By ASPIRES Research, on 15 January 2021
Science capital is a conceptual tool used to understand patterns in science participation. It was first developed by Professor Louise Archer and colleagues as an extension of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s predominantly arts-based notions of social and cultural capital. It describes the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and resources that an individual might possess.
Measuring science capital brings about challenges as it is not a single, unitary construct or factor. It’s a complex concept and the value of science capital is not fixed, but is rather determined by context, or what is often referred to as the ‘field’. Our research team have been extensively trying to research and refine the concept of science capital over the years – more information on this can be found in our recent publications.
While we have often used the terminology of ‘high’ and ‘low’ levels of science capital, as we explain in our recent ASPIRES 2 report we use the terms with extreme caution. They are provisional, accessible terms used to denote the extent to which a young person’s capital is recognised and valued, or not, within a given context, while also recognising that important nuance is lost in translation and that the terms can unhelpfully reify and lend to unintended deficit interpretations of capital. In this respect ‘high’ science capital refers to dominantly recognised forms of capital.
During the second phase of the ASPIRES research project, in which we investigated the aspirations and experiences of 14-19 year olds, our analyses revealed the socially patterned distribution of science capital. For instance, we collected survey data from approximately 7,000 students aged 17/18 from 265 schools and colleges in England, asking them a range of questions about their views and experiences of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and their wider interests, aspirations and attitudes. The sample was comparable to national distribution of schools by region, school type and attainment. As Dr Julie Moote, who led the quantitative side of the research, explains: “When we compared this data to our earlier surveys of the cohort, we found that although the percentage of students with ‘high’ science capital remained similar compared with previous stages of the study, the percentage of students with ’low’ science capital increased”.
We found a correlation between ‘high’ science capital and ‘high’ cultural capital, but this seems to weaken as students move through school. In particular, science capital was related to A level science enrolment, with over 81% of students with ‘high’ science capital taking at least one A Level science, whereas only 7% of low science capital students were studying at least one science A Level. This suggests that students with ‘high’ science capital are more likely to engage in and aspire to formal science learning beyond compulsory science.
The analysis also revealed that students with ‘high’ science capital were more likely to want to study science at university. There were also subject differences in students’ aspirations, with nearly 11% of ‘high’ science capital students hoping to study physics at university, compared with just 2.6% of the entire sample. Compared to students with ‘low’ and ‘medium’ science capital, individuals with ‘high’ science capital were 6 times more likely to want to study physics at university. Likewise, students with ‘high’ levels of science capital were 2.5 times more likely to want to study chemistry at university.
It’s not just STEM aspirations which are linked to science capital. Students with higher science capital also had more positive attitudes towards technology, engineering and mathematics. has shown a strong correlation between ‘high’ science capital and individuals having a science identity, science aspirations and enjoyment of science.
We found that students with ‘high’ science capital were also more likely to have positive attitudes in general towards science, engineering, maths and technology, with the relationship being strongest for science, but also notably strong for engineering.
We conclude that the concept of science capital can help explain an individual’s likelihood of aspiring to take STEM qualifications and pursue STEM career paths – although as our wider research underlines, it is one factor among many that shape young people’s trajectories. Currently, we are undertaking a third stage of the ASPIRES research, which involves developing a new set of STEM capital items for measuring STEM capital in young adults (age 20-23). We look forward to sharing our results from this part of the study in the future.
To be the first to hear about new research from the ASPIRES team and other projects in the STEM Participation & Social Justice Group, follow us online (@ASPIRESscience, @_ScienceCapital) and sign up to our newsletter.
This blog summarises the findings from two ASPIRES publications: Who has high Science Capital? An exploration of emerging patterns of Science Capital among students aged 17/18 in England (Moote et. al., 2019) and Science capital or STEM capital? Exploring relationships between Science Capital and technology, engineering, and maths aspirations and attitudes among young people aged 17/18 (Moote et. al., 2020).
By ASPIRES Research, on 20 October 2020
This blog was originally posted by the British Science Association as a guest blog.
On Tuesday 17 March 2020, we were told, along with many other researchers in the UK, that by the end of the week, we would no longer have access to our office and that we should conduct our research remotely where possible. For many colleagues working on educational research projects, this posed considerable challenges for fieldwork, as schools, colleges and other educational settings closed. However, the ASPIRES 3 research team, led by Professor Louise Archer, based at UCL Institute of Education, found that the forced move to online fieldwork offered some interesting new opportunities and experiences.
The ASPIRES 3 research study builds on the work of ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2, longitudinally tracking the science and career aspirations of a cohort of young people. Since 2009, the ASPIRES research team have collected over 560 interviews in total, with both young people and their parents, speaking to each of them on up to six occasions – when the young people were in Year 6, Year 8, Year 9, Year 11, Year 13, and now in 2020, when the cohort are 20/ 21 years old and finishing the academic year of their university courses, graduating into a world shaped by the pandemic, or already working.
For most study participants, the same researcher has spoken to them every couple of years, since they were 10 or 11 years old. This, along with the fact that we have also regularly interviewed their parents, helped considerably with the challenge of contacting individuals to organise interviews. We’ve found that, compared with previous years, it was easier to arrange interviews as we did not have to contend with the logistics of travel (all the interviews were recorded remotely) and because most participants had more time to participate, as some were furloughed, others were working from home (like us), and lots had been sent home from university earlier than expected.
As CheekyMonkey* said, “it’s nice to kind of just look back and…kind of like reflect on like myself and what I’m doing”.
Typically, our interviews with the students have taken an hour. This time around, however, they were often double that length. This may have reflected people having more time to talk during lockdown and looking for ways to alleviate boredom or isolation. But we also felt that the young people also had a lot to say – and a need to be listened to in a rapidly changing world facing many challenges – which they hope to shape.
Lots of the young people commented on how nice it was to take time to reflect on how they had gotten to where they are now. As CheekyMonkey* said, “it’s nice to kind of just look back and…kind of like reflect on like myself and what I’m doing”. They shared their worries and hopes for the future and highlighted that this generation are missing out on what is meant to be the “best years of their lives”, with their futures ahead of them. One participant, Davina* mentioned concerns about getting a job, adding that “the potential like massive crash of the economy is going to mess up like an entire generation’s like future. Like my generation will probably be the worst affected by that, because obviously we’ve got our whole lives to get on with.”
Overall, 87% of the young people interviewed so far talked about negative impacts they’ve experienced as a result of the lockdown.
Overall, 87% of the young people interviewed so far talked about negative impacts they’ve experienced as a result of the lockdown. These experiences of financial hardship; feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness; missing friends, family and partners; and concerns about housing and jobs in the future. With over 80% of the interviewees currently in higher education or at the point of graduating, many of the participants mentioned negative impacts to their studies and the move to online learning, including struggling to maintain motivation and concentration; loss of interactive learning opportunities, such as practicals and lab time; missing key learning experiences and opportunities, for example, placements and internships; and the transition to online learning being poorly managed and communicated by their course leaders or universities.
In line with findings from the BSA, many of our participants said the pandemic had reaffirmed their interests in their STEM subject or future aspirations. This includes students hoping to study, or currently studying, medicine, bio-sciences and individuals considering a career in teaching. Joanne* who is considering a graduate degree in medicine commented that “Hearing about all the great research that’s been going on during COVID has made me think oh maybe that would be good…if anything it’s made me want to do medicine more.”
Although most expressed concerns about finding work during the recession, young people studying STEM at university seemed less concerned about the immediate future. Computer Science graduates felt the pandemic has only strengthened the importance of technology and data security. As Josh* pointed out “everyone’s using technology more because that’s how they’re staying connected or working. So, in some ways, there’s more demand for certain companies to perform. And from a cyber security perspective there’s more people doing things online and there’s more companies relying on using computers.”
*All names in this blog and the report are pseudonyms to keep participant’s identities confidential.
By ASPIRES Research, on 3 August 2020
This article was originally published by SchoolsWeek.
With recruitment shortages and issues of representation still dogging the STEM professions, Louise Archer looks at the interventions most likely to have an impact.
Students say they learn interesting things in science and think that scientists do valuable work, but very few want to pursue careers in science or engineering.
Over the past ten years, the mixed-methods ASPIRES study at UCL has been investigating science and career aspirations, following a cohort of young people from age 10 to 19. The study is informed by more than 650 interviews with students and their parents, and more than 40,000 surveys with young people.
Our research has revealed that these aspirations are relatively stable over time. That is, similar percentages of students we surveyed at age 10-11 who said they would like to be engineers or scientists would still like to be engineers or scientists by age 17 or 18. We also found a considerable gap between interest and aspiration – while 73 per cent of young people at age 10 and 11 and 86 per cent of those aged 17 and 18 agreed that they learn interesting things in science, only 16 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds (and 12 per cent of 17 to 18-year-olds) aspired to a career in a related field.
In recent years, we’ve been able to identify several key factors that shape young people’s science identities and aspirations. The factors are complex and multiple and can be grouped into three key areas – capital-related inequalities; educational factors and practices; and dominant educational and social representations of science.
Capital-related inequalities include the impact that “science capital” has on the extent to which a young person experiences science as being “for me” or not. Science capital can be thought of as a conceptual holdall that encompasses all of a person’s science-related knowledge, attitudes, interests, participation outside of school and science-related social contacts and networks.
Evidence shows that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to and continue with science post-16 and the greater the likelihood that they will identify as a “science person”.
Teachers, careers education and school gatekeeping practices also have a big impact on young people’s science identity and trajectories. For example, restrictive entry to the most prestigious routes such as “triple science” at GCSE means that even many interested young people can find it difficult to continue with science.
And when it comes to educational and social representations, associations of science with “cleverness” and masculinity have also been found to restrict and narrow the likelihood of a young person identifying and continuing with science post-16. These stereotypes impact particularly negatively on female students, students from lower income backgrounds and some minority ethnic communities. While they impact on all the sciences, they are a particular issue in physics.
Based on the study’s findings, we have a number of recommendations for changes to education policy and practice. For instance, rather than just inspiring and informing, interventions can be more effective when they are longer term and focus on building science capital. In particular, changing everyday science teaching practice has a far greater positive impact on young people’s engagement with science compared with trying to change young people’s minds about science. Interested teachers and schools can access free resources, including the science capital teaching approach, by contacting us at the addresses below.
Our work is ongoing, but we already have a wide range of articles and resources to share. If you’d like to download any of the ASPIRES reports, or find out more about our research, please get in touch with us or head to our website.
By ASPIRES Research, on 3 April 2020
A re-post from the IOE blog from February 2020.
Efforts should be made to transform the culture and practices of engineering to help more women participate.
The findings, which form part of our ASPIRES project, draw on survey data from more than 20,000 English pupils. We explore and compare the effects of gender, ethnicity, and cultural capital on science and engineering aspirations.
Gender was identified as the main background factor related to engineering aspirations. Students who identified as male reported significantly higher engineering aspirations than students identifying as female. In contrast, we found that science aspirations are influenced by a broader range of factors than just gender, including ethnicity and cultural capital.
The research reveals that efforts aimed at improving participation in engineering might more usefully focus on challenging the current culture and practices as this could influence student perceptions. We suggest changing this may be more useful than focusing on changing student aspirations directly.
Our team also found that school-level factors become more important for engineering aspirations compared to science aspirations. This could be because most students do not encounter engineering as a school subject. Only 1 in 7 students age 15-16 said they talked about engineering at school and the majority said they did not know what engineers do in their work.
The lack of exposure to engineering potentially makes the choice of an engineering degree or career more difficult for students compared to other STEM disciplines.
Our recommendations are:
- Promoting a broader image of science and engineering to reflect the variety of careers available and to ensure that young people see science as ‘for me’;
- Valuing the knowledge and lived experience of students and use this to broaden young people’s engagement with STEM;
- Integrating engineering into the UK primary and secondary school curriculums to provide more opportunities for students;
- Encouraging better career support, especially for women and girls considering engineering;
- Broadening entry criteria for post-16 engineering routes.
Dr Julie Moote, Research Associate on the ASPIRES research projects and lead author of the paper, said: “Women, along with minority ethnic and low‐income communities remain underrepresented in engineering, despite a 30‐year history of research and equality legislation. While existing research gives insights into factors shaping retention and progression among university engineering students, comparatively less is known with respect to primary and secondary school students’ engineering aspirations and perceptions.
“Increasing and widening participation in engineering will require action on several fronts – not only increasing awareness of engineering careers but also reducing entry barriers and addressing inequalities within engineering itself.”
By qtnvacl, on 2 August 2019
A re-post from the IOE blog (available here) written by Tatiana Souteiro Dias and Emily MacLeod.
Collaboration with individuals and organisations beyond academia for the benefit of society is an increasingly important part of research teams’ activities. But how can academics achieve this when there are so many competing priorities? For Professor Louise Archer, Principal Investigator of the ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 project – who received the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize Panel’s Choice Award this week – investing time and effort in building long-term relationships based on trust and respect is one of the answers.
The multiple award winning team of ASPIRES, a longitudinal research project studying young people’s science and career ambitions from age 10 to 19, shared their successful impact strategies as part of the first IOE Impact Meet-up, a new series of workshops bringing together experts, doctoral students and early career researchers from the IOE to discuss how to make authentic impact a key consideration in research projects from their inception.
Professor Archer also advocates the idea of ‘co-serving’ as part of a successful impact strategy; she explained that she is always working with and learning from stakeholders through a wide range of formats, including advisory groups, sitting on committees, being a Trustee and close partnership work, such as co-designing teaching approaches with teachers.
Professor Archer and project officer Emily Macleod described the way their project has influenced science education policy and informed change in organisations as varied as the Science Museum Group, the Greater London Authority and Education Scotland – and how this was achieved.
Here are five takeaways from the talk:
1- Research impact is for the long run – It may take years for researchers, policymakers and members of organisations outside academia to gain the mutual trust and understanding required for the research impact to fully develop. Therefore, remember to consistently record the dissemination of your work and its impact from the beginning of the project, as you never know where it will lead, advises the team. Research projects may end, but the impact will continue.
To this effect, Emily Macleod recommends a simple spreadsheet to record what impact has occurred, who the impact has influenced, and how it was achieved, as well as the following categories:
- Date of impact
- Source/Output of impact
- Author/Actor of impact, and the type of author (e.g. teacher, charity, government department)
- Whether the impact is UK-based or International
- Audience Reached by the impact
- Key finding(s) from the research which influenced the impact
- Evidence of the impact
2- Learn how to work in new registers and speak the stakeholders’ language.Organisations may have a different culture and work in very different ways than researchers are used to. Although it is not always easy to achieve, Professor Louise Archer highlighted the importance of always considering and working to understand others’ points of view as well as their needs and interests when working collaboratively.
3- Institutional memory can be easily lost. Key employees, internal communications officers and, to a lesser extent, civil servants the team built relationships with moved on – and with them went the prior knowledge of the project. Continuous engagement then is required. Often, the team needed to start again from scratch. Policy changes due to emerging government priorities might also become a barrier to achieving impact, and a degree of flexibility and serendipity comes into play.
4- Be open and responsive. Having a communications officer as part of the research project team proved to be a valuable addition, as the researchers were alerted about useful developments within the world of policy that they might otherwise have missed. For instance, the communications officer who worked on the ASPIRES 2 project in 2018 found out about a newly created All Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM – the British Science Association APPG. This led to an opportunity for Archer to make a strong case for reviewing the effectiveness and desirability of the current GCSE Triple Science system (for more information see Aspires Triple Science Policy Briefing).
5- Partner with professional services staff. Large national research projects such as ASPIRES often have the budget and ability to incorporate a project officer to help plan and record their public engagement and impact activities in a timely, consistent and organised manner. As such, the expertise of professional services staff is highly valuable and saves academics crucial time. The researchers also benefited from a regular newsletter summarising key policy developments for an academic audience issued by the Public Affairs and Policy team.
By qtnvacl, on 11 July 2019
We are delighted to announce that the ASPIRES2 project has won the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize, and was finalist in the award’s Outstanding Societal Impact category.
Watch a video about our project impact here:
More information about the ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Prize 2019 here.
By qtnvacl, on 21 November 2018
By Dr Julie Moote
ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr Julie Moote recently spoke at the first workshop on high energy theory and gender at CERN. Threaded through the theoretical physics presentations by scientists were a series of gender talks by academics working across the field. This blog is a summary of Dr Moote’s presentation of findings from the ASPIRES 2 project; ‘Understanding Young Women’s STEM Aspirations: Exploring aspirations and attitudes between the ages of 10 and 19 in England’.
Participation in post-compulsory physics remains low and unchanged, with the proportion of students studying physics at A level in the UK noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. Not only do a minority of students tend to see physics as ‘for me’, but the field of physics itself also shapes and normalises its elite status.
Beyond issues of the STEM skills gap, physics especially suffers from under-representation of women and minority groups. The Institute of Physics recently found that boys were four times more likely to progress to A-level having done triple science over additional science, a disparity that is reflected to a slightly lesser extent across the STEM disciplines. This imbalance carries through to physics-based employment; for example although the number of women in engineering in the UK is growing, women still only make up 11% of the UK engineering workforce.
Who is studying physics? The ASPIRES 2 Findings
The ASPIRES 2 project found that gender was the biggest difference between students taking physics A Level and those taking other sciences at A level. Physics students were also more likely to have high levels of cultural capital, be in the top set for science, have taken Triple Science and have family members working in science.
Students’ interest, enjoyment and aptitude is not enough to pursue physics post-16
The ‘gender problem’ in physics is a long-standing issue with women remaining under-represented despite decades of interventions. Therefore, physics remains a challenging education and career option for women. In fact, girls’ choices not to pursue post-16 physics are rational and strategic, especially as gender inequality within physics renders their success harder. Physics is highly effective at maintaining its elite status by discouraging ‘non traditional’ students and by ensuring that those students who do gain entry accept the status quo;
- Firstly, the popular and prevalent, gendered notion of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ (e.g. see Carlone’s 2003 study) means that many young women think they are not ‘naturally’ clever enough to study physics further. In turn, this maintains physics’ status as the ‘hardest’ science. The fantasy of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ deters even highly able, interested young women from aspiring to post-18 physics education and careers. If the most highly attaining young women don’t see themselves as ‘clever enough’, who is?
- Gatekeeping practices by schools work to block potential students from studying Physics and leads other students to self-exclude.
- The separation of ‘real’ and school Physics gives the impression that ‘real’ Physics is only for the privileged few with the endurance to attain it (paper under review).
- Young women with very high Science Capital are more likely to continue with Physics.
Significant change is needed and will only be achieved by transforming the field of Physics itself, rather than focusing on just changing the students (e.g. changing their aspirations and attitudes).
We strongly encourage those who work within the field of Physics to understand and challenge the existing (often taken-for-granted, everyday) ways that the subject reproduces inequality in participation. We see a real value in opening up the current excessively tight gatekeeping practices around entry to Physics A level. In particular, there is a need to disband notions of the ‘effortlessly clever’ physicist, and the notion that physics is ‘harder’ than other subjects – otherwise it will remain the preserve of just a small number of ‘exceptional’ students.
We propose changes to the way school science – and Physics in particular – is taught and experienced:
- Differences in marking and grade severity across and between subjects should be eliminated.
- Science and particularly physics should be taught in ways which better link to diverse students’ interests and lives. The Science Capital Teaching Approach has been shown to be helpful in this respect for increasing student engagement and participation in school science.
- Physics (and indeed all) teachers should be better supported to understand the complex and sometimes hidden ways in which gendered, classed and racialized inequalities are reproduced through teaching.
For more information about the conference please visit CERN’s website. Following the event, CERN published a statement; CERN stands for diversity (which can be found here). For Dr Moote’s response to events at the conference please see here.
We also recommend the following reading from the ASPIRES 2 project on the topic of physics and gender:
- DeWitt, J., Archer, L. & Moote. (2018). 15/16-Year-Old Students’ Reasons for Choosing and Not Choosing Physics at A Level. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-018-9900-4.
- Archer, L., Moot
- e, J., Francis, B., DeWitt, J. & Yeomans, L. (2017). The ‘exceptional’ physics/ engineering girl: A sociological analysis of longitudinal data from girls aged 10-16 to explore gendered patterns of post-16 participation. American Educational Research Journal. doi: 10.3102/0002831216678379.
- Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J. DeWitt, J., MacLeod, E., Yeomans, L. (2017). The Construction of Physics as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: Young People’s Perceptions of Gender Issues in Access to Physics. Sex Roles. doi: 10.1007/s11199-016-0669-z.
- Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J., DeWitt, J. & Yeomans, L. (2016). Femininity, science, and the denigration of the girly girl. British Journal of Sociology of Education. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2016.1253455.
Additional papers under review. Sign up to receive project updates and publication news here.
By qtnvacl, on 29 October 2018
The winner of the 2018 British Educational Research Association (BERA) Public Engagement and Impact award is The ASPIRES/ ASPIRES 2 team, along with our colleagues Enterprising Science, for our research on ‘science capital’ and educational inequalities.
BERA cited the research’s impact on national and international science education policy, practice, and understanding “across government departments, national institutions, museums, science centres, and major science and engineering professional societies.”
Professor Archer, on behalf of the ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 and Enterprising Science team said: “We are absolutely delighted to win this award and would like to thank all the young people, teachers, schools and parents who have so kindly taken part in our research. We are also very grateful to all the stakeholder organisations who we work with. These relationships have been instrumental to our professional learning, helping us to sharpen our thinking, translate ideas and develop a richer appreciation of the potential relationship between research, policy and practice.”
The British Educational Research Association (BERA) award recognises the important impact of educational research and practice and celebrates significant contributions and activities that demonstrably engage the public.
From the BERA Panel: “The ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 and Enterprising Science research projects team originated the concept of ‘science capital’, developed new understandings of what produces unequal patterns in science participation, and developed a teaching approach to improve science engagement. Their research has dramatically changed science education policy and practice both nationally and internationally, shifting understanding, policy and practice across government departments, national institutions, museums, science centres, and major science and engineering professional societies. The team’s work reflects their commitment to social justice, and demonstrates their ability to lead sustained improvement in broadening STEM aspirations, participation, and diversity based on strong conceptual, empirical research.”
It’s time to ‘open up physics’ if we want to bring in more girls and shift the subject’s declining uptake
By Rebekah Hayes, on 5 September 2018
Despite numerous campaigns over many years, getting more students to study physics after GCSE remains a huge challenge. The proportion of students in the UK taking physics at A level is noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. This low uptake of physics, particularly by girls, has implications not only for the national economy, but for equity, especially as it can be a valuable route to prestigious, well-paid careers.
ASPIRES 2 is a 10-year longitudinal study, tracking children’s science and career aspirations from ages 10–19. This briefing focuses on data collected when students were in Year 11 (ages 15/16), a key year for students in England as they make decisions about their next steps, including which subjects to pursue at A level. Over 13,445 Year 11 students were surveyed and we also carried out interviews with a smaller number of students and parents, all previously tracked through ASPIRES.
Students were then classified into those who were planning to study A level physics and those who were intending to study biology and chemistry but not physics.
Who Chooses Physics?
The profiles of the science students who did and did not plan to take physics were very similar, especially in terms of ethnicity, cultural capital, family science background and attainment.
Overall, both groups were more likely to be Asian or Middle Eastern and have higher levels of cultural capital, compared with those not planning to study science. They were also likely to be in the top set for science and have family members working in science.
The biggest difference between the groups was gender. Of the students surveyed who were intending to study A levels, 42% were male and 58% were female. However, among physics students, 65% were male and 35% were female. Put differently, 36% of boys were planning to study A level Physics but only 14% of girls were planning to do so, a highly significant difference.
Reasons for A Level Choices
In both the survey and interviews, students were asked about their reasons for their A level choices.
All A level science students chose usefulness, enjoyment and ‘to help me get into university’ as their top reasons. However, we identified the following key areas of difference:
- Enjoyment of physics
Physics students were significantly more likely to report enjoyment of physics as a primary reason for choosing the subject, compared to their non-physics counterparts.
Maths and physics – I just chose them cos I enjoy those subjects… Because most sort of degrees or whatever just require maths and physics. (Bob, physics A level student)
- The abstract nature of physics
While both groups of students regarded the subject as abstract (‘things you can’t experience or see’), this abstractness was actually part of the appeal for some physics choosers, whereas it was not so appealing to non-physics students.
With theoretical physics you can go like really complicated and just, like, you know, mind-blowing. (Davina, physics A level student)
Both groups of students were aware of the link between maths and physics but they differed in the extent to which they liked and felt good at maths. 76% of physics students agreed that maths is one of their best subjects, whilst this was the case for only 22% of non-physics students.
73% of non-physics students described the subject as the area of science they found most difficult, compared to 22% of physics students.
- Perceived usefulness
Students differed in the extent to which they saw physics as being necessary for future aspirations. For example, 12 of the 13 students interviewed who wanted to study A level physics expressed aspirations that were linked to physics, with over half interested in engineering.
In contrast, 86% of surveyed students who wanted to study biology or chemistry expressed an interest in being a doctor/working in medicine, for which physics was not seen as necessary, as this student elucidated:
Physics isn’t actually quite needed for forensic [science]… but chemistry, biology and English is needed. (Vanessa, non-physics student)
It appears that students wanting to study A level physics find the subject personally relevant to their future careers, rather than just valuable or useful in a broader sense.
For students wanting to study A level physics, high attainment and the ‘hard’, exceptional nature of the subject fitted well with their identity, making them well suited for a subject with a difficult, distinctive (‘mind-blowing’) image.
Our findings emphasise just how deep-seated the issue of equitable physics participation is. Simply ‘making physics more interesting’ or emphasising its relevance to everyday life is not enough, especially to increase uptake by students from underrepresented groups.
More work must be done to address the perceptions and choices influenced by the shared image of physics.
We call for the opening up of physics. For example, in the UK, there are disproportionate grade requirements for entry into physics. This restricts who is allowed to choose physics and reinforces the idea of physics as ‘hard’, so students are more likely to see the subject as ‘not for me’.
The syllabus should be re-examined and restructured to be more attainable and relevant for a wider range of students.
We also propose changes to the way science—and physics in particular—is taught in the classroom. Our sister project Enterprising Science has developed the Science Capital Teaching Approach, which aims to make student engagement and participation in science more equitable. This approach includes broadening what is recognised and valued in the science classroom, drawing on students’ own experiences and contributions.
Ultimately, big changes are needed, not tweaks, if we are going to shift the inequitable and declining uptake of physics.
This blog is a summary of the following open access article: DeWitt, J., Archer, L. & Moote. (2018). 15/16-Year-Old Students’ Reasons for Choosing and Not Choosing Physics at A Level. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-018-9900-4.
Photo: Mary Hinkley, © UCL digital media
By qtnvacl, on 10 July 2018
ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr Julie Moote has given expert evidence to an inquiry on the barriers to work experience. Dr Moote provided evidence from the ASPIRES 2 project which shows that the provision of work experience opportunities in England is patterned by social inequalities (see here for more information).
The inquiry comes at a time when more than half a million young people are unemployed, and with a recent YouGov poll highlighting that 58 per cent of all 11-18 year olds cite a lack of work experience as a barrier to future employment.
To find out more about the evidence visit the Youth Select Committee website.
UPDATE 14th November 2018 – A report of the evidence has now been published; Realising the potential of Work Experience.