Inspiring the scientists of tomorrow

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Meet the expert: Prof. Louise Archer, King’s College London

Last edited: 17 October 2014

What influences a child to study science at school and university – beyond the minimum required by the curriculum? BP Magazine talks to Professor Louise Archer from King’s College London about a new research project with the Science Museum and BP

Think back to a science class in your teenage years. Were you paying attention to that explanation of a chemical reaction on the blackboard? Or intrigued by how cells were dividing under a microscope? Perhaps you were more interested in how many matches it would take to light a Bunsen burner without being reprimanded, or even the number of birds sitting on the roof outside, simply because you didn’t consider yourself a ‘science person’?

No doubt, how you saw yourself then went on to influence the career path you chose. Chances are those of us who were consistently distracted in science class are not working in a laboratory, hospital, engineering consultancy or zoo today. But, that’s not to say that we don’t take decisions every day in the modern world that revolve around some scientific understanding: what are the risks of vaccination? Do you want to eat genetically-modified food? Are the chemicals in that cleaning product causing an allergy?

Our ability to interpret information and make educated decisions about the scientific aspects of life may be made easier or harder by what we learned in our younger years. Science, it seems, is everywhere, and, yet, across the globe, there is a common struggle to recruit scientists and engineers. These are sought-after skills and the reward in these career areas can be enormous.
"It is not that kids aren’t interested in science but the majority don’t see it as for them."
- Louise Archer

Research project

In an effort to start addressing these skills shortages in the generations to come, King’s College London and the Science Museum, supported by BP, have teamed up in a five-year research project to help make students, their families and teachers more aware of the many factors that influence a child’s inclination towards science subjects.

The Enterprising Science project aims to help make science more engaging for pupils aged 11 to 15 years, while also helping to improve their opportunities in later life. A longer-term goal of the research is to improve science participation in education after the age of 16.

For the academic team at King’s College London, this programme follows neatly from their previous ASPIRES project that looked at science aspirations in younger children – those aged 10 to 14. After surveying more than 18,000 pupils in the UK, the findings were significant.

“It is not that kids aren’t interested in science,” explains sociology of education professor Louise Archer who is leading the Enterprising Science project, ”but the majority don’t see it as for them. Previous intervention work has been aimed at getting children more interested in science. We found that they are not uninterested – the likes of Professor Brian Cox and Sir David Attenborough have done a good job – but even from the age of 10, very few children see post-16 science as an option.

“So, we were interested in looking at the reasons behind that and we developed a concept called ‘science capital’ to encapsulate the idea of a person’s science-related resources.
"Often, people talk about girls not liking science. Getting people to understand where such stereotypes and patterns come from is part of the way that you might go about breaking them down."
- Louise Archer

Cultural and scientific capital

In the 1960s, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed a notion of ‘cultural capital’ to explain the differences in children’s outcomes in terms of careers and successes in life, based on non-financial assets which could help them be more socially mobile. Examples included a child’s education, family knowledge, hobbies and pastimes, social contacts and relationships.

“The thinking is that people are all playing this game of life, and like playing cards, everyone has a different stack of cards – or resources,” says Professor Archer. “Depending on your environment, whether you are at work, at home or socializing, your ‘capital’ will have a different value: your friends may not care what you know about science on a weekend, but at work this knowledge can command much greater value.

“Bourdieu was thinking about the arts and ‘high’ culture, such as classical music, opera or art galleries, as influences on children doing well in life, whereas with our notion of ‘science capital’, we are saying, that in this day and age, knowing about science, technology and maths actually carries a lot of value in society. You could say that to be an engaged citizen, to understand what is going on in the modern world with all its technological advances and to be able to play a full part, you do need some scientific literacy.”

Defining such a concept of ‘science capital’ for the first time is all very well, but how might an individual know whether they are in possession of a useful amount? And why would that even matter? The team at King’s College London has devised a way to measure this so that a child and the adults in their life may be aware of their level of scientific influences, perhaps improve that level and thereby enhance a young person’s opportunities in life.

Measuring science capital

“We’ve designed a tool for children aged 11 to 16 to measure their ‘science capital’,” says Professor Archer. “I don’t think many young people reflect on why they’re interested in this or that and we want to use this measurement to open a conversation that helps expand their understanding of how science can be useful in many aspects of life, whatever they want to do.

“We hope the concept is useful for children, parents, teachers and science educators to understand what affects a young person engaging with science.” Factors such as knowing someone in a science-related job, or having parents with science qualifications, watching science-related television programmes, participating in extra-curricular pastimes such as visiting museums or a zoo, and understanding that science is valuable in the wider world all contribute to an individual’s ‘science capital’ score.

This model of ‘science capital’ emerged through the Enterprising Science project’s work with young people in schools and in informal science learning environments (such as museums). The research is concentrating on three themes over three years: firstly, making more of school visits to science museums; secondly, conveying the message that ‘science keeps career options wide open’; and finally, family engagement.

Each year, the academic team meets with a group of teachers to help develop the ideas around that theme and how it may work inside and outside the classroom. Materials are then piloted in a handful of London schools, before their roll-out in other parts of the UK. The goal with each theme is to increase science capital, so pupils in each school will be surveyed annually to see if the activities are making a difference. Their results will be compared to students in other schools, to see if the activities are making any difference to their ‘science capital’.

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Meet the expert: Dr Alex Burch, Science Museum Group

Making science relevant

“Last year, we looked at how to get more out of school science trips, so children were put into groups and researched four science-related objects, such as antiseptics or large machines. We then mixed up the groups so there was one ‘expert’ in each who had to inform the others. They made videos about their subject at the Science Museum, using whatever presentation format they wanted – from rapping to acting. The videos were made into trails and students’ families were invited to come and try out the trails in the museum, scanning QR codes to view the videos and learn about the science behind the objects. The exercise aimed to enhance each child’s scientific ‘identity’, to help them ‘do’ science in their own way and make it relevant to their everyday life.”

It’s all about breaking stereotypes that are still doggedly attached to science – Professor Archer and team want to disabuse people of notions that these subjects are only for the ‘brainiest’ students, only for boys or only for people from more privileged backgrounds.

“I think it is interesting to see individuals’ interests as socially produced, rather than just being inherent,” says Professor Archer. “Often, people talk about girls not liking science and that assumes there is something innate to femininity that rejects science – and there is not. Getting people to understand where such stereotypes and patterns come from is part of the way that you might go about breaking them down.”

Research elsewhere has already shown that if children do not see themselves as fitting the right image of ‘a science person’, irrespective of their attainment, this lack of confidence ultimately hinders their engagement.

Just one year into the Enterprising Science project, the King’s College London academics have already gathered some important findings of their own, after talking to more than 3,600 secondary school students. That there is a clear relationship between a student’s level of ‘science capital’ and their future aspirations to continue science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects is perhaps not surprising.

But what is remarkable, according to Professor Archer, is the size of the group of students (27%) who came out of the research unlikely to continue with any science subject and with a ‘low science capital’.

“This represents more than a quarter of our young people, suggesting there is a big task at hand. This calls for action. On a positive note though, although we cannot affect all areas of a child’s science capital influences – such as parental qualifications – there are plenty of areas where we can make improvements, because they are based on changes of attitudes.”

Science capital results from the survey

‘Science person’

These students are probably planning to continue studying science and are interested in pursuing a science related career

‘Interested, but not for me’

These students may consider taking further education in a science but may not choose a career in science

‘Science sceptic’

These students do not see themselves as ‘science people’ and are less likely to work in a science related job

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