A capital approach to STEM

When was the last time you discussed science at home in a way that didn’t involve physics homework? What about when you were younger? Perhaps your family were as comfortable discussing how clouds are made as your favourite television show. Or perhaps you felt like science simply wasn’t ‘for you’

If this last part is true, you’re not alone. Research has shown that while 70% of young people like science and maths, just 17% think that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers are ‘for them’.

This isn’t a new problem – the number of students choosing STEM subjects and careers has remained stubbornly static for years, despite significant investment from government and industry. And it’s not going away, explains Ian Duffy, BP’s head of UK communications and community development: “The UK is going to need an additional 70,000 engineers every year up to 2020. It’s a problem facing a lot of European countries.” For a technical industry like BP’s it means that the number of potential recruits simply does not match the number of jobs available. These numbers pose a challenge for governments as well, since it’s been shown that STEM skills play a vital role in driving national economic competitiveness.

What’s more, the worldwide digital revolution is only going to make the problem more acute. “The world is shifting to more digitisation, more automation,” says Duffy. “That means we are going to need more critical and scientific thinkers, people who can collaborate with others and technology to solve the big challenges that our world faces.”

BP has supported STEM education programmes since 1968, with significant financial investment made each year. It estimates that its resources have reached an estimated 2.8 million UK students in the past five years. Those resources include free, curriculum-friendly materials, created by the Educational Service (BPES) in collaboration with teachers. The company also supports a number of other education initiatives through a series of strategic partnerships, such as Project ENTHUSE (run by STEM Learning) and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. And it supports vital research that looks at why so many children are curious about science but don’t choose it as a career.

BP Educational Services infographic

Enterprising Science 

Its latest study may have found an answer. A five-year programme – a collaboration between BP, UCL, King’s College London and the Science Museum called Enterprising Science – has discovered that the way we think about our relationship with science when we’re young can have a dramatic impact on our career decisions. More specifically, how we answer various questions about that relationship helps to assess the value of our ‘science capital’, in other words, all our science-related knowledge – what and who we know in the science field, along with our attitudes and experiences of it.

At its simplest, science capital is about accessibility – helping children understand just how influential science is in daily life. “Science capital reminds us that science is in our gardens, our homes, it’s in the work of a mechanic, an architect, or an iPhone app designer,” says Sam Bulkeley, BP’s UK schools education manager.

"Science capital reminds us that science is in our gardens, our homes, it's in the work of a mechanic, an architect, or an iPhone app designer."
Sam Bulkeley

The research also showed that while disadvantaged children were less likely to engage with science, they also had the most to gain. “Research shows that the more that young people engage with science, the greater their resilience and social mobility. Crucially, those shifts can disproportionally favour socially disadvantaged kids if interventions are targeted at them,” explains Duffy.

Armed with this newfound knowledge, the logical next step was to test the concept, so the Enterprising Science partnership worked with four UK schools, helping teachers to make subtle changes to their lessons to see if attitudes could be shifted. The results are fascinating.

“When we started we thought it was all about the ‘whizz bang’ science lesson,” says King’s College London research associate Dr Heather King. “It has its place, but our research showed us that what is more important is finding ways of incorporating science into everyday conversations.”

Broadly speaking, the changes involved encouraging teachers to spend a bit of time learning about their students – what their parents do, what their broader interests are – and using that information to make stronger connections between what children see at home and what they learn in the classroom. “By the end of the study, the percentage of students who said that that would consider taking a science A-level had shifted from 16% to 21%,” says King. “That may not sound like much, but in the teaching world it’s huge.” 

“When we started we thought it was all about the ‘whizz bang’ science lesson. This has its place, but our research showed us that what is more important is finding ways of incorporating science into everyday conversations."
Dr Heather King

The results have had a significant impact on BP, as well, says Bulkeley. “Every aspect of BP’s educational engagement is now informed by this research. For example, we have developed new BPES  teaching resources, such as our ‘Where’s the science in that?’ series, which uses settings that young people can easily recognise, such as the woods, or a garden, to explore scientific concepts. We describe it as ‘bringing science home.’”

Likewise, the way that the Ultimate STEM Challenge – a national competition created by BP, the Science Museum and STEM Learning that puts 11-14-year-olds’ STEM skills to the test – is structured has adapted in subtle ways to reflect the study’s findings.

New Scientist Live

Meanwhile, BP is busy getting the message out to a broader audience and in September 2017, took part in the four-day New Scientist Live exhibition at London’s ExCel Centre. It was an opportunity to demonstrate the range of ‘science-y’ work that BP does to an audience largely unfamiliar with the fact that some of its employees use code and algorithms – skills more typically associated with Silicon Valley – to solve problems.

Geophysicist Karen Lythgoe is one of those people and spent a day on the stand showing visitors how her work has helped BP to gather and process greater volumes of seismic data. She agrees that the science capital approach is vital if more children are to see it as a viable career option. “I come from Scotland and used to go hill walking with my parents. I was always asking questions, like ‘why was the rock different colours?’ It’s about not feeling like there’s any such thing as a stupid question and being able to see it reflected in real life.”

Children are naturally curious and it’s never too soon to start encouraging, according to the Enterprising Science research. “We make some of these decisions about our self-identity as early as primary school,” says Duffy. Early engagement also matters for a company like BP since the dual challenge that it is currently trying to solve – providing more energy for the world’s growing population while supporting the transition to a lower carbon future – is going to take time.

“That transition is not going to happen overnight,” says Duffy, “so it’s important that we talk to kids today. We’ve always taken a collaborative, long-term approach to our education support and it is purposefully driven by research and knowledge. It’s all about getting kids to see themselves as scientists and engineers. That’s why science capital is so useful. It’s given us a common language to talk about STEM engagement and has shown us that there really is an opportunity to change attitudes.”

"It’s all about getting kids to see themselves as scientists and engineers. That’s why science capital is so useful. It’s given us a common language to talk about STEM engagement."
Ian Duffy

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