Science aspirations heavily influenced by existing social inequalities

New research shows the extent to which the aspirations of young people are influenced by inequalities such as class, gender and ethnicity. The work, by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), finds that the ways in which young people identify with science are also influenced by whether a young person has been able to experience and feel connected with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The findings show that differences in identities and aspirations related to science were evident in primary school and are exacerbated through secondary school. High achieving, middle class students identifying as male and students with high levels of family science capital (science related knowledge, attitudes, skills and experiences) were much more likely to aspire to a career in science and to feel, and be recognised by others as being, ‘science-y’.

The attitudes of the young people studied shows the importance of the representation of science and its impacts on aspirations to how ‘suited’ young people feel they are to careers in science. Overall science is associated with ‘cleverness’ and ‘masculinity’ so that many young people feel that science is ‘not for me’. Even high achievers, but especially young women, worry they might not be ‘clever enough’ to work in science, chiefly physics.

At the age of ten 11% of girls aspire to a career in engineering, compared to 44% of boys. To address this and the other inequalities the report recommends measures which challenge the representation of STEM as elitist and build social capital. These interventions should be regular rather than one-off and start early in primary school.

ASPIRES 2 is a longitudinal research project studying young people’s science and career aspirations. The project is based at the UCL Institute of Education and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The first ASPIRES report is available here.

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ASPIRES Director Professor Louise Archer discusses her work in the following videos