Liking science is not enough!

Students need ‘science capital’ to help them into post-16 science study, says Louise Archer.

Girl conducting science experimentIt’s hard to miss the explosion of science ‘edutainment’ across the TV and radio schedules. From Autumnwatch to Wonders of the Universe, we are treated to a daily smorgasbord of programmes spanning biology, nature, physics, maths, chemistry, materials science, engineering, medicine, technology, statistics ... and more. Dara O’Briain has a Science Club and Richard Hammond has shown us how to build a planet. David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox are ‘national treasures’. And this frenzy of interest is not confined to the media. An ever-increasing number of science initiatives and events are taking place across the country in schools, clubs, museums, community centres and even shopping centres. Phenomena such as Maker Faires, Café Scientifique, and ‘lates’ at science centres and museums are all booming.

Yet despite decades of activities and initiatives aimed at increasing public interest in science, the government, business and the education sector remain concerned that not enough young people are choosing to pursue it after the age of 16, and that those who do still come from a very narrow range of social backgrounds. This shortfall has serious negative economic and social implications for the UK.

So why are too few young people choosing to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) qualifications and careers post-16? And what seems to be putting off young women in particular? What are we doing wrong?

Our ASPIRES study is tracking a cohort of school students in England from age 10-19. Five years in, we have already found some striking results. For children age 10-14, lack of interest in science is not the problem. Our surveys, conducted with over 18,000 students to date, show that most young people report finding science lessons interesting and have very positive things to say about their science teachers. They also report positive views of scientists and positive parental views of science. Yet even from the age of 10, there is a massive gulf between the high proportion of kids who find school science interesting (around 70%) and those who aspire to careers in science (around 16%). The profile of who aspires (or not) to a science career also seems to be entrenched from primary school. Aspiring scientists are more likely to be male, socially advantaged, South Asian and in the top set for science at school. They are also more likely to have one or both parents working in science-related careers.

We have identified a range of contributory factors: for instance, careers education is often a case of being ‘too little, too general and too late’. Boys and girls are differentially pushed towards post-16 science by teachers or families. The Institute of Physics recently reported that single-sex girls’ schools have a much better record than mixed schools of entering girls into A-level physics. Different routes for science at GCSE, and the culture of specialising at A-level, hinder wider participation in science. The white, male, middle-class brainy image of scientists remains a problem.

We have also identified the importance of ‘science capital’ – science-related resources such as doing science activities in your spare time; family knowledge about or interest in science; and family members with science qualifications or jobs. Children with high science capital are much more likely to plan to study one or more sciences at A-level and aspire to STEM careers. But as a recent national survey for our Enterprising Science project shows, only 5% of young people in England aged 11-15 have high science capital, while 27% have low science capital.

The challenge, it seems, is not that we need to increase young people’s interest in science – that job is being done, and done well. Now we need to increase young people’s science capital, create easier routes into post-16 science, and find ways to help a larger and broader range of students to see it as being potentially ‘for me’.

Louise Archer is Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s College London.

Louise is Director of the ASPIRES and ASPIRES2 studies and Director of the KCL strand of the Enterprising Science project.

ASPIRES and ASPIRES2 are longitudinal studies of children’s science and career aspirations, aged 10-14 and 14-19, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Enterprising Science is a five year partnership between King's College London, the Science Museum and BP. The project aims to help more students to find science engaging and useful for improving their opportunities and outcomes in life.

Share this page