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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.

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

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.

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 .

(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.

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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.

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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’.

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

IOE Digital26 August 2016

Billy-Wong-Book-300x225

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.

Billy-Wong-Book2-169x300

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.