Theories of everything

Not enough people understand enough about science, and even fewer want to pursue a Stem-focused career. That’s a major problem for society, says Kat Arney, but she finds that the solution may lie in boosting young people’s ‘science capital’. And schools are key

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Jenna is a bright kid. She’s full of questions and curiosity, and fascinated by fireworks. She dreams of building a rocket – if not to take her to the moon, then maybe to give her a lift over the garden fence. But Jenna won’t ever be a rocket scientist. She can’t remember all the facts she thinks that scientists are meant to learn, and no one she knows cares much about science. No one talks about it, no one is interested in it. She doesn’t know if “rocket scientist” is even a job and no one she talks to knows either. And of course, she says, everyone knows that only boys build spaceships.

Kaylee is also a bright kid. She keeps snails in a tank in her bedroom, and her dad bought her a chemistry set for Christmas. Her auntie works as a technician in a testing lab at the local hospital and she often takes Kaylee to visit the local science museum.

Even though she suspects she isn’t brainy enough to be a professor, Kaylee still thinks that it might be fun to do a job that involved working with chemicals one day. She’s talked about it with her family at home; she has a plan to make it happen.

These little vignettes might have got you bristling over your morning coffee but they’re based on truth: some children just seem to be more “sciencey” – more confident in science, more open to the subject and more knowledgeable about it – than others, for whatever reason and however unfair that may be. And these “sciencey” students are often the ones that head to university to continue their interest and end up in a research-related career.

There aren’t enough of those students. There certainly aren’t enough who are female. The number of students taking biology, chemistry or physics at A level has dropped for the past two years, and while female students outnumber male in biology, they are vastly under-represented in physics.

The difficulty in getting enough Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates to supply the UK’s growing medical, science and technology sectors and the shortage of female graduates are also well documented (WISE, the organisation that campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, has found that just 25 per cent of graduates in core Stem subjects are women). A significant proportion of the current workforce in these areas comes from overseas; with the possibility of restricted movement, burdensome visas and immigration quotas in a post-Brexit UK, that shortage could become more pronounced.

But it’s not just about missed career opportunities or economic underperformance, there are concerns that too many adults walk through life with little understanding of the science that underpins their daily routines and the news stories that they read, to the detriment of the individual and wider society.

So how do we get more kids into the sciences and how do we boost the general scientific literacy of the population? Plenty of initiatives have tried and failed before, but a growing number of academics and organisations believe the answer may be down to the differences between children such as Jenna and Kaylee. And that difference, they claim, is “science capital”.

Science capital

Back in the mid 1980s, the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu wrote The Forms of Capital – an essay riffing on the sociological themes that he had been developing over the previous decade or more. In it, he defined three types of capital (or, more broadly, “stuff”) that people have at their disposal.

The first is economic capital, primarily cash and physical assets.

Then there’s social capital. This is a more nebulous concept, but it’s about a person’s place in society, the groups and clubs they join, and the relationships and networks that they sit within.

Finally, there is cultural capital, in the form of the knowledge, skills, education and other such advantages that a person has.

According to Louise Archer, professor of the sociology of education at the UCL Institute of Education, we now need to add another type to the list: science capital.

“Bourdieu’s work has been used in lots of different contexts to explain loads of different things,” she says. “The more you have of the highly valued sorts of capital, the more likely you are to be able to get on in life.”

Yet the more Archer thought about it, she realised that science also fell into this category. To find out more, she embarked on the 10-year longitudinal ASPIRES project, surveying a cohort of more than 19,000 secondary-age students about their attitudes, influences and aspirations relating to science.

Their answers are starting to reveal what science capital looks like, which Archer likes to describe as a metaphorical “bag of science stuff”.

Inside are the things you know: your grasp of scientific facts and concepts (something that academics like to call “scientific literacy”). There’s also the way you think: are you analytical and curious or accepting and irrational? She also highlights the importance of who you know and how you interact with them, from professional scientists to those with no knowledge of science at all. And finally, there are the things that you do, be it going to science museums and centres or just tinkering about with experiments at the kitchen table.

Using these concepts, Archer has been able to put a rough measure on an individual pupil’s level of science capital. Unsurprisingly, she finds that the students who have the highest science capital tend to also have “sciencey” parents, who have science degrees or science-related jobs.

“These parents will do things with their kids that reinforces it, like going to a science museum, or giving them a crystal growing kit or microscope,” Archer explains. “They’ll watch science programmes on TV together and talk about it, and they may even wear science T-shirts.

“If you’re from a sciencey family, you’re more likely to agree that science is in everyday life. You can see it in the kettle boiling your water or your light switch going on, or things falling to the ground.”

Where students have a low science capital, there is a view within the family and social circle of that person that science is not just uninteresting but often not even a factor.

“Families without so much science capital are more likely to say things like, ‘Well, I guess we just don’t have that much to do with science’. They just don’t see it in the same way.”

In the scenarios above, Jenna was lacking in science capital, while Kaylee had it in spades. Both should have an equal shot at pursuing a career involving science, but Kaylee has a better chance simply because of the environment in which she has grown up. To many teachers, this may seem to be stating the obvious – of course the “sciencey” kids will be the ones who go into science – but by systematically studying what feeds into science capital, Archer hopes to reveal ways to improve and broaden it.

“The notion of science capital is quite complex and there’s a tendency to try to boil it down to simple answers,” she explains.

“But whether you’re a teacher or in a science museum trying to engage people or running a science festival, that understanding and reflection and the importance of looking at what’s taken for granted about the culture of science is vital if we’re to democratise science more.”

Certainly, previous attempts to increase engagement with science have not had the scale of impact needed, and Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association (BSA), says we need a better solution, and quickly.

“In the current system, only certain kinds of people are going into professional science and we need to broaden that. We need to build people’s science capital so that we can get a science workforce that is much more representative of the population as a whole,” she argues.

That’s not just crucial to meeting the skills needed for the country to thrive, it’s also about how useful the work actually ends up being.

“There’s a risk that if we continue with this white middle-class domination of the sciences, then because science is relatively self-governing, the decisions we make about what research to do and how we should tailor that research will be driven by the concerns of that community and not by the concerns of society as a whole. And that will result in science that is not as good or as useful as it could be,” Mathieson argues.

Archer is also keen to stress a role for increasing social mobility. Stem job vacancies are rising, so boosting science capital where it is lacking ensures equal access to those forms of employment – which are usually among the higher pay brackets.

But tackling this issue is not merely about feeding the hungry jobs market. Reducing efforts to increase scientific capital to purely economic dynamics would be vastly underplaying the broader benefits for society. What Archer and her colleagues are really pushing for is increased science literacy in the wider population, too.

“A lot of people frame the issue in terms of the scientific pipeline but we would take the social justice angle and say it’s an important social good,” she says. “The world is becoming increasingly scientific and technological, so to have active, informed citizenship you need to have a good relationship with science and be confident using it, and know how to use it in your life.”

Driving participation

To steal a cultural metaphor, if academic researchers are opera singers in labcoats, then all of us should still be able to hum the scientific equivalent of a pop song as we judge the stories we read in the news or make decisions about our health.

But if science capital is the key to achieving the above aims, how do we go about increasing it in young people?

Obviously, there’s a big role here for established science museums and centres, who work hard to attract new and more diverse audiences through their doors. Organisations such as the BSA are also driving increased participation in informal educational and family-based science activities, such as local talks and their annual national British Science Festival.

Yet all of these approaches still rely heavily on attendees being the kind of kids who would go to a science event – namely those with at least moderate levels of science capital in the first place.

Biomedical research funder the Wellcome Trust is trying an alternative tactic, bringing science to young people on their own turf rather than persuading them to participate in events they already feel might not be for them. They’ve now paired up with Children in Need to help local youth organisations run science activities alongside the typical mix of arts, music and sporting activities that are usually offered to keep disadvantaged youngsters occupied outside school hours.

But Archer sees an important role for schools in boosting science capital, too. She and her team have been working directly with secondary school teachers in several schools through a programme called Enterprising Science, helping them to deliver more personalised and localised lesson plans that aim to hook students in and see the science in the world around them.

“One of the teachers who works predominantly in East London uses the context of food, curry and cooking because that’s what his kids know about, have access to and engage with. Another teacher has boys who are into video gaming, so that’s the hook. For some of the children in West London, there’s the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s about finding the points of connection with your students, tailoring the contents to them and trying to open it up.”

So far, Archer’s project has been a success, with students and teachers reporting that they enjoy lessons more and an increase in pupil engagement with science subjects. However, as critics are keen to point out, engagement doesn’t always equal learning: children can be easily engaged with fun and games but it doesn’t mean they’re actually learning much. In response, Archer points out that it depends on whether one sees learning as the development of meaningful understanding or just memorising facts and figures to regurgitate in an exam.

“Our work is geared to the former,” she says. “Like many other academics in the field, we think that engagement is important for the development of more meaningful understandings and is one of the precursors for meaningful learning. Our data shows that teachers and students reported gains in their understanding and recall of science content when they had encountered it through our approach – it ‘sticks in your head more’, as one student put it. Some teachers also reported significant gains in test attainment – both of which we would view as indicators of learning.”

But despite these efforts, some argue that intervening at secondary school is too late. Because science capital is inextricably tied up with how much a child self-identifies as “sciencey”, there may be even bigger gains to be made by getting ’em when they’re young.

“Identity starts developing in upper primary school and through the beginning of secondary,” explains Carole Kenrick, a former secondary school physics teacher who is now scientist-in-residence at Gillespie Primary School in Islington. “If you’re not working with children at that age, widening the pool of people who see themselves as potential scientists, then we are closing off those doors to them. I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not willing to look at the root of the problem.”

I meet her in Lab_13, her dedicated classroom bursting with equipment ranging from petri dishes and Lego to a sizeable telescope. Run by the pupils themselves, it’s a space where children get a chance to investigate the answers to all those “Why?” questions, as well as an opportunity to bring their inventions to life.

Just like a grown-up research lab, everyone has their own role. “We have some children who are our scientific researchers,” she says, showing me a pile of adorably earnest “job applications” from pupils wanting to join the team. “We’ve also got some children who are the science technicians, and they’re developing and making the equipment and are also in charge of health and safety. Then we have computer scientists and coders who are drafting ideas for tables and what the data might look like when it’s presented.”

There’s even an eye on communication to the wider world – a few of the children have signed up as artists and journalists, producing illustrations and copy for the lab blog.

Lab_13 projects have involved finding out if the moon really is made of cheese, testing the health benefits of manuka honey (the results of which were presented at the Cheltenham Science Festival), and even investigating gravity with a local aerial performance troupe.

Although Lab_13’s budding scientists are a long way from choosing their future careers, twice as many of them say they’re interested in pursuing science-related jobs as the national average.

Stumbling blocks

But for all Kenrick’s passion and glowing successes, only a handful of schools around the country have set up their own Lab_13. The reasons are glaringly obvious: her project occupies an entire classroom of valuable educational real estate and although all of her funding is scrabbled together from external sources, such as charitable trusts, rather than the school budget, it’s barely sustainable.

Yet even if the Lab_13 idea did take off in schools nationwide, and if you could get the follow-up in secondary that Archer is working on, in a few years those students could find themselves hitting the wall of the UK’s exam system.

Some schools choose to put forward only the students judged to be the most scientifically gifted for triple science GCSE, with the rest relegated to the less in-depth double science (others plump for combined science or other options).

It’s still possible to progress on to science A levels with the double science GCSE qualification, but it’s a trickier path. And without science A levels, applying for a degree in a Stem subject is harder still. Even with the growing emphasis on non-degree vocational qualifications, it’s still another barrier that says “science is not for you”.

To make matters worse, exams in science subjects tend to focus on facts rather than rewarding curiosity and critical thinking, says Kenrick.

“Facts are absolutely important and we need them but they are not science, they are not the actual research,” she says. “We need to teach children and young people how to be scientists so that they can see and understand where these facts have come from.”

Teacher CPD also needs to be improved, according to the Wellcome Trust.

“We want to make sure that teachers are really well equipped, supported and celebrated,” says Hilary Leevers, the trust’s head of education and learning. “We very much see them at the heart of a good science education, and our data highlight the importance of teaching.”

To address this, the Wellcome Trust is supporting the Stem Insight programme, which offers short placements for teachers in science and technology-based companies and university departments, bringing them up to speed with the latest knowledge and opportunities in the sector.

“The scheme enables teachers to go to placements in industry and get re-inspired about real-world relevance, science in context,” says Leevers. “They may have gone straight from university into teaching and not really had that experience of the wider world of science. It’s a lovely experience for them to be inspired but then also take those new ideas and understanding of career pathways back into the classroom.”

Will all these initiatives have a direct impact on the science capital of young people? Perhaps, and more ideas to increase science capital will no doubt arise. But any shift is going to be slow to show. This is especially true if the effort is put into early years rather than secondary schools, where gains are easier to measure through GCSE or A level choices and exam results. It’s made even harder against a backdrop of shifting educational policy as ministers and governments come and go.

Yet identifying the problem is at least the first step in finding a solution. And Kenrick’s relentless enthusiasm is undimmed by the long haul ahead.

“One of the careers I considered was being a particle physicist, which would involve possibly never seeing any positive results from any of my research,” she laughs, “so I’m in for the win!”

Dr Kat Arney is a science author, broadcaster and co-presenter of the BBC Radio 5 Live Science show.