Improving young people’s engagement with science: Lessons from the ASPIRES project
Science education can be a powerful tool for social mobility and active citizenship – it can inspire and equip young people with a wide range of knowledge and skills that are useful for careers across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) sector and beyond. The STEM industries also form a crucial part of the UK economy. Yet, despite its economic and social importance, science is an unpopular aspiration for most young people today. Moreover, those students who do go on to work in the fields of science and STEM, but particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, tend to not be representative of the wider population (with women, working-class and some ethnic groups remaining starkly and persistently under-represented). Findings from a major, ten-year longitudinal research study (the ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 project), based at King’s College London, reveal the reasons for these entrenched patterns and why so many young people see science as ‘not for me’. Our work also points to new ideas for how policy makers and educators can work with young people to improve participation in science.
ASPIRES was the first phase of a ten-year education research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which tracked the development of young people's science and career aspirations from age 10-14 (from 2009-2013). Now the second phase of this longitudinal research study, ASPIRES 2, is continuing to track young people's aspirations until age 18, in an effort to understand the changing influences of family, school, careers education, and social identities and inequalities on young people’s choices. To date the project has surveyed over 30,000 students aged 10-16 and conducted longitudinal interviews, tracking over 80 students and their parents from primary school to the end of compulsory education.
Our findings suggest that a shift in policy is needed in order to improve young people’s participation in science.
Lack of interest in science is not the problem
Our large scale surveys (see Fig. 1) show that most young people, from primary through secondary school, actually find school science interesting and express positive views of scientists. However, these positive views do not translate into post-16 participation. For instance, 58% of the 15/16 year olds we surveyed agreed that they learn interesting things in science lessons, but only 14% aspire to a career in science. Our findings suggest that some of the most popular efforts aimed at encouraging young people to continue into post-16 STEM (e.g. ‘making science fun/ interesting’, ‘meeting scientists’) may be missing the main factors that influence STEM participation. We recommend that efforts are made to broaden young people’s views of where science can lead in order to break the pervasive perception that ‘studying science = becoming a scientist’. For science educators and careers professionals, this could mean promoting the message that science ‘keeps your options open’ and is useful for a wide range of careers, at both graduate and technical levels, both in and beyond science.
Careers provision is not reaching all students
Schools and organisations involved in careers education must address inequalities in the provision of careers education, advice and guidance. Our research with year 11 students (age 15/16) shows that current careers provision is not just ‘patchy’, but is ‘patterned’ in terms of social inequalities. Notably, girls, minority ethnic, working-class, lower-attaining and students who are unsure of their aspirations were all significantly less likely to report receiving careers education. This was particularly true where advice was offered on an optional basis. Our findings reveal a clear demand among students for more, better and earlier careers education. Schools and careers organisations should be supported in ensuring that careers education, advice and guidance reaches and benefits ‘underserved’ groups or communities, so that all students, but especially those most in need of it, are able to benefit from this provision.
‘Science capital’ is key
Teachers, informal learning institutions and policy makers must work to build science capital. Science capital, a concept which originated from the ASPIRES project, helps us to understand why some young people participate in post-16 science and others do not. Science capital refers to all of the science-related resources that someone might have (e.g. science-related qualifications, knowledge, understanding, interests, attitudes, social contacts and behaviours). Our research shows that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to continue with science post-16 and to see themselves as having a science identity. The ‘Enterprising Science’ project (conducted by King’s College London in partnership with the Science Museum and BP), is further developing the concept of science capital and exploring ways to help build young people’s science capital in schools and informal science learning contexts. In particular, the Enterprising Science project is working with teachers to co-develop a science capital pedagogical approach for teaching science – with early results suggesting promising gains in student engagement.
Science is seen as only ‘for the brainy’ and ‘a man’s job’
More still needs to be done to challenge the brainy, male image of science. Popular media representations of science, and particularly Physics, as ‘male’ and ‘difficult’ means that most young people’s views of science and scientists continue to be shaped by narrow, elitist representations and practices. This impacts particularly negatively on girls, working-class and some minority ethnic students. More still needs to be done to challenge the stereotypical scientist image and present science as accessible for all.
Change the system – not the students!
The education system currently prevents and impedes the majority of young people from participating in post-16 science. Our research highlights how the stratification of students at Key Stage 4 (GCSE) through Double/ Triple science routes has a negative impact, reinforcing a view for the majority of young people (who do not follow the more prestigious Triple Science route) that science is ‘not for them’ – as well as providing a practical barrier to entry to A level sciences. The culture of early specialisation, reinforced by the structure of A levels, also seems to contribute to narrowing participation in post-16 science. Consequently, we call for a review of both the stratification of science at KS4 and the longer-term desirability of A levels.
Professor Louise Archer
Dr Julie Moote
Professor Louise Archer
King's College London