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

ASPIRES Research15 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.

Science capital hold-all containing factors attributed to science capital with 'science' crossed through and replaced with 'STEM'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).

A number of science capital resources were developed during the Enterprising Science project based at King’s College London.

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

ASPIRES Research3 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.

5 takeaways for research impact from our project

qtnvacl2 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.

Winners of the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize

qtnvacl11 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.

Improving science participation: Five evidence-based recommendations for policy-makers and funders

Rebekah Hayes30 May 2018

Improving science participationThis post was originally written for the IOE blog on behalf of our sister project Enterprising Science. You can find more information about Enterprising Science on the IOE website.

To continue with science post-16, young people must achieve certain levels of understanding and attainment. Crucially, they must also feel that science is a good ‘fit’ for them – that science is ‘for me’.

Drawing on more than five years of research conducted by the Enterprising Science project in classrooms and out-of-school settings, the team have developed five key recommendations for policy-makers and funders who want to broaden and increase young people’s engagement with science. These recommendations are set out in Improving Science Participation, a new publication launched earlier this month at the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The recommendations focus on the concept of science capital. Research has shown that science capital can help explain variable rates of science engagement and participation across formal and informal settings. It can also help to frame interventions designed to support engagement.

The concept of science capital originally emerged from the ASPIRES project, a longitudinal study tracking young people’s science and career aspirations. Analyses from ASPIRES show that the more science capital young people have, the more likely they are to aspire to study science in the future.

Young people with lower levels of science capital tend not to see themselves as ‘sciencey’ and are therefore less likely to want to continue with science. Students who do not see science as meaningful and relevant to them find it more difficult to engage with the subject.

With this in mind, Enterprising Science has published the following recommendations for improving science engagement and participation:

  1. Ensure that, within your context, young people’s encounters with science (in and beyond the classroom) are based on the science capital educational approach.

This approach links science with what matters to students, with their daily lives and what matters to them. It:

  • values activities outside school and connects science with the students’ own community;
  • tweaks lesson plans to help students see how science relates to their everyday lives and how it is useful in any job they may aspire to.

Qualitative and quantitative data show that over the course of a year, teachers who used thescience capital approach recorded marked improvements in their students’ attitudes to science, their aspirations for studying science at A-level, and a host of other benefits. While developed in secondary science classrooms, the principles underpinning the approach are applicable across a wide range of contexts, including primary schools as well as informal settings, such as science centres, museums and other organisations concerned with science engagement and communication.

  1. Focus on changing institutional settings and systems – rather than young people.

To date, many attempts to increase engagement with science, whether in the classroom or the informal sector, have focused on the young person, trying to identify ways they need to be fixed or changed. Instead, the science capital approach focuses on changing settings, or what is termed, the ‘field’. Field is a sociological concept that relates not only to a physical setting, but also encapsulates the range of social relations, expectations and opportunities in a given environment.

  1. Take the long view: move from one-off to more sustained approaches.

Engaging more – and more diverse – young people with science is not an easy goal and requires more than a simple quick fix. Whether in schools, or informal settings, changing the field takes time and requires reflection.

  1. Use science capital survey tools appropriately.

Over five years, the Enterprising Science project has developed a survey tool instrument to measure young people’s science capital. The survey can be used to measure baselines or capture changes resulting from sustained, longer term interventions. Contact our team for copies of the student and/or adult science capital surveys and for advice on how to interpret the data: ioe.sciencecapital@ucl.ac.uk.

  1. Improve connectivity: create pathways, progression and partnerships.

Evidence shows that young people with high science capital report engaging with science across a range of settings. This means science capital is generated across a range of experiences. Greater connectivity within and between settings should help to build science capital and support science engagement. Research also shows that when individuals can connect their experiences across settings, engagement can flourish. See the report for our recommended action points on how to improve connectivity.

To find out more about these recommendations and to understand the research behind them, download the Improving Science Participation report.

For hard copies of the report please contact ioe.sciencecapital@ucl.ac.uk.

Photo: O. Usher (UCL) via Creative Commons

Using Science Capital in the classroom

qtnvacl20 November 2017

The Science Capital Teaching Approach has now launched. Watch the video to find out about the approach.

Download a copy of the pack here.

The Science Capital Teaching Approach

qtnvacl16 October 2017

This month saw the launch of the Science Capital Teaching Approach, by our sister project Enterprising Science.

The approach is designed to support teachers in helping students find more meaning and relevance in science and, as a result, engage more with the subject.  The ideas for the approach were co-developed and trialled over four years between Enterprising Science researchers and 43 secondary science teachers in England.

Learn more about the pack, and download a copy, here.

Science Capital Conference: Book your tickets now

qtnvacl20 September 2017

The Science Capital research team at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) will introduce the ‘Science Capital Teaching Approach’ at the Enterprising Science Teacher Conference in York on Friday 13 October 2017.

The conference is aimed at science teachers and educators who are keen to make their lessons more inclusive and engage more students with science. The Science Capital Teaching Approach is designed to support inclusion, building on students’ own personal interests and diverse experience.

To find out more and book your place click here.

The Home of Science Capital

qtnvacl11 July 2017

The concept of science capital was first developed by Professor Louise Archer and team during the first phase of the ASPIRES project.

Since then, the concept of science capital has been developed by ASPIRES/2’s sister project (also headed by Professor Louise Archer), Enterprising Science. Researchers working on Enterprising Science have created tools to measure science capital and developed strategies for building science capital in primary and secondary schools as well as informal learning institutions such as museums.

This year marked the start of a new science capital-related project, YESTEM, a joint UK-US project funded by Wellcome Trust and the National Science Foundation developing new models and tools in support of equitable pathways into STEM.

You can learn more about science capital at our home page.

ASPIRES 2 in the Skills, Employment and Health Journal

IOE Digital6 December 2016

SEH-Journal-Graph-300x231

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 .