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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.

Changes in engineering are required to help more women participate

ASPIRES Research3 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

The Physics Problem

qtnvacl21 November 2018

By Dr Julie Moote

ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr Julie Moote recently spoke at the first workshop on high energy theory and gender at CERN. Threaded through the theoretical physics presentations by scientists were a series of gender talks by academics working across the field. This blog is a summary of Dr Moote’s presentation of findings from the ASPIRES 2 project; ‘Understanding Young Women’s STEM Aspirations: Exploring aspirations and attitudes between the ages of 10 and 19 in England’.

Background

Participation in post-compulsory physics remains low and unchanged, with the proportion of students studying physics at A level in the UK noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. Not only do a minority of students tend to see physics as ‘for me’, but the field of physics itself also shapes and normalises its elite status.

Beyond issues of the STEM skills gap, physics especially suffers from under-representation of women and minority groups. The Institute of Physics recently found that boys were four times more likely to progress to A-level having done triple science over additional science, a disparity that is reflected to a slightly lesser extent across the STEM disciplines. This imbalance carries through to physics-based employment; for example although the number of women in engineering in the UK is growing, women still only make up 11% of the UK engineering workforce.

Who is studying physics? The ASPIRES 2 Findings

The ASPIRES 2 project found that gender was the biggest difference between students taking physics A Level and those taking other sciences at A level. Physics students were also more likely to have high levels of cultural capital, be in the top set for science, have taken Triple Science and have family members working in science.

Students’ interest, enjoyment and aptitude is not enough to pursue physics post-16

The ‘gender problem’ in physics is a long-standing issue with women remaining under-represented despite decades of interventions. Therefore, physics remains a challenging education and career option for women. In fact, girls’ choices not to pursue post-16 physics are rational and strategic, especially as gender inequality within physics renders their success harder. Physics is highly effective at maintaining its elite status by discouraging ‘non traditional’ students and by ensuring that those students who do gain entry accept the status quo;

  • Firstly, the popular and prevalent, gendered notion of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ (e.g. see Carlone’s 2003 study) means that many young women think they are not ‘naturally’ clever enough to study physics further. In turn, this maintains physics’ status as the ‘hardest’ science. The fantasy of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ deters even highly able, interested young women from aspiring to post-18 physics education and careers. If the most highly attaining young women don’t see themselves as ‘clever enough’, who is?
  • Gatekeeping practices by schools work to block potential students from studying Physics and leads other students to self-exclude.
  • The separation of ‘real’ and school Physics gives the impression that ‘real’ Physics is only for the privileged few with the endurance to attain it (paper under review).
  • Young women with very high Science Capital are more likely to continue with Physics.

Recommendations

Significant change is needed and will only be achieved by transforming the field of Physics itself, rather than focusing on just changing the students (e.g. changing their aspirations and attitudes).

We strongly encourage those who work within the field of Physics to understand and challenge the existing (often taken-for-granted, everyday) ways that the subject reproduces inequality in participation. We see a real value in opening up the current excessively tight gatekeeping practices around entry to Physics A level. In particular, there is a need to disband notions of the ‘effortlessly clever’ physicist, and the notion that physics is ‘harder’ than other subjects – otherwise it will remain the preserve of just a small number of ‘exceptional’ students.

We propose changes to the way school science – and Physics in particular – is taught and experienced:

  • Differences in marking and grade severity across and between subjects should be eliminated.
  • Science and particularly physics should be taught in ways which better link to diverse students’ interests and lives. The Science Capital Teaching Approach has been shown to be helpful in this respect for increasing student engagement and participation in school science.
  • Physics (and indeed all) teachers should be better supported to understand the complex and sometimes hidden ways in which gendered, classed and racialized inequalities are reproduced through teaching.

For more information about the conference please visit CERN’s website. Following the event, CERN published a statement; CERN stands for diversity (which can be found here). For Dr Moote’s response to events at the conference please see here.

Further reading

We also recommend the following reading from the ASPIRES 2 project on the topic of physics and gender:

Additional papers under review. Sign up to receive project updates and publication news here.

Photo by Ramón Salinero on Unsplash.

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

(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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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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ASPIRES 2 responds to inquiry on science communication

IOE Digital14 June 2016

— Emily MacLeod

In May, ASPIRES 2 researchers Professor Louise Archer and Dr. Julie Moote submitted evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into science communication. The purpose of the inquiry was to investigate how the Government, scientists, the media and others encourage and facilitate public awareness of, and engagement in, science. Following the submission Professor Louise Archer gave oral evidence to the Committee at the Natural History Museum on 14th June.

The evidence submitted used findings from ASPIRES 2’s national survey of over 13,000 15-16 year olds, and focussed on the science communication strategies being taken to encourage young people to study STEM subjects post-16 and to encourage those young people into STEM careers. We recommended that science communication efforts must work to diversify the image of ‘who does science’, and showcase science qualifications and skills as useful for a wide variety of careers.

Louise-at-sci-comm-inquiry-300x174

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What makes the girls taking Physics A level so exceptional?

IOE Digital15 January 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Less than 23% of the students studying Physics at AS level in 2013/14 were female, according to Ofsted. So why are so many girls choosing not to continue with Physics post-16?

ASPIRES 2 is the second phase of a ten-year project aiming to understand the processes through which students develop their science and career aspirations between the ages of 10 and 19 by surveying and interviewing students and parents from around the country. 70 of the students we first interviewed in year 6, now in year 11, have recently been interviewed for the fourth time, this time about their post-16 choices. We found that, overwhelmingly, students see Physics as ‘masculine’ and ‘hard’.

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