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ASPIRES research: project blog


Studying the science and career aspirations of 10-23 year olds.


Archive for the 'Education Research' Category

What are 21-22 year olds’ experiences of careers support?

By l.archer, on 3 May 2024

By Emily Ashford, Louise Archer and Jennifer DeWitt 

Effective careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) can play a valuable role in helping young people to make informed decisions about their future, for instance by providing young people with information about various educational and career options, the qualification routes required to pursue these and through practical support, for instance, with CV writing, preparing job applications, and interview techniques. Research conducted with senior leaders in schools and colleges found that almost three quarters (72%) thought that careers education provision has become even more important in recent years (Gatsby Foundation, 2020). Moreover, access to good quality careers support is recognised as being even more crucial for those from the most deprived communities, underscoring the need for equitable provision nationwide.  

The statutory guidance requires that schools and colleges provide comprehensive careers education to young people from age 11-18. Educational institutions are required to inform young people about approved technical education qualifications and apprenticeships as well as academic routes. The guidance provides parameters regarding the duration and content of careers service sessions and is aimed at trying to ensure that high-quality standards are maintained (DfE, 2015). 

The requirements change after young people reach age 18, with legally mandated guidance only applicable to students with an existing education, health and care plan up until the age of 25. While a range of careers provision exists for young people after the age of 18 (for instance, as provided through universities, employers and national bodies such as the National Careers Service), less is known about the experiences of young adults in accessing careers provision and any demographic patterns in terms of who is accessing provision. 

The ASPIRES project 

The ASPIRES study tracked a cohort of young people who were born in 1998-1999 from age 10-22. The first phase followed the young people from age 10 to 14, the second phase tracked up to age 19, and the third phase followed the young people as they move into adulthood and employment, from age 20 to 23.    

The study uses quantitative, large-scale surveys (and has surveyed c. 47,000 young people to date) and qualitative data, comprising over 750 interviews conducted over time with a subset of 50 young people and their parents/ carers.   

This article focuses on data from the latest wave of the survey, conducted with 21-22 year olds. It explores young people’s experiences and perspectives of what, if any, careers support they had received in the 12 months leading up to the survey. 


We asked young people a series of questions about their experiences of careers advice as part of our survey. We first focused on the proportion of young people who had received any careers advice in the last 12 months at the time of the survey. We then examined responses by gender, ethnicity, IMD (indices of multiple deprivation), and education/employment status.  

 Table 1: Percentage of young people who had accessed careers support in the last 12 months 

Group  Yes  No  Don’t know  
Overall    30% 


65%  5% 
Female  29%  67%  4% 
Male  33%  63%  4% 
Other  26%  54%  20% 
Black  49%  45%  6% 
Asian  36%  55%  9% 
White  28%  68%  4% 
Chinese or East Asian  46%  49%  5% 
Other  34%  59%  7% 
1st and 2nd Quintiles (Lowest)  29%  65%  6% 
3rd Quintile   30%  65%  5% 
4th and 5th Quintiles (Highest)  32%  64%  4% 
North East   27%  67%  6% 
North West   29%  65%  6% 
Yorkshire and the Humber   26%  68%  6% 
East Midlands  31%  63%  6% 
West Midlands   31%  65%  4% 
South West   26%  70%  4% 
East of England   28%  67%  5% 
South East   30%  65%  5% 
London   39%  55%  6% 
Employment/Education Status        
Any work or education   29%  66%  5% 
NEET  35%  56%  9% 
Something else   32%  55%  15% 

Percentages rounded to nearest whole numbers. A very small proportion of young people did not provide an answer for this question. 

As detailed in Table 1, most (65%) of the young people had not received any careers support in the past year. Differences were observed by gender, IMD, and ethnicity, especially between those of White and Black ethnic origin (28% vs 49%). London stood out with a higher proportion of young people having received CEIAG in the last year compared with other regions. Just over a third (35%) of NEET young people (those not in education or employment) had received careers support compared with 29% of those in some form of education, work or training. 

When asked how confident they felt that they would be able to access quality careers support if they wanted/ needed it, 55% of 21-22 year olds said that they would know where to turn, while 33% were uncertain and 12% did not know. 

Among those who had received some form of CEIAG in the last 12 months, common sources included: one-to-one sessions with advisors (n=789), advice from employers or colleagues (n=714), professional career talks (n=703), and online resources (n=703). Less common sources were lessons from tutors (n=337) and careers questionnaires (n=153). Additional sources of careers support mentioned included university tutors, family, emails from university careers services, and job centres. 

For those who had not accessed careers support, the main reasons given were lack of time (n=1,337), unavailability of support (n=1,315), not feeling the need (n=1,303), and difficulties in accessing services (n=1,160). Fewer individuals felt that the available support did not meet their needs (n=150). When asked to elaborate, many mentioned that the support on offer was too general and lacked specific, relevant information to their own situation. Importantly, caring responsibilities, physical or mental disabilities, and mental health concerns were also cited as key barriers preventing young people from accessing careers support. 


In our study, almost two thirds of 21-22 year olds had not received any CEIAG in the last 12 months, suggesting a relatively low rate of access and uptake of the various services on offer nationwide. Access varied between regions and by demographics. The findings highlight the existing challenges and disparities in the provision and accessibility of careers support for young adults and suggest that some of those who might benefit most from support were not receiving such provision.  

It is notable that we found a generally low rate of careers support uptake across young people, with only around a third or less having accessed provision in the last year. This is particularly concerning for those who are NEET, who are arguably especially in need of careers support. While statutory guidance for CEIAG extends to all students in schools or colleges up to the age of 18, there is a notable absence of legally mandated guidance to ensure continued support for young people beyond this age, unless they have an existing education, health, and care plan in place. This lack of mandated support may create additional challenges in reaching and assisting individuals over the age of 18 who could benefit.  Some of the main barriers cited to accessing CEIAG – notably lack of time, lack of available support and relevance/ appropriateness of provision – suggest that more might usefully be done to ensure that more young people are able to access high quality, relevant careers support. 

In order to improve the accessibility and uptake of careers support and services, further collaboration between government, educational institutions, employers, and community organisations may be valuable for ensuring more equitable and effective provision to young adults as they start or transition into the world of early career employment.  



Department for Education. (2023). Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/careers-guidance-provision-for-young-people-in-schools [Accessed 16 March 2023]  

Gatsby Foundation. (2020). Secondary School and College leadership views on the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Careers Guidance. Harrogate: Pye Tait Consulting. Available at: https://www.gatsby.org.uk/uploads/education/reports/pdf/secondary-school-and-college-leadership-views-on-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-careers-guidance-summer-2020.pdf [Accessed 16 March 2023]  

Is science capital related to positive education, employment, and health outcomes at age 21?

By l.archer, on 26 April 2024

By Emily Ashford, Jennifer DeWitt and Louise Archer 

 The ASPIRES research study is a longitudinal project studying young people’s science and career aspirations from age 10-22. The study has been ongoing since 2009.   

Young people’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is beneficial for many reasons, including developing critical thinking skills for active citizenship and future career opportunities. Increasing and diversifying participation in STEM is also a pressing issue for many policy makers who recognise the various societal and economic implications associated with this aim, including: global economic competitiveness; workforce development, addressing gender and diversity gaps; and navigating environmental and health challenges (to name but a few).  

Science capital

In this article, we use the term ‘science capital’ to refer to a young person’s knowledge and understanding about science and how it works, their science-related interest, attitudes, activities outside of school, and social contacts (e.g., knowing someone who works in a science-related profession). We use an index measure of science capital that has been previously developed, published and reported on, which consists of a set of questions related to key areas of science capital (e.g. science-related attitudes, activities, social contacts) that are used to produce a ‘science capital score’ for each individual. 

Previous analyses have shown that young people who record ‘high’ levels of science capital are significantly more likely to pursue science at A Level and degree level. In this article, we consider the question: does science capital have a positive relationship with an individual’s wider outcomes, outside of their participation in STEM qualifications? We look at outcomes such as active citizenship, feeling prepared for work by school, being in good health and job satisfaction. 

The ASPIRES project

The ASPIRES study tracked a cohort of young people who were born in 1998-1999 from age 10-22. The first phase followed the young people from age 10 to 14, the second phase tracked up to age 19, and the third phase followed the young people as they move into adulthood and employment, from age 20 to 23.  

The study uses quantitative, large-scale surveys (and has surveyed c. 47,000 young people to date) and qualitative data, comprising over 750 interviews conducted over time with a subset of 50 young people and their parents/ carers.  

Using the science capital index scoring system, we divided the participants into three science capital groupings representing low, medium, and high science capital scores. We then looked at whether individual outcomes such as active citizenship, positive outlook, good health, and higher life and job satisfaction at age 21 were associated with particular levels of science capital, before investigating whether outcomes were still related once we accounted for gender, ethnicity, income, and cultural capital (which was measured by their parents’ attendance at university).  


When we looked at the relationship between science capital and the outcomes individually, we found that having a high level of science capital was related to:  

  • Active citizenship 
  • Positive future outlook 
  • Feeling that school prepared them well for their future 
  • Good health 
  • Higher life satisfaction
  • Higher job satisfaction 
  • Higher income  
  • Higher likelihood of being in education or training at age 21.   

Next, we were interested as to whether science capital could just be an alternative measure of privilege. We also wanted to see how closely related science capital was to some of these outcomes above (the ones with closer relationships to begin with), in the presence of other factors. Therefore, we created statistical models to account for measures that might play a part in the relationship, i.e., gender, ethnicity, cultural capital, and income.   

Our results showed that, even when accounting for other factors: 

  • Higher levels of science capital were strongly related to active citizenship.
  • A significant association was found between high science capital and positive future outlook. Likewise, a significant association was found between science capital and higher job satisfaction, even when income was accounted for
  • Science capital was the factor most strongly related to good health (income was the only other variable that was related at all).  
  • Science capital was significantly related to being in work, education, or training at age 21, as was having at least one parent who attended university
  • Finally, science capital was the only measure that was significantly associated with how well young people felt that their education prepared them well for the future. Particularly,  having low science capital decreased the likelihood of a young person feeling that school prepared them well, even when accounting for other factors.  


In our study, high science capital was closely related to a range of positive outcomes at age 21 including active citizenship, positive future outlook, higher job satisfaction, good health, and feeling as though school had prepared them well for their future. Many of these relationships remained significant once we added in factors such as gender, ethnicity, cultural capital, and income. Interestingly, a strong relationship was found between feeling that school prepared them well for their future at age 21 and having a high level of science capital.  

It’s worth emphasising that we endeavoured to capture science capital independent of cultural capital, and it seems unlikely that science capital was simply another measure of privilege in our research, as science capital was much more closely and consistently related to a range of positive outcomes than cultural capital.  

It is well acknowledged that children should have opportunities to engage with and succeed in science education, but it is important for policymakers to consider the power of science capital on outcomes aside from academic involvement in STEM. Addressing and supporting science capital may provide policy makers with another useful approach for working towards reducing educational inequalities.  

Do university students feel that A levels prepared them well for degree study?

By l.archer, on 19 April 2024

By Emily Ashford, Jennifer DeWitt and Louise Archer 

 The ASPIRES research study is a longitudinal project studying young people’s science and career aspirations from age 10-22. The study has been ongoing since 2009.  Beyond its primary focus on STEM trajectories, the study is also interested in young people’s perceptions of their life, work, and education. In this article, we examine did university students in our sample feel that A Levels had prepared them well for degree study?  

University students’ perceptions of how well they felt A-levels have prepared them for degree study is important in the context of current UK policy, given contemporary debates around the future of A-Levels. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic amplified discussions about alternative assessment methods and in recent years, various policy concerns relating to A levels have been raised, for instance, questioning the ‘jump’ between GCSE and A level, the practice of grade inflation in some subjects, and the extent to which A levels fit with university admissions and entry requirements.  Most notably, in October 2023, the UK Government announced a planned new qualification for 16–19-year-olds – the Advanced British Standard, which is envisaged to combine A Levels and T Levels. Proponents claim it will put technical and academic education on an equal footing, with the prime minister stating that the qualification will ‘help to spread opportunity and benefit students for generations to come, demonstrating our clear commitment to make the right decisions for the long-term future of our country’ (UK Gov, 2023).  

The ASPIRES project

The ASPIRES study tracked a cohort of young people who were born in 1998-1999 from age 10-22. The first phase followed the young people from age 10 to 14, the second phase tracked up to age 19, and the third phase followed the young people as they move into adulthood and employment, from age 20 to 23.    

The study uses quantitative, large-scale surveys (and has surveyed c. 47,000 young people to date) and qualitative data, comprising over 750 interviews conducted over time with a subset of 50 young people and their parents/ carers.   

We asked university students how well they felt their A Levels had prepared them for degree study. We compared their responses based on whether the student studied a STEM/non-STEM subject, and compared students from different backgrounds, for example looking at gender, ethnicity and index of multiple deprivation (IMD, hereafter) which is often used as a measure of poverty.  


First, we looked at whether there were any differences in how well students felt they had been prepared by A levels between students who were taking different subjects at undergraduate level. At opposite ends of the scale, we can see that 61% of Maths degree students agreed that they had been well prepared by their A-Levels, whilst only 37% of Biology students felt the same.  

Figure 1: Percentage of students that felt their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study in our sample, stratified by STEM and non-STEM undergraduate degree.  

Combining across subject areas, roughly half of all students agreed that their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study. However, when we delved deeper into the data some potentially interesting patterns emerged.  


Characteristic   % STEM Students agreeing A levels had prepared them well for degree 
Male   55.7%  
Female   53.3%  
White   57.7%  
BAME  48.8%  
1&2 (Lowest group)  46.8% 
3 (Middle Group)  65.5% 
4&5 (Highest Group)  57.0%  

Table 1: Percentage of STEM undergraduate students in our sample who felt that their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study, stratified by gender, ethnicity and indices of multiple deprivation.  

As Table 1 shows, the percentage of STEM students who felt they had been well prepared by their A-Levels varies across characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and IMD. Here we see that the lowest percentages of students agreeing that A Levels prepared them well for degree study are found among women, racially minoritised and the lowest income students. When we tested for statistical significance, income and ethnicity were both significantly associated with feeling prepared for degree study by their A-Levels (whilst gender was not). That is, white students and middle- and higher- income students felt most prepared by A levels for their degree study. 

We also repeated the analysis to look at students who were doing non-STEM subjects at undergraduate level and the patterns were similar but with slightly smaller percentage differences between the groups. For non-STEM students, income and ethnicity were significantly associated with feeling prepared for degree study.  

The table above does not include medicine. When we analysed the data using two groups including medicine, STEMM students and non-STEMM students, we saw the same patterns emerging. However, in this latter case, income was the only factor that was statistically significant.  


The longitudinal design of this study provides a unique and comprehensive lens through which we can analyse student narratives and perceptions of work, education, and training. The ASPIRES study reveals useful new insights into students’ views of how well they feel their A-Levels have prepared them for degree study.  

It is important to highlight that – across all groups – roughly only half of students felt that their A Levels have prepared them well for their undergraduate degree study. It appears that there are socio-economic factors that can affect this, as income and ethnicity were significantly associated with feeling prepared for university (and this was true across STEM and non-STEM groups). More research is required to understand more thoroughly the relationship between these factors. 

Arguably, more students should feel that their A Levels are a worthwhile stepping stone to their undergraduate study, and we hope that our findings might be helpful to policymakers as they shape future educational policies and initiatives. As new reforms are introduced, it would seem helpful for research to continue to investigate and understand students perceptions of their education.  


New qualifications to deliver world class education for all – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 

ASPIRES3 Report Launch & Installation Exhibition Video

By b.francis-hew, on 5 February 2024

Watch our ASPIRES3 Report Launch and Installation Exhibition Video

We are excited to present the ASPIRES3 Report Launch and Installation Exhibition video! Click the link below to download a HD version of the video.


Check out the video here:


For more information on the ASPIRES project and to access the full reports, click the link on the sidebar, or use: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/education-practice-and-society/aspires-research

ASPIRES: The ‘Lost Scientists’ Research Exhibition

By ASPIRES Research, on 23 January 2024

Blog: The ‘Lost Scientists’ Research Exhibition

In November 2023, the ASPIRES team launched the ‘ASPIRES3 Main report: Young people’s STEM trajectories, Age 10-22’ at The Royal Society in London. The report summarises the findings from the third phase of the ASPIRES research project, a fourteen-year, mixed methods investigation of the factors shaping young people’s trajectories into, through and out of STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Alongside the report launch the ASPIRES research team hosted a research exhibition representing ‘Lost Scientists’; young people with an interest and passion for STEM that have been unsupported and excluded by the education system and STEM fields. Their stories challenge dominant narratives which explain their absence from STEM as due to a lack of aspiration.

The ‘Lost Scientists’ exhibition was first developed by ASPIRES Director Prof Louise Archer, assisted by artist Maxi Himpe. It was informed by over 750 longitudinal interviews conducted by the ASPIRES project with young people from ages 10 to 21. The exhibition was inspired by the Wolfson Rooms at the Royal Society, where the exhibition was first held. The room resembles many other professional societies, typified by white marble busts and paintings of great scientists, mathematicians and engineers – who are overwhelmingly from white, male, privileged social backgrounds. Listen to an introduction to the exhibition here, read by Princess Emeanuwa.

At the centre of the exhibition was a life-cast bust, sculpted by Masters & Munn, representing one participant in the ASPIRES study: “Vanessa” (a pseudonym), a young, working-class Black woman (modelled by Happiness Emeanuwa). When we first interviewed Vanessa aged ten, she expressed a passion for science. However, as her interviews reveal, over time she came to find that her ‘love for it wasn’t enough.’ Listen to the words of Vanessa here, read by Happiness Emeanuwa.

A bust of ‘Vanessa’, representing a participant of the ASPIRES project. scientists Photo credit: Yolanda Hadjidemetriou.

Vanessa represents all the potential scientists lost to social exclusion. Accompanying Vanessa are empty frames, designed to evoke other lost scientists. The ‘thesis’ placed next to Vanessa echoes the other dissertations in the Wolfson rooms and others, to remind us of the contributions that she and others like her might have made. In this way, the exhibition challenges us to re-think assumptions about the underrepresentation of women, racially minoritized and working-class young people in STEM. It invites the excluded to claim their rightful presence in elite scientific spaces.

Vanessa’s bust and an empty frame displayed amongst those of white scientists Photo credit: Yolanda Hadjidemetriou.

The ‘Lost Scientists’ exhibition will be on public display from January to March 2024 when it is being hosted by the Geological Society. If you are interested in hosting the exhibition in the future, or have any questions about this work, please contact our research team on ioe.stemparticipationsocialjustice@ucl.ac.uk.

What shapes people with disabilities’ scientific aspiration and capital? Reflexions on science capital and science museums

By ASPIRES Research, on 20 January 2023

Guest blog by Gabriela Heck

A Brazilian PhD student, Gabriela Heck, visited the ASPIRES team at UCL during her 6-month research exchange to the UK. In this blog she shares how the ASPIRES research helped inspired her own PhD project on inclusion in STEM for people with disabilities.

I first came across the ASPIRES project in 2021 and the findings helped inspire my own PhD research in Education, in Brazil. The ASPIRES findings show how various factors shape young people’s science identities and aspirations and, in particular, how these are heavily influenced by social inequalities (such as social class, gender and ethnicity) which in turn influence whether a young person has opportunities to experience, do well in, feel connected with, be recognised in, and continue with STEM. However, when we look closer at these inequalities in STEM, there is another underrepresented group, whose exclusion, I believe, needs to be considered more in depth: people with disabilities.

The exclusion of people with disabilities from STEM is an issue that I feel passionately about. I became aware of the exclusion of the Brazilian Deaf community from science while studying towards my Biology undergraduate (2018). There was a lack of materials and resources adapted to sign language, which can deter this community from feeling included and stop them from engaging with science.

In my PhD, I hypothesise that a lack of representation and accessibility in science leads people with disabilities to feel that this field is not for them and creates unequal patterns in scientific literacy, scientific aspiration and science capital.

To challenge these inequalities and promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the STEM field, together with supporting young people’s science aspirations and science capital, my PhD proposes to look at how science museums can (better) support the science-related inclusion and aspirations of people with disabilities.

My research aims to identify both different accessibility features in science museums that can help people with disabilities to engage with science and also the forms of exclusion that are present in exhibitions and museum spaces. I will interview visitors with disabilities and understand their perspectives and experiences regarding science museum accessibility and their perceptions of how welcoming they feel that science museums are for visitors with disabilities. I also hope to explore how science museums can contribute to individuals’ science capital.

Between August 2022 and January 2023, I undertook a small-scale research project at Newcastle University and in October 2022 I was pleased to visit UCL to talk with the STEM Participation & Social Justice group about my PhD project and other activities that I have developed in Brazil, related to Science Capital.

Professor Louise Archer (ASPIRES Project Director) stood on the left of Gabriela Heck in an office with books on the shelves behind them.Louise wears a green flowery top and Gabriela has on a bright yellow jumper.

Professor Louise Archer (ASPIRES Project Director) with Gabriela Heck.

Since 2021, I have been translating and summarising materials produced by the research group into Portuguese, and have made them available on social media, with subtitles and with translation to Libras (Brazilian Sign Language). I worked with the STEM Participation & Social Justice group (which the ASPIRSES project is a part of) to translate the YESTEM Equity Compass into Portuguese, and helped translate the Primary Science Capital Teaching Approach too.

I believe that Science Capital is a useful concept for understanding inequalities in science participation and the factors that lead to the (dis)continuation of young people in scientific fields after compulsory education. When focusing on people with disabilities, it can help us to understand the causes of their exclusion and foreground the lack of accessibility and representation as well as helping us to consider measures to support their inclusion and wellbeing in STEM. Breaking down barriers so that more people can be inspired by and engage with science not only expands the number of people who can work in STEM jobs, diversity also benefits and enriches STEM, enhances innovation and can help create a fairer and more inclusive society.

Further Reading

You can find Gabriela’s Portuguese summary resources on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Why do some young people pursue chemistry degrees while others do not?

By ASPIRES Research, on 19 October 2022

This blog is based on findings published in Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

Throughout primary and secondary school, Preeti, a British South Asian young woman, consistently named chemistry as her favourite subject. She took the subject at A level, experienced good quality teaching and obtained top grades. She had positive attitudes to the subject and recognised its value – yet Preeti never considered pursuing chemistry at degree level – why not?

In recent years chemistry degree enrolments have been declining in England, despite increases in A Level chemistry enrolment1. Researchers from the ASPIRES 3 study analysed interviews and survey responses from over 520 young people who took A Level chemistry and either did, or did not, go on to study chemistry in higher education. The findings revealed how chemistry degree subject choices were highly relational – shaped not only by young people’s attitudes towards and experiences of chemistry, but also how it related to other options.

Young person pouring chemical into a measuring cylinder in a fume cupboard

Young person during a practical chemistry lesson.

The latest round of ASPIRES data was collected when our cohort was aged 20-22. In order to understand the factors shaping young people’s chemistry degree choices, researchers analysed open-ended survey responses from 506 young people aged 21-22 and 185 longitudinal interviews conducted with 18 young people (and their parents) who were tracked from age 10-22, all of whom had taken A level chemistry.

Of the 524 chemistry A Level students in the sample, just 83 (or 16%) went on to study for degrees in chemistry or chemistry-related degrees2.

One key finding was that degree subject choices are highly relational – that is, choosing a chemistry degree, or not, was not only based on young people’s views or experiences of chemistry but was formulated in relation to other options. This relational interpretation helped explain why even students with positive views and experiences of chemistry did not choose the subject at degree level.

A number of factors were identified as influencing young people’s degree choices including their experiences of school chemistry, feeling ‘(not) clever enough’ to continue with the subject, perceptions of chemistry jobs, associations of chemistry with masculinity, encouragement from others and experiences of chemistry outreach. Across all of these factors, social inequalities within and beyond chemistry affected the extent to which young people felt that a chemistry degree might be ‘for me’, producing unequal patterns of participation. For instance, common associations of chemistry with masculinity and cleverness put some young people off from continuing with the subject3. This was particularly apparent for young women, irrespective of their actual attainment.

The women who did pursue chemistry spoke about having to find ways to negotiate their own femininity in the masculine world of chemistry. Some young people also described how, despite enjoying chemistry, they had found a deeper, more meaningful connection with another subject, particularly where they had related resources (capital).

Professor Archer explained, “young people’s subject choice is a relational phenomenon. Their views on chemistry do not exist in silo but are shaped in relation to other options”.

The paper makes several suggestions to better support chemistry degree uptake. Some of these suggestions include supporting teachers and initiatives to help young people find and experience personal connections with chemistry and to build chemistry-related capital by offering encouragement, information on career routes, and access to high quality chemistry work experience and outreach.

The full paper can be accessed online.

Further reading

Archer, L., Francis, B., Moote, J., Watson, E., Henderson, M., Holmegaard, H., & MacLeod, E. (2022). Reasons for not/choosing chemistry: Why advanced level chemistry students in England do/not pursue chemistry undergraduate degrees. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 1– 36. doi: 10.1002/tea.21822

  1. Chemistry participation figure are based on participation figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and Join Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
  2. In this case, chemistry degrees include chemistry, chemical engineering, and biochemistry.
  3. Archer, L., Moote, J., MacLeod, E., Francis, B., & DeWitt, J. (2020). ASPIRES 2: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10-19. London: UCL Institute of Education.

Has lockdown changed young people’s aspirations?

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.

Our recent report summarises our findings on how COVID-19 has impacted young people’s lives in England. Find out more about the ASPIRES study on our website ucl.ac.uk/ioe-aspires.

*All names in this blog and the report are pseudonyms to keep participant’s identities confidential.

SchoolsWeek: Why do students value science but not want to be scientists?

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.

Changes in engineering are required to help more women participate

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.”

Read the full paper: ‘Comparing students’ engineering and science aspirations from age 10 to 16: Investigating the role of gender, ethnicity, cultural capital, and attitudinal factors