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What influences participation in science and mathematics? A response from the ASDC

What influences participation in science and mathematics? A response from the ASDC

by Dr Penny Fidler and Dr Michaela Livingstone, from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres in response to the question posed in an earlier British Science Association blog post, when Professor Louise Archer asked 'What influences participation in science and mathematics?"


A response from the ASDC

We were delighted to see the latest evidence coming from the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics (TISME), particularly those dealing with science aspirations and careers.

The key findings chime with much of the work and goals of UK Science and Discovery Centres and science museums, as well as our colleagues working in informal science learning worldwide.

We were happy to see that most young people like science, report positive parental support for science and hold largely positive views of scientists and science careers. Indeed the study shows that 70% of students aged 10-13 found science interesting, which is certainly what we find working with millions of students in this age range each year. We were also pleased to see from the ASPIRES data, contrary to previous work, students who report liking science at KS2, do continue to enjoy it at KS3. ASDC members work with several million KS2 students each year, so this is great to know the effects of learning and enjoyment at this age are preserved through the KS2-3 transition.

The informal science learning sector definitely has a role to play in supporting young people and their families to explore all avenues of science. Indeed we would see informal science learning as simply the other side of the coin to school science learning.

Science and Discovery Centres in the UK currently involve and work with 20 million visitors each year (385,000 every week of the year). The majority participate in family groups. We are therefore pleased that these robust studies show the need and impact of working with families as a unit, something we have always strongly believed. For decades centres have been inspiring both parents and children to work together through hands-on, investigative, fun and exciting science and there has of course been detailed evidence that families are key influencers in the career choices and aspirations of students.

We believe our members can and do support the increase of ‘science capital’ amongst families by continuing to offer activities that engage the whole family, and other adult audiences. We should remain mindful of the importance of engaging people of all ages and not solely the school age population. People learn in a life-long and life-wide manner.

We also agree fully that there should be greater awareness by students and teachers of the wide range of exciting, sociable, and creative careers that involve science. Sometimes the emphasis seems to be on being a scientist when clearly this is only one role within science, technology and engineering, and skilled technicians and entrepreneurial talent is also highly prized.

Science and Discovery centres run thousands of ‘meet the expert’ events every year.  A key reason for these is to ensure that millions of visitors meet a full range of professionals working in science and engineering (including industry), can discuss with them what they do all day and find out the human side of science. These ambassadors work with their local centres, acting as role models for young people. Often they have local accents and can start to break down stereotypes and barriers, allowing them to see that science could be ‘something for them’. All centres who do this actively choose experts who will be inspirational in this role, from young female satellite engineers to those from local areas who are now particle physicists working in the world’s best facilities that happen to be in the UK.

The science and discovery centre’s approach focuses on offering hands-on practical science experiences to open up science for young people so that they can gain confidence and feel that ‘science could be for them’. In addition, science centres employ hundreds of people with a science background to engage the public and school students, helping to show the range of jobs that are available.

We know this is an effective approach and can affect the attitudes of students. For example, through the ASDC national ‘Hands-on DNA’ project students aged 14-18 took part in high-level hands-on molecular biology experiments. Evaluation of the first 1500 students and 145 teachers showed the following:

Evaluation results from students aged 14-16 after a workshop

  • 95% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science
  • 90% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school
  • 89% felt it increased their interest in science
  • 74% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting

And their teachers said…

  • 100% felt that the workshop inspired their students
  • 100% of the teachers said that they would recommend the workshops to their colleagues
  • 100% felt that more workshops like this would increase students' motivation to study science
  • 85% felt that the workshop will have made them more likely to consider a career in science

Evaluation results from students aged 16-18 after a workshop

  • 96% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science
  • 93% felt in increased their interest in science
  • 80% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting
  • 80% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school
  • 80% felt the workshop would help them with their subsequent school work


Another national ASDC project ‘Explore Your Universe’ provides opportunities for school students and the public to engage with experts working in the physical sciences (e.g., space engineers, particle scientists, technical experts). Evaluation of the first 5000 students will be available in January 2014.

We were delighted to see that around 70% of 10-13 year olds do science activities out of school, and we would love to see this grow. The TISME report illustrates that 70% of students in this age group are interested in science, but only approx 15% aspire to be scientists. Again we will continue to work to increase aspirations with our colleagues across education. Just to note that being a scientist is only a small part of working in the sciences and a question around ‘Do you aspire to have a job that involves science, technology, medicine, industry or engineering?’ might have yielded a different result. Science centres would of course be happy to work on more programmes to increase the science career aspirations of local young people and ASDC would welcome discussions on this to drive this at a national level.

The ASDC vision is for ‘a society where people are intrigued, inspired and involved with the sciences’, a vision shared by our members.  These results provide excellent details relating to school age students and their aspirations and choices and we are delighted to see wide-scale research of this nature being funded and undertaken. We should however note that science learning is both life-long and life-wide. It has been estimated that 95% of the science a person knows is learned outside of school. Inspiration to study science comes from family, life experiences, weekend and holiday activities, experiments and play, from great teachers, TV and web. Our aim is to intrigue, inspire and involve people of all ages, and all backgrounds in a lively, fun and experiential way to increase their science capital and to help them learn with their families, school friends and teachers and to enjoy science as a part of their day to day lives.

For more information on the ASDC, visit www.sciencecentres.org.uk.


Join the debate...


Katherine Mathieson's picture

A source of new insights?

The newly announced Enterprising Science partnership between the Science Museum, BP & Louise Archer's team will hopefully help identify ways that museums & science centres can help build science capital.


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