Researchers have identified “science capital” as a major factor they believe influences pupils’ decisions to study science at higher levels, writes Louise Archer

Although many school students find science lessons interesting, the majority do not see science as being relevant to their lives or “for me”. In the UK and abroad, there is a widespread concern that we need to attract more young people into post-16 science, particularly in light of the predicted shortfall in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills within the workforce. We also need to broaden the profile of those who continue with STEM, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, where women, minority ethnic and working-class communities are all severely underrepresented. It is still all too common to hear students saying that physics is for boys’ and that scientists are mostly white, mostly posh men.

Over the years, substantial time and resource has been devoted to trying to widen and increase post-16 STEM participation, to relatively little effect on participation rates. The solution to science’s participation problem has remained elusive.

In the physical sciences and engineering, women, minority ethnic and working-class communities are severely underrepresented

Research conducted by University College London and King’s College London seeks to provide a new perspective. Tracking a cohort of young people aged between 10 and 18 via surveys of over 37,000 students and longitudinal interviews with 60 young people and their parents, the 10-year ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 project found that science aspirations and participation are shaped by a number of factors, including how much “science capital” a student has.

Science capital refers to the science-related resources that someone possesses, such as their attitudes and dispositions, knowledge, interests, behaviours and social contacts. For instance, do they have friends or family who work in science-related jobs? Do they do sciency activities in their spare time? Evidence shows that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to continue with science post-16 and to identify as a science person.

The Enterprising Science project enabled us to develop the concept of science capital further and, importantly, to explore whether schools and teachers are able to build students’ science capital. Working over four years with 43 secondary science teachers we co-developed, trialled and researched a Science Capital Teaching Approach. This summer, the results were finally in, and it seems to work!

We worked closely over a whole academic year with teachers in London (2015/16) and Newcastle, Leeds and York (2016/17), sampled from schools with high proportions of students from communities that are underrepresented in post-16 science. Data were collected via student surveys, classroom observations, interviews and discussion groups to assess the impact of teachers’ using the approach. Key findings include:


Intervention school students began the trial with significantly lower levels of science capital than both the national average and a set of carefully selected comparison schools. But by the end of the year, intervention students had closed the gap with comparison schools and recorded a statistically significant increase in their science capital.


Students who experienced the approach expressed much more positive views of science and its relevance to their lives in their post-test surveys.


There was an increase in the percentage of students saying they would like to study one or more science subjects at A level, from 16 per cent (pre-intervention) to 21.4 per cent (post-intervention).


Students reported increased regular engagement with science outside school – and decreased percentages of students who “never” do science activities outside of school – particularly in relation to going online to look up things about science and talking with others about science.


Both students and teachers liked the approach and felt it helped students to find meaning and connect with science, as well as improving their understanding of science concepts and content. As one boy put it, “I feel like we get a better understanding because we can relate to what [teacher]’s teaching us”. Some classes also recorded marked gains in attainment.


Teachers and researchers involved in the project are excited by the promising results – but we recognise that our work is relatively small-scale. We welcome further conversation and look forward to seeing what part the approach might be able to play in both widening and increasing future science participation.

Further info: The Science Capital Teaching Approach will be launched at the National STEM Learning centre in York on October 13, 2017. Copies of the Science Capital Teaching Approach handbook for teachers, and associated resources from all our projects, are freely available.


Louise Archer is the Karl Mannheim professor of sociology of education at the UCL Institute of Education

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