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ASPIRES research: project blog


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


Archive for the 'Findings' Category

Has lockdown changed young people’s aspirations?

Emma V Watson20 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?

Emma V Watson3 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

Emma V Watson3 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

It’s time to ‘open up physics’ if we want to bring in more girls and shift the subject’s declining uptake

Rebekah Hayes5 September 2018

Physics building entrance sign at UCL

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.

The latest research from ASPIRES 2 explores why students do or do not continue with physics by focusing on students who could have chosen physics, but opted for other sciences instead.

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)

  • Mathematics

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.

  • Difficulty

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.

  • Identity

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.

What Now?

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

ASPIRES 2 in the Skills, Employment and Health Journal

IOE Digital6 December 2016


Following a presentation by ASPIRES 2 Director Professor Louise Archer at Learning and Work’s Youth Employment Convention 2016 on 5th December, we wrote an article for the Skills, Employment and Health Journal.

The piece sets out our project findings in the context of social mobility, and how science has the potential to a powerful tool in promoting active citizenship. The key findings detailed are:

1. Lack of interest in science is not the problem

2. Careers provision is not reaching all students

3. Science Capital is key

4. Science is seen as only ‘for the brainy’ and ‘a man’s job’

Our recommendation is to change the system, not the students; we call for a review of both the stratification of science at KS4 and the longer-term desirability of A levels.

The full article can be found on the Skills, Employment and Health Journal’s website here .

(Why) is femininity excluded from science?

IOE Digital18 November 2016

— Emily MacLeod

The lack of gender diversity within science is well documented and well researched. Many have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of women participating in science, and/or generate methods to solve the sector’s lack of diversity. However, whilst there remains a great deal of focus on the subject of Women in Science, discussion is lacking when it comes to the role femininity plays within this.


ASPIRES Book now out!

IOE Digital10 October 2016

Our new book, based on the findings of the first phase of our project (ASPIRES), is now out. Understanding Young People’s Science Aspirations  is by ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 Director Professor Louise Archer, and ASPIRES Research Associate (now ASPIRES 2 co-investigator) Dr. Jennifer DeWitt. The book offers new evidence and understanding about how young people develop their aspirations for education, learning and, ultimately, careers in science. Integrating findings from ASPIRES with a wide ranging review of existing international literature, it brings a distinctive sociological analytic lens to the field of science education.


Who says you need a ‘boy brain’ to do Physics?

IOE Digital6 September 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Despite many attempts to raise awareness of, and widen participation in, STEM subjects the lack of diversity in the field of Physics is a continuing concern for science educators and policy makers. Research shows that this may be due to multiple factors including the influence of teachers[i] and the prevailing view that Physics is seen by many as ‘for boys’[ii].

From our recent survey of 13,421 Year 11 students it is clear that female exclusion from Physics is a real trend; only 35% of the students interviewed intending to take Physics A level were female (in our relatively ‘science-focussed’ sample). Nationally, this percentage drops by over ten per cent.

In addition to surveying students, for our 10-year study into the science and career aspirations of young people we have conducted four rounds of interviews with a smaller cohort of students. In 2015 we conducted interviews with 70 of the students, now in Year 11 (age 15/16), and 62 of their parents, in which we asked about the under-representation of women in Physics in order to analyse whether, and why, people think that ‘Physics is for boys’.


Book Launch: Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students

IOE Digital26 August 2016


Last month we attended the book launch of our former colleague Dr. Billy Wong, who was a Research Associate on the first phase of our study. Billy now lectures in Education Studies at the University of Roehampton and has published in science education and sociology of education journals.


His book, Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students, builds on his work on both the ASPIRES and Enterprising Science projects at King’s College London by exploring the science career aspirations of minority ethnic students. It investigates the views, experiences and identities of British Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani youths in relation to science.

Order Billy’s book here.

Follow Billy on twitter.

Meeting of the ASPIRES 2 Advisory Board

IOE Digital26 July 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Thank you to all members of our Advisory Board who attended this year’s meeting earlier this month. Members present were:

  • Professor Louise Archer – ASPIRES 2
  • Professor Derek Bell – College of Teachers
  • Kate Bellingham – Women’s Engineering Society
  • Dr. Jen DeWitt – ASPIRES 2
  • Professor Becky Francis – ASPIRES 2 & Institute of Education, UCL
  • Professor Sir John Holman – Wellcome Trust
  • Emily MacLeod – ASPIRES 2
  • Katherine Mathieson – British Science Association
  • Dr. Rosalind Mist – The Royal Society
  • Dr. Julie Moote – ASPIRES 2
  • Nicole Morgan – Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Karen Powell – Economic & Social Research Council
  • Shaun Reason – The Association for Science Education
  • Stephen Stanton – Department for Education
  • Charles Tracy – Institute of Physics
  • Lucy Yeomans – ASPIRES 2

During the meeting ASPIRES 2 researchers summarised the findings from our Year 11 data collection, and set out plans for the project’s Year 13 data collection starting this autumn. Advisory Board members discussed the importance and influence of the research and used their own experience and expertise to feed into plans for the project’s final data collection cycle. Further discussions centred around how the project’s findings, particularly around age and gender, are supported by findings from across the education research and science education sectors.

The meeting ended with a focus on impact; Board members reported how ASPIRES/2 findings have impacted on their own work, and discussed how it can continue to do so in a meaningful way.

 To find out more about our research, or how we work with our Advisory Board members, please contact us.