Students left out by narrow view of science

4 December 2013

Careers in science rarely appeal to 10-14 year old students unless the student has a family connection to science, new research finds.


Highlighting the STEM skills gap and the need for greater scientific literacy throughout society, a group of researchers from King’s College London has undertaken the most thorough investigation yet of young people’s career aspirations in relation to science.

Using more than 19,000 survey results and a series of longitudinal interviews at three intervals over five years with students and parents, King’s ASPIRES research group conclude that students are turned off pursuing science by a narrow view of where studying science leads and lofty conceptions of who is capable of it.

Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s College London, said, “The vast majority of 10-14 year olds enjoy science and recognise the importance of it; sadly, however, even greater proportions appear to feel left out by it or struggle to perceive its relevance.”

Only 15% of the students surveyed aspired to a career in science despite 70% stating interest in the subject and two thirds reporting that they ‘do well’ at it.

The researchers suggest that a perception of scientists as ‘brainy’ – a view that 80% of the students repeated – precludes the students from following a scientific path and seeing it as ‘not for them.’

It is also suggested that a lack of awareness about the potential diversity of jobs available to STEM graduates also leaves students wondering what they would do with science A levels or degrees. This narrow view of ‘where science can lead’ is exacerbated by a lack of good quality (STEM) careers education

However, following the wide-ranging survey and interviews, the research team found a strong positive association between students’ desire to pursue science careers and having ‘science capital’ in the student’s family.

Professor Archer continues, “A visible scientific role model in the family appears to make a big difference.  Having someone involved in science in the family seems to lift the curtain on the wide range of roles and exciting areas you can end up in when you pursue science.”

Looking at current methods used to create greater enthusiasm for science, the new research publication recommends that national efforts should focus on improving careers education and spreading the effects of having ‘science capital’ in the home.

Professor Archer adds, “Looking at students’ desire to do something relevant that ‘makes a difference’, arguably a lot of emphasis is being placed on making science interesting but now we need to also let young people and families know that studying science can open doors to a wide range of careers and opportunities.

“The breadth of opportunity that studying science creates is something that students who have scientific family members already seem to be well aware of.”

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in partnership with the Institute of Physics (IOP), Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Association for Science Education (ASE) and benefitted from an advisory committee that comprised experts from ASE, IOP, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Science Council, Royal Academy of Engineering, British Science Association, Royal Society of Chemistry, the Department for Education, UK Resource Centre for Women and SET and the Centre for Science Education.

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