required to go to informal science learning sites, and they have more options to choose what they would like to learn in the informal learning context. Second, youth spend less time and have less exposure in informal science learning settings compared to the formal learning context. This means the informal science learning environment may not foster the same type of common group (e.g., school) identity that formal settings encourage, and perceptions of inclusivity that are specific to the youth’s social identities and the social identity groups to which they belong may be more important.
These findings provide a novel insight into how perceptions of inclusivity are related to belonging to a STEM youth program and indicate that feeling that people like you are included at a site may be especially important for promoting feelings of belonging to STEM youth programs at these sites. Conceptually, it is important to explore inclusivity for one’s own group and for other groups, as these may operate differently. In fact, the results supported this distinction, demonstrating the indict effect of inclusivity for own social identity groups to program belonging, but not for other social identity groups. Curiously, there was a high correlation between inclusivity for own social identity groups and for other social identity groups in the current study. All the sites have explicit missions around inclusivity, which may explain this high correlation. Despite this high correlation, inclusivity for own social identity groups in particular appears to be especially important for youth.
Inclusivity was assessed over a one-year period. By T3, participants may have a more fine-tuned (and potentially different) perception of site inclusivity than when they were first beginning a program at the site, as they will have a lot more observations on which to base their perceptions by T3. This may explain why inclusivity was not related at T1 and T3. Future research should examine the psychometric properties of site inclusivity, for example, testing the factor structure of inclusivity. In the current study, an existing measure of inclusivity (Mulvey et al., 2022
) was used, and it included only two items for own social identity groups and for other social identity groups, which limits the ability to test a factor model for inclusivity. The development of a more comprehensive measure of inclusivity would allow for factor analysis and a better understanding of what types of inclusivity are most important to different groups and in different contexts (e.g., formal science learning or informal science learning).
The Role of Belonging
The findings of this study support the important role of belonging within an informal science learning context (Hoffman et al., 2021
) and, for the first time, in relation to career development (Good et al., 2012
). This study provides evidence that belonging is associated with the perceptions of program career preparation at informal science learning sites, and the findings demonstrate the indirect effect of belonging from inclusivity for one’s own social identity groups to perceptions of program career preparation. This study supports Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent et al., 1994
), which highlights how career development is related to the social environment (i.e., inclusivity) via individual characteristics, such as, in the case of this study, youth program belonging. Social Cognitive Career Theory stresses the role of the social environment in career development via one’s motivation or expectations (e.g., self-efficacy). The findings confirm this but extend Social Cognitive Career theory (Lent et al., 1994
) by considering the role of belonging as a critical psychological factor in career development.
The results demonstrated that T1 perceptions of program career preparation (i.e., baseline) were associated with T2 belonging (i.e., after three months). This finding should be interpreted in the context of a STEM youth program that aims to equip youth with the necessary knowledge and skills for education and career development. If participants found the program helpful in career development, they could be more likely to have a higher level of program belonging. This suggests that the association between belonging and career development may be bi-directional. This should be tested in future studies using a more rigorous cross-lagged panel design with additional time points.
The findings further extend the formal science education literature by showing the association between inclusivity and perceptions of career preparation within informal science learning contexts (Mulvey et al., 2022
). In addition, the study documents the association between belonging and career preparation. Although previous research has highlighted the central role of belonging in STEM career interests (Xu & Lastrapes, 2021
) and career development (Good et al., 2012
), no study has explicitly shown the relationship between inclusivity, belonging and career development. For example, despite the increasing attention on belonging in the literature (Master and Meltzoff 2020
), the literature only documents the impact of belonging on youth’s STEM learning and does not consider the effect on youth career development. The findings suggest that in addition to being concerned with STEM knowledge and career development, STEM youth programs should focus on fostering participants’ sense of belonging to the site, which can be done via inclusive practices, such as building and providing inclusive activities that under-represented youth can connect with and feel that they are fully welcomed (Abrica et al., 2022