Science capital and the STEM skills gap

BP wants to understand why there is a STEM skills gap in the UK and what needs to be done to close it. We are partnering with King’s College London, University College London and the Science Museum Group on a major collaborative research and development programme for science education. It’s called Enterprising Science

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What is science capital?

Enterprising Science and the concept of science capital

Our research has found a clear relationship between a student’s level of science capital and their future aspirations in STEM subjects.  Science capital is determined by an individual’s science-related qualifications, their understanding and knowledge about science and knowing someone who works in a science-related job. The higher an individual’s science capital, the higher the likelihood they will pursue a STEM career.

Girls and those with low cultural capital are particularly likely to be over-represented among those students with low science capital.

With our project partners, we have developed courses for schools and resources for science organisations to use science capital to build engagement with STEM and to raise levels of science capital amongst young people.

Key information

A science capital approach to building engagement

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The science capital teaching approach

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What is science capital?

Science capital is a science-related form of cultural capital. This was originally defined by a French sociologist called Pierre Bourdieu and represents how your knowledge and social connections can help you get ahead in life.

We conducted a survey of secondary school students, aged 11-15 years, across England and found a clear relationship between a student’s level of science capital and their future aspirations.
Our research findings suggest that there is an urgent need to raise the overall level of science capital, particularly to improve post-16 STEM participation rates and to tackle gender inequality.  This requires action in late primary and early secondary school years.
We found that only a small percentage (5%) of students has high science capital and around 27% are classed as having low science capital. Our analysis also found that science capital is unevenly spread and is concentrated in more privileged social groups and strongly related to cultural capital, gender, ethnicity and school science set.  This has implications for young people’s access to, participation in and engagement with science.

Significantly, our findings suggest that girls and those with low cultural capital are more likely to be over-represented among students with low science capital who lack confidence in their science identities and feel that others do not see them as ‘science people’.

What is BP doing to raise a young person’s science capital?

The insights from the Enterprising Science research inform all of BP’s work with schools, from employee volunteering to production of teaching resources.

BP is working with young people, their families, their teachers and museum educators to help them understand how to inspire, engage and support many more young people in their science education, including supporting young people to understand the careers possibilities within and from STEM subjects.

We want to help teachers to become more skilled and confident to use museums and science centres to support their teaching. We are developing tools and techniques for them to engage all young people with science and sharing these through the Talk Science professional development courses and Project ENTHUSE.

Our partners in Enterprising Science

University College London and King’s College London

Enterprising Science is underpinned by the rigorous and evidence-based research carried out by teams at University College London (UCL) and King’s College London. Find out more about the UCL/King’s College London team and the project research.

Science Museum

The Science Museum is applying and delivering the UCL/King’s College London research in practice by supporting teachers, designing resources and developing a CPD programme and providing practitioner-based expertise about museum learning. Find out more about the Science Museum's role in the project.

What can you do to help raise a young person’s science capital?

It will take the collective action of parents, teachers and organisations like BP to help develop and grow a young person’s science capital over time.

As a student - you could look for examples of science, technology, engineering and maths in the world around you, both in terms of the environment and future careers. Think about going to a museum, or a science centre, join your school STEM club or explore the many STEM inspired websites where you can play games and learn how to create science experiments at home.

As a parent - talk to your children about where they see science and technology in everyday life and encourage them to think about how that relates to all sorts of jobs and careers (not just those in science and engineering). You don’t need to know the answers, just help them to grow in confidence asking the questions.

As a teacher - after-school STEM clubs, planned and purposeful visits to science centres and linking careers context to your curriculum teaching all encourage young people to develop their ‘science identity’, which is an important element of science capital. Look for ways for young people to build a conversation at home about the science and technology in the world around them and to see how it is relevant to their lives.

There are many resources available to inspire young people and to help them improve their science capital. Visit some of the links below for inspiration.

Resources for parents and carers

Resources for teachers and museum educators

Resources for students

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