Internationally, there is a widespread agreement that more needs to be done to increase and broaden post-16 participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subject areas.
This is not only important for ensuring that societies have a broad base of scientifically informed citizens but also to deliver an appropriate supply of STEM professionals for the future.
ASPIRES is a five-year, longitudinal study exploring science aspirations and engagement among 10 to 14-year-olds, as previous research indicates that this is a crucial time for the development and consolidation of children’s views on science. The ASPIRES project is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME).
Our study includes an online survey (administered when children are in years 6, 8 and 9) and repeat interviews with a sub-sample of children (tracked in years 6, 8 and 9) and their parents (interviewed twice, when their children are in years 6 and 9). In Phase One in 2009, the online survey was completed by more than 9,000 year 6 children (10 and 11-year-olds) from 279 primary schools across England. We also conducted 170 interviews with 78 parents and 92 year 6 children, drawn from 11 schools in England.
In Phase Two last year, the survey was completed by 5,634 year 8 students (aged 12 and 13) from 69 secondary schools across England. The second round of interviews (following up the children, now in year 8) is currently being completed and is due next month (July 2012). The key findings so far are as follows.
Most children like school science
We found that in both the first and second surveys, children report enjoying their science lessons. Year 8 pupils rated science as their fourth most popular subject (the most popular being design and technology, then English and mathematics).
Similarly high proportions (more than 70 per cent) of pupils in years 6 and 8 agree that they learn interesting things in science. Around 80 per cent of year 8 pupils also agree that they have enthusiastic science teachers and that their teachers care if pupils understand the lessons and expect them to do well.
A total of 68 per cent of year 8 pupils like their science teacher and 82 per cent believe if they study hard they will do well in science (with 69 per cent feeling that they do well in the subject). Only 19 per cent said that they find science difficult. Our provisional impressions from the follow-up interviews currently being conducted with year 8 pupils confirms this view – with most students saying that they enjoy science classes in secondary school as much as, or more than, in primary school.
Children have positive views of science
In line with findings from year 6 pupils, year 8 children express largely positive views of science and science careers. For instance, 73 per cent agree that science is generally useful for their futures and 70 per cent feel that science is useful for getting a good future job.
Year 8 children also seem to have positive views of careers in science, with 79 per cent believing that scientists do valuable work and the majority agreeing that scientists are respected by society (62 per cent) and make a lot of money (63 per cent).
Few children envisage a career in science
We were struck that, despite liking science, less than 17 per cent of year 6 pupils agreed that they would like to become a scientist.
By year 8 this has fallen to 14.5 per cent, although other STEM careers are more popular, such as engineering (25 per cent), inventor (26 per cent) and medicine (35 per cent). When asked to rate a sample spread of future career options, the most popular aspirations among year 8 pupils were sports/athlete (39 per cent), arts/actor/dancer/singer (53 per cent) and business (the most popular, at 62 per cent).
We found that despite liking school science, only 43 per cent of year 8 children agreed that they would like to study more science in the future. When asked to identify the most important reasons for choosing subjects to study in the future, more than three quarters (76 per cent) identified the usefulness of a subject for their future careers as being the first or second most important factor.
Only a fifth thought that “how well I do in the subject” would be the most important consideration when making subject choices, with less than 15 per cent citing enjoyment of the subject as the key reason. This suggests that children’s interest in science does not translate simply into aspirations to study science further or to pursue careers in science.
Given that perceived usefulness seems to be an important factor in children’s subject choices, it was also notable that in the interviews, year 6 children (and parents) tended to see science qualifications as only leading to a narrow range of careers – notably, scientist, science teacher or doctor.
Decreasing out-of-school science activity
We found that as they get older, science appears to feature less in pupils’ out of school lives. For instance, in primary school around one third of children said that they “never” read science-related books or magazines. This rose to nearly half of children (47 per cent) in the year 8 survey.
Over one third of year 8 children say they “never” do any science activities out of school and never look at science-related websites. Around a fifth never visit a zoo, science centre or museum and never watch science-related television programmes. Less than one in 10 year 8 children look at science-related websites once a week. In other words, science seems relatively peripheral to the daily lives of children – and becomes more so with age. As one parent put it: “I suppose in everyday life you don’t really get that much to do with science.”
Families influence children’s aspirations
Although most families still appear to value their children learning science at school (more than 70 per cent of year 6 and 8 children agree that their parents think it is important for them to learn science at school), year 8 pupils are less likely to agree that their parents think science is interesting (year 6: 59 per cent, year 8: 55 per cent).
Although there was an increase (from 39 per cent in year 6 to 50 per cent in year 8) in the percentage of children reporting that their parents would be happy if they became a scientist, this is still quite low if we consider that almost half of children felt that their parents would be nonplussed (or even unhappy) with them pursuing a career in science.
We think that a contributory factor is that many families do not possess much “science capital” (science-related qualifications, knowledge, understanding and contacts). Hence as science gets “harder” in secondary schools, families may feel less confident in their scientific knowledge and/or may be more “honest” with their children in expressing the limits of their interest and/or understanding.
Interviews with year 6 pupils and parents indicated that science capital can be an important facilitator of children’s science aspirations – but it is unevenly spread across society. Families that possess higher amounts of science capital are disproportionately likely to be middle-class and children from these families are more likely to hold science aspirations.
Family influence seems to increase with age, with year 8 children becoming even more likely to take up family views about the types of career that are regarded as “for me/us”. These aspirations are often classed and gendered.
Science seen as ‘brainy’
We found that science careers are strongly associated with cleverness, with more than 80 per cent of children in both surveys agreeing that scientists are “brainy”. We also found in our interview sample that boys and girls who aspired to science careers tended to see themselves (and were described by their parents) as “clever”. Pupils who liked science but who did not consider it a career “for me” were more likely to self-describe and/or be described by their parents as “normal” or “middling” students. In other words, most children seem to see careers in science as only for the exceptional few.
Science is (still) seen as ‘masculine’
Although our survey of year 8 pupils found that a higher percentage of girls, than boys, rate science as their favourite subject, this interest is not borne out in science aspirations. Year 6 parents and children tended to perceive science careers as masculine which, we suggest, may explain why comparatively fewer girls espouse science aspirations or imagine a future for themselves within science.
As two of the parent interviewees explained, science is “always seen as geeky men” and as a career, “it’s not very girly, it’s not a very sexy job, its not glamorous”.
We suggest that popular perceptions of science as masculine sit uneasily with girls’ notions of “normal” (and desirable) femininity. Consequently, while many girls report liking and being interested in science, it does not feature within their aspirations.
For instance, Danielle described science as one of her favourite subjects at school, but reflected “it’s really interesting, I love it, but don’t only geeks do it?”.
Of course, some girls in our study do aspire to science careers. But our analysis so far suggests that either these girls undertake considerable identity work to “balance” their science engagement with performances of “normal” (popular) femininity – or (more often) they eschew “girly” femininity in favour of a highly academic (“bluestocking”) femininity.
Our findings show that year 8 pupils tend to express positive views of their science lessons and science teachers. They also seem to hold positive views about science careers in general and report parental support for learning science at school. Yet science careers are not popular aspirations and few children see a career in science as being “for me”.
We identified that a contributory factor is the widespread lack of science capital among families, whereby science is not experienced as a normal or high profile aspect of most families’ daily lives. Consequently, in these families, science is not an obvious or “thinkable” career choice.
We also found that popular views of science careers as “masculine” and only for the “clever” play a part shaping the majority of children’s views of science careers as “interesting, but not for me”.
Our work indicates the need to increase children’s and families’ science capital and to raise awareness of the diversity of careers that STEM qualifications can lead to. This means we need to carefully question what messages children are receiving about science careers and post-16 science qualifications.
Are these reinforcing or challenging associations with “cleverness” and masculinity? This would also extend to school STEM clubs STEM interventions – and indicates the need for these to be inclusive of gender, social class and ability.
Louise Archer is a professor of the sociology of education at King’s College London.