Science: still no child's play

School girl15 March 2012

By Sophie Goodchild

Successive UK governments have launched initiatives encouraging more young people to pursue science careers. Yet research by Professor Emma Smith at the University of Birmingham reveals there has been little increase in the take-up of science A-levels such as physics, chemistry and biology.

The same is true with recruitment to traditional undergraduate courses. The numbers reading physics for example have not changed for at least 25 years. Professor Smith's ESRC-funded study also shows that nearly a quarter of those with an engineering degree are doing non-graduate jobs or unskilled work such as waiting tables.

Her findings challenge the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) claim there is a 'crisis' in recruiting science graduates. The message from her research is there should be more vocational science education, not just degree courses which are still largely populated by white, middle-class men. "Widening participation (in science) has had limited impact which is disappointing given the investment involved," says Professor Smith. "We need to be more creative in getting science graduates into jobs and provide more vocational education."

It is well-documented that children's interest in school science declines from the age of ten onwards. Another ESRC-funded research project has investigated how educational and career aspiration develops in children and what influences their choices including class and gender. The five-year ASPIRES project is part of the ESRC-funded Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME). The long-term study is based on interviews and surveys with children aged from 10 to 14, as well as with parents and teachers.

The latest finding is that one in three primary school children 'never' read science books or websites. The majority of 10 and 11-year-olds may do some sort of science-related activity in their spare time such as watching relevant TV programmes. But just under a quarter report 'never' doing any science-related activities out of school, according to the ASPIRES research. Almost one in five children also reported that they 'never' visit a museum or zoo.

Professor Louise Archer, the lead researcher, says the message is that families can play an important role in shaping children's view of science careers. "Most families have very little idea where science leads to and are very unfamiliar with science in their everyday lives," she comments. "They think science subjects are only useful for becoming doctors or scientists. Some parents didn't have a good experience of science themselves."

Earlier survey work by ASPIRES challenges the notion that science is not for girls. It found little difference in attitudes at age 10 between boys and girls. However, boys are much more likely to be 'very keen' on science than girls, and some girls who did study science felt 'different' and had to work to 'balance' their identities.

The survey and interview data also showed that science is strongly associated with 'cleverness'. Professor Archer says schools should be supported in deconstructing the stereotype that science is 'masculine' and for 'clever' people. A key message from ASPIRES is that careers awareness needs to start much earlier than 14 so children are engaged in pursuing science.

Professor Archer says: "In England, we also decide earlier on the subjects we're going to take but in other countries it's not unusual to mix arts and science. Science should be opened up for everyone."

ASPIRES runs until 2013 and Professor Archer and her colleagues aim to develop strategies for teaching about science-based careers in Key Stage 3.