Is Science for Us?

Is Science for Us? Black Students’ and Parents’ Views of Science and Science Careers

Louise Archer, Jennifer Dewitt

DEPS, King’s College, London, UK

Jonathan Osborne

Graduate School of Education, Stanford

DOI 10.1002/sce.21146

Published online 18 February 2015 in Wiley Online Library (


Read the full paper: Is science for us?


ABSTRACT: There are widespread policy concerns to improve (widen and increase) science, technology, engineering, and mathematics participation, which remains stratified by ethnicity, gender, and social class. Despite being interested in and highly valuing science, Black students tend to express limited aspirations to careers in science and remain underrepresented in post-16 science courses and careers, a pattern which is not solely explained by attainment. This paper draws on survey data from nationally representative student cohorts and longitudinal interview data collected over 4 years from 10 Black African/Caribbean students and their parents, who were tracked from age 10–14 (Y6–Y9), as part of a larger study on children’s science and career aspirations. The paper uses an intersectional analysis of the qualitative data to examine why science careers are less “thinkable” for Black students. A case study is also presented of two young Black women who “bucked the trend” and aspired to science careers. The paper concludes with implications for science education policy and practice.

Many governments and policy makers in are concerned about participation in post-compulsory science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The greatest area of concern is physical science, where the “typical” graduate remains White, male, and middle class. This is despite many years of interventions aimed at broadening the profile of scientists in university and beyond.

Data from the United Kingdom and United States indicate that, on average, those from minority ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented in physical science degrees and are less likely to work in science, engineering, and technology professions.

Students’ aspirations reveal that issues around race, ethnicity, gender and class make young people think that science isn’t for them. Although the “being/doing divide” (liking science, but thinking of science careers as ‘not for me’) is common across all students, it is particularly common in the case of Black students. This is in no small part due to discourses which stereotype science and scientists as White, middleclass and masculine. This stereotyping prevents many Black students from seeing science careers as being “for me.”

Science is strongly aligned with ‘cleverness’ in popular discourse. Although the association of science with ‘cleverness’ may be a potential issue across different subject areas, the authors suggest that it is exacerbated in the case of science and other high-status subjects, which are traditionally seen as “hard” subjects. Science’s status as an elite subject, “only for the clever,” is not only the result of popular perceptions, but is reproduced in institutional practices and technologies of power. For example, in the UK it is common for access to post-compulsory science subjects to be more tightly restricted than for other subjects. In England, students must achieve the top grades of an A or A* grade in the national GCSE examinations at age 16 to be eligible to study academic post-compulsory courses (A levels) in Physics, whereas a lower grade B or C is more common an entry requirement for subjects such as English.

The authors argue that ‘cleverness’ is a not a neutral term but impacted by race, class and gender which some people then feel alienated from. The result is that Black students are less likely to imagine themselves following science careers—even though they like science and aspire highly.

The analysis points to several implications for science education:

  • The link between science and scientists should be weakened. Currently policy discourse, and the majority of STEM enrichment activity, prioritizes the science pipeline, encouraging young people to study science as a route to attaining a science career. The authors call for a message that science “opens doors” to a wide range of careers at both graduate and technical levels, both in and beyond science.
  • An opening up of the meanings and representations of “scientists” to enable young people to better relate science to their own life worlds. This could be usefully extended to challenging the science-scientist link (which is firmly embedded in young people’s consciousness), so that science is promoted as not only leading to careers in science, but as also opening up a wide range of potential future careers beyond science.
  • Replacing the metaphor of the science ‘pipeline’ with science as a ‘springboard’ to more helpfully conveying the value of science qualifications (and scientific skills) for a diverse range of potential future paths.
  • Challenging the popular association between science and “braininess.” This means challenging both popular representations of science and scientists but also rethinking social and educational structures that reinforce and perpetuate this relationship.
  • The need for a better and fairer (re)distribution of all forms of capital, including science capital, across society.