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

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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.

Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider?

IOE Digital21 April 2016

— Emily MacLeod

When the 2006 GCSE reforms introduced the entitlement to take Triple Science from 2008, it was hoped that this widely praised three-qualification route would go some way to addressing the country’s STEM skills gap. But following the data collected from our national survey of over 13,000 Year 11 students, in addition to our longitudinal interviews with 70 of these students, researchers at ASPIRES 2 are questioning whether the Triple Science route really is serving society’s STEM needs. Emergent findings suggest:

  1. Socially disadvantaged students are less likely to study Triple Science – In our study, the most socially disadvantaged students were two and a half times less likely to study Triple Science compared to the most advantaged. We also found that students in middle and bottom sets were much less likely to study Triple Science than their peers in top sets.
  2. Students don’t choose their KS4 science options – their schools do – Despite the notion of ‘choice’ surrounding the GCSE selection process, 61% of the students surveyed taking Triple Science had this decided for them. What’s more, many of the remaining students indicated that they had been steered into taking a particular choice by their school.
  3. Students think that Triple Science is only for the ‘clever’ kids – Triple Science was overwhelmingly seen as the route for those who are ‘clever’ and ‘sciency’, both by those taking it and those taking alternative options. Our interviews showed that this left Double Science and Science BTEC students feeling inferior, especially in schools which  threaten to ‘bump down’ Triple Science students to Double Science if they fail to achieve the top grades.

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