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What influences participation in science and maths?

What influences participation in science and maths?

By Professor Louise Archer, from the Centre for Public Policy Research at the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King's College London and the author of the TISME report, “What influences participation in science and mathematics?


‘Luna’, a friendly, thoughtful teenage girl, has always found science interesting and has done well in the subject. Throughout primary school she aspired to a career in science. But now, aged 14, she describes herself as more ‘arty’ and creative and feels that she is not clever enough to study science further.

Like many of her peers, Luna illustrates some of the burning issues facing science educators. Namely, what influences participation in science and maths? And how might we encourage more young people to study science and mathematics at A level and beyond? Our new report tries to answer these questions.

So why do we need to increase and broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)?  There are two main economic and social reasons:

(i)                 to ensure an adequate supply of future STEM professionals to fulfil the demands of the economy, and

(ii)                to enable all members of society to be scientifically literate, which can help people to access a wide range of jobs and to be active citizens.   

The Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME)

Our report draws on research from TISME (the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education), a research programme comprising of five studies. Two of the projects focus particularly on participation:

  • ASPIRES (Science Aspirations and Career Choice: Age 10 – 14), a five year, longitudinal study of how children develop science and career aspirations
  • UPMAP (Understanding Participation rates in post-16 Mathematics and Physics), a three year longitudinal study of the factors that cause school students to continue with mathematics or physics after the age of 16.

Below I outline some of our key findings.

Lack of interest in science is not the issue

Our research shows that a lack of interest in science is not the main reason for low post-16 participation rates. Most young people like science, report positive parental support for science, and hold largely positive views of scientists and science careers. Yet the majority do not plan to continue with science post-16 and very few aspire to science careers. ASPIRES’ large scale surveys found that although over 70% of students aged 10-13 found science interesting, fewer than 17% would contemplate a career in science (see Figure 1).

 ASPIRES project survey responses from Y6 and Y8 students (% agreeing with the statement)

Figure 1. ASPIRES project survey responses from Y6 and Y8 students (% agreeing with the statement)

Science careers (excluding medicine) are not popular aspirations among 10-14 year olds. Careers in the arts, sports, medicine, teaching and business are much more popular, with over 60% of 12-13 year olds agreeing that they would like a career in business and over half aspiring to a job in the arts.

Families and “science capital”

Families influence young people’s aspirations. Children are much more likely to aspire to careers in science if their families possess something that we call “science capital”. Science capital refers to science-related qualifications, interest, understanding (‘scientific literacy’) and social contacts (for example knowing people who work in STEM-related jobs). The more science capital a family has, the more likely a child is to aspire to a science career and/or plan to study science further.  For instance, 47% of students who have a parent who works in a science-related job, also aspire to a career in science. The comparable figure for the whole cohort is just 29%.

Narrow views of where maths and science lead

Most young people and parents view science qualifications as only leading to a very narrow range of careers (e.g. scientist, science teacher or doctor). Most young people did not see any point in continuing to study science after the age of 16 if they did not aspire to this narrow set of science careers.

The UPMAP study found that students are more likely to continue with mathematics and/or physics after the age of 16 if they think it will lead to a well paid and interesting job. UPMAP’s large surveys of Year 10 and Year 12 students found that one of the main predictors of whether students choose physics post-16 is whether they see physics as useful for getting the job they want in the future.

Careers education: too little, too general, too late?

Most of the 11-14 year olds in our research reported receiving little, if any, careers education. ‘One-off’ and generic forms of careers advice also appeared to have little effect on young people’s STEM career aspirations.  This is also borne out by wider research (e.g. Holman and Finegold 2010). We found that teachers are more important and influential figures for young people. As the UPMAP study shows, students are more likely to study mathematics and science at university if they have been encouraged to do so by their subject teachers.

Science as ‘hard’ and ‘brainy’

Many young people, but particularly those who see themselves as ‘normal’ or ‘average’ students are put off by the brainy image of science. For instance, 80% of 10-13 year olds see scientists as brainy and this helps create the view that science careers are not ‘for me’.

Limited post-16 options

There are currently few options for those who want to continue with science and/or mathematics but who do not want to take traditional A levels. Students who want to study maths or physics at A level also have to achieve higher grades at GCSE than is the case in many other subjects. We believe that these factors exacerbate participation issues.

Equity and participation

The physical sciences and maths are associated with masculinity and are widely seen as the preserve of ‘white middle-class men’, which creates barriers to more equal participation. These perceptions are widespread (and to some extent reflect the reality of who studies and works in these subject areas, particularly at higher levels). Research shows that teachers and professionals can also play an (often unwitting) role in reproducing these associations. Many young women and those from working-class backgrounds find it particularly difficult to see science careers as conceivable or achievable routes, or as congruent with their own identities.

What could be done?

I think there are several ways that we can change these attitudes and perceptions of STEM subjects, but it would involve a change not only at a policy level but also from parents, teachers and informal learning providers.  

  • Teachers

There could be a real value in integrating STEM careers awareness into mainstream subject teaching, particularly for Years 6-9. This would convey the message that ‘science keeps your options open’ and is useful for a wide range of jobs (both in and beyond STEM) to help more students to see the relevance and value of these subjects to their future lives. However, I recognise that this is not a simple, nor an uncontroversial (!) recommendation - and implementation would require more detail and debate than can be covered here.

  • Parents

Ensure that sons and daughters receive equal encouragement to consider STEM careers as possible future aspirations. Avoid making comments like ‘I’m no good at maths/ science’ as children pick up and internalise these messages. Families can help increase their science capital by doing science-related family activities together and looking at the careers websites of organisations such as the Science Council or the British Science Association – which have useful information for helping support children’s STEM option choices and careers planning.

  • Providers of ‘informal learning’ or ‘enrichment & enhancement’ activities

Ensure that activities do not just focus on increasing interest in science but prioritise building science capital. Aim activities at families, as well as young people, to help reinforce key messages and build the idea that science could be ‘for me’. Review activities and materials to ensure they challenge views of science as brainy, and only leading to a narrow range of (science-related) careers routes. Publicise non-graduate (technical) routes alongside degree routes.

  • Policy

Broaden the available options for studying science and maths at A level (beyond traditional subject A-levels), particularly for those who do not achieve grade A/A* at GCSE. These qualifications should foreground generic scientific/ mathematical skills, be flexible with regard to content, and provide an appropriate grounding for informed citizenship and a broad range of future careers.

These are just some suggestions for what changes could be made to increase the numbers of students who go on to study STEM subjects post-16, but what is clear is that if we are to get students, like Luna, to continue their science education beyond GCSE level, then more needs to be done to help them to see science not only as interesting, but also as ‘for me’.

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