How teachers can engage students in science

‘Science capital’ is key to engaging pupils – it is about showing the subject is relevant to daily life, says Beth Budden
18th October 2019, 12:03am
How Building Science Capital Can Boost Pupils' Engagement In The Subject


How teachers can engage students in science

When educational discussions turn to cultural capital, and the gap between pupils who are disadvantaged and their peers, the solutions suggested can be simplistic: providing culturally rich experiences; ensuring no assumptions are made about prior knowledge; and teaching skills that may not be as embedded as you might hope.

But the reality is always more complex, and this is very clear when looking at science in the primary school where I work. The majority of pupils are from affluent, professional families and they arrive already brimming full of cultural capital. In science, many are far ahead in their knowledge and experiences of the subject compared with their disadvantaged peers.

Taking them all to a museum isn’t going to cut it: if anything, because our more affluent pupils have likely already been to the museums we visit beforehand, the gap widens because these children have more to build on to make the most of the experience.

I wanted to address this imbalance and found a potential answer at the Primary Science Teaching Trust conference. There, I was introduced to the “science capital teaching approach” - the culmination of a research project undertaken by Professor Louise Archer and colleagues at UCL Institute of Education and King’s College London.

What is science capital?

The project recognises that many groups struggle to make science relevant to their lives, especially women, working-class pupils and some ethnic minority pupils. All these groups are markedly under-represented in science, an elite subject that “can provide a route to social mobility”, as explained in an excellent downloadable publication (Godec et al, 2017).

The notion of science capital draws on the theory of Pierre Bourdieu and his description of “habitus, capital and field” (1977). He asserted that an individual’s dispositions and attitudes, or habitus, are acquired through their upbringing. “Capital” refers to the social, cultural and economic resources that a person has access to in order to advance in life, while “field” describes the environment surrounding the individual, including their social relationships, prospects and opportunities.

It is the field that plays a principal role in governing whether a person’s capital or habitus are valued.

Science capital refers to all the science-related resources an individual has access to, their habitus and their attitude towards the subject. As described by the project, it is similar to a bag being carried around by the individual, full of everything that relates to science. There are eight “dimensions of science capital” :

  • Scientific literacy: a student’s knowledge and understanding about science and how science works. This also includes their confidence in feeling that they know about the subject.
  • Science-related attitudes: the student’s values and dispositions, and the extent to which they see science as relevant to their everyday life.
  • Knowledge about the transferability of science: understanding the utility and broad application of scientific skills, knowledge and qualifications.
  • Science media consumption: the extent to which a student engages with science-related media, including television, books, magazines and internet content.
  • Participation in out-of-school science learning contexts: how often a student takes part in informal science learning opportunities, such as visits to science museums, science clubs and fairs.
  • Family science skills, knowledge and qualifications: the extent to which a student’s family has science-related skills, qualifications, jobs and interests.
  • Knowing people in science-related roles: the people in the student’s wider family, friends, peers and community circles who work in science-related roles.
  • Talking about science in everyday life: how often a student talks about science with key people in their lives - for example, friends, siblings, parents, neighbours and community members.


The idea is that the more science capital students have, the more likely it is that they will engage with science and achieve. As the project notes, students with low levels of science capital are less likely to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as “sciencey”, and are less likely to continue with science post-16.

This was my experience: some children, often the less affluent minority, didn’t see themselves as sciencey.

Igniting curiosity

As an Ofsted survey in 2013 found, many children had formed their attitudes to science during primary school. Fortunately, the science capital teaching approach asserts that teachers can make a difference.

The project’s approach to increasing science capital is a “reflective framework that involves small tweaks to existing practice so as to reorientate science lessons in ways that can better connect with the reality of students’ lives and experiences”.

This recognition of pupils as social, emotional beings is lacking in some of the more recent research-based learning theories. As we know, learning is never as effective when we fail to acknowledge who pupils are and how they feel about it. The approach does not rely on new resources and, importantly, it doesn’t mean a watering down of the knowledge curriculum. It gives clear guidance on how to build science capital through reflective exercises, lesson examples, questionnaires and reflective diary templates.

The approach is structured around three pillars of practice: personalising and localising; eliciting, valuing and linking; and building the capital dimensions.

I began by following the framework and reflective exercises described in the project’s guide, which helped me to think about my class and how I could increase the science capital of certain pupils.

I found out how the children felt about science and sciencey people by using the short questionnaire in the project guide. Following this, I talked to individual pupils who showed signs of disengagement with science. The pupils were often reluctant to join in science discussions and had a passive approach to investigations.

As the science capital approach suggests, I looked for the links children had to science - and I always found them. For example, a child with a parent working in catering had never thought about just how much science was involved in cooking. Another whose parent worked in a hospital had never thought about how this connected with “school science” until we sat down and discussed medicines and health.

I then ensured that the links we had uncovered were actively celebrated and called upon frequently in lessons. While teaching about food and healthy eating, for example, I would actively talk about the child whose parent was a caterer, highlighting the importance of cooking and selecting the right types of food to stay healthy.

During related activities, I noticed that this child began to engage much more, joining in discussions, and often even leading them. I could see the change in engagement before my eyes.

Although the project was initially aimed at secondary, I found all the material adaptable to a primary setting and, from September, the team has been working on creating a version dedicated to primary schools, funded by the Primary Science Teaching Trust and the Ogden Trust.

Effective outcomes

It’s hard to believe that such effective outcomes can develop from such simple steps. There was no increase needed in funding or workload - just a simple change in science pedagogy.

The approach uses the analogy of a candle to talk about science engagement and the role of social context. The burning flame represents the students’ engagement; the candle represents their habitus and capital; and the heat to spark the flame is what the teacher might do to boost engagement. Importantly, the air around the candle - the conditions and environment, or field - are what will determine whether the flame burns brightly or not.

As Archer suggests, changing the air around the candle is what matters here, rather than trying to change young people by adding to the candle.

I’ve no doubt that the science capital teaching approach would be beneficial in any setting where science is taught and engagement requires attention. Crucially, this has confirmed to me that if knowledge is to serve as a new tool for social justice, then valuing and recognising pupils’ backgrounds (their habitus and capital) must be another.

Beth Budden is a teacher and leader at a primary school in south-east London. She tweets @BethBudden and blogs at

The project guide is available to download at

This article originally appeared in the 18 October 2019 issue under the headline “Simple tweaks can light up the world of science”

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