Interested in STEM but not being ‘served’ by the informal STEM learning sector: insight from the YESTEM surveyqtnvaux3 June 2021
By Dr Spela Godec
The vast informal science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning sector offers many positive outcomes to people of all ages. Yet, research shows that the sector often perpetuates inequalities, with students from more privileged social backgrounds often participating more. A common “quick fix” response to increasing participation involves making STEM more interesting and fun, assuming that some people do not take part because they are not interested in STEM.
The research from the Youth Equity and STEM (YESTEM) project found that participation in informal STEM learning does not necessarily reflect young people’s (lack of) interest. Many minority ethnic and working-class young people in our study reported being interested in STEM and aspired to working in STEM jobs, yet rarely took part in designed and community informal STEM learning offers, while others from more socially privileged (White, middle-class) backgrounds regularly participated regardless of their STEM interest.
We analysed 1,624 survey responses from young people aged 11 to 14 and identified six groupings. Two particularly interesting groups were Served Cultural Omnivores and Underserved Scientists.
Served Cultural Omnivores (the name indicating frequent participation in informal STEM learning as well as other cultural activities) were disproportionately more likely to be White and have high cultural capital. These young people reported an average interest in science and STEM-related careers, yet regularly took part in informal STEM learning (such as visiting science museums). Their high participation seemed to reflect their families’ concerted cultivation efforts and patterns of cultural consumption typical of middle-class families, rather than a specific interest in the subject area.
On the other hand, Underserved Scientists (the name indicating infrequent participation in informal STEM learning and a strong interest in science) were disproportionately more likely to be South Asian and have medium science capital. They reported the highest STEM aspirations of all groups and regularly engaged in everyday STEM-related activities, such as reading books and watching science-related videos, yet participated in designed and community informal STEM learning significantly less than the study cohort’s average.
Examples from our qualitative cohort offered insight into why some young people, despite reporting an interest in the subject, rarely participate in informal STEM learning. Some minority ethnic, working-class young people appeared to be guided by pragmatism and risk-aversion. They spoke about the importance of prioritising school above everything else, including informal learning, in order to be able to succeed in life and improve their current situation: “When you’re young, focus on study … that’s what my dad used to always tell me.” Others struggled to conceive what value informal STEM learning might have for their overall education, seeing more benefits in spending their out-of-school time on activities such as tutoring and revising for exams: “in school, you can learn new stuff. Let’s just say you’re going to a club . . . you’re going to get information but you’re not going to get information more than in school.”
These findings on how some young people carefully weigh up the risks and benefits of their out-of-school activities can be understood as a strategic response to their precarious positions of inequalities. In Risk Society, Ulrich Beck wrote that “like wealth, risks adhere to the class pattern, only inversely; wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom.” Young people from less privileged backgrounds may face greater risks in terms of how they spend their time, or what might happen if they fall behind at school. Currently, informal STEM learning does not offer a good enough return on investment for some of these young people.
In YESTEM project, we have worked closely with informal STEM learning practitioners and organisations to develop more equitable practices and better support minoritised young people’s engagement with STEM. See yestem.org for more project resources.
Interested but not being served: mapping young people’s participation in informal STEM education through an equity lens (Godec, Archer & Dawson, 2021) was published in Research Papers in Education and is available Open Access.
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