Science vs. STEM: How does ‘science capital’ relate to young people’s STEM aspirations?
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.
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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).