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How to increase and diversify participation in STEM: the ASPIRES Study

Student numbers in veterinary science have increased dramatically in the last 10 years. However, it is widely recognised that efforts must also be made to diversify the STEM workforce, as participation remains patterned by gender, ethnicity, and social class.

Against a backdrop of calls to increase participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in order to meet growing labour market demands and promote social justice (for example, UKCES, Engineering UK, and the Royal Academy of Engineering), student numbers in veterinary science have increased dramatically in the last 10 years. However, it is widely recognised that efforts must also be made to diversify the STEM workforce, as participation remains patterned by gender, ethnicity, and social class. In veterinary science, certain groups remain severely underrepresented - black and minority ethnic (BAME) students make up just under 5% of all veterinary science students, and less than a quarter of all of last year’s veterinary science undergraduates were male. 

The ASPIRES study, based at UCL Institute of Education, has been working since 2009 to better understand what shapes young people’s science and career aspirations, with the aim of informing policy and practice to support more – and more diverse – young people to continue with science post-16. The study, now in its tenth year, has tracked a cohort of young people from age 10-19 in order to understand their experiences of STEM – inside and outside of the classroom – and to identify what influence their science-related attitudes and aspirations. To date, over 40,000 young people have been surveyed for the study, and researchers have conducted over 650 in-depth interviews with 60+ students and parents.

What is happening?

Research from ASPIRES shows that, the issue is not the ‘fault’ of young people having the ‘wrong’ attitudes and aspirations, rather educational structures, systems, and practices play a key role in hindering progression and encouraging young people to see science as ‘not for me’.

For example, data from Year 11 students in England revealed that the stratification of science routes at Key Stage 4 (into ‘Double’ and ‘Triple’ routes), and stringent grade entry requirements for STEM A levels, work to constrain many young people’s choices, aspirations, and progression. The most socio-economically disadvantaged students were two and a half times less likely to study Triple Science compared to the most advantaged, and only 22% of students with low or very low cultural capital (where cultural capital is a proxy for measure for social class) studied Triple Science compared to 71% of students with very high cultural capital. The research also highlighted how the higher grades required for entry to A level science (compared to many other subjects) led to science being seen as only for the ‘brainy’ amongst some students, which in turn dissuaded many from considering post-compulsory science and careers which rely on this further study.

The ASPIRES research also found that less than two-thirds (63%) of students aged 15-16 reported having received careers education and only half had undertaken work experience. In fact, the data revealed how careers education provision in England is patterned by social inequalities, with working-class, minority ethnic students, girls, and lower attaining students being significantly less likely to receive and benefit from high quality careers support. The result of this can be especially prohibitive in the medical and veterinary sciences, where prior work experience is often seen as a prerequisite for further study.

Interestingly, we found that the majority of young people enjoy school science, but only a small percentage (about 16%) aspire to a science career - a proportion that does not vary significantly from age 10 to 18. That is, a lack of interest in science is not a key factor deterring participation. However, science aspirations are socially patterned from a young age – the students most likely to aspire to science careers tended to be boys and from more socially advantaged communities, particularly those with family members who have science qualifications and/or careers. To help explain these patterns we developed the concept of ‘science capital’, which can be imagined like a 'holdall', or bag, containing all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and resources that you acquire through life. Our wider research found that people with higher levels of science capital are more likely to have a science identity and aspire to work in science. This indicates that initiatives aimed at increasing participation in the sciences need to move beyond making science ‘fun’, and move towards ‘building science capital’.

What can be done?

Whilst we recognise that there is no single ‘fix’ guaranteed to increase and widen participation, there are some useful things that can be done. For instance, our findings suggest that specific disciplines, such as veterinary science, might usefully reflect on the ways in which standardised entry routes and requirements may be working to narrow the field of applicants – making it difficult for even highly interested young people to continue.

Science outreach programmes could usefully shift their focus from ‘increasing interest’ in science to ‘building science capital’ in young people (see the Science Capital Teaching Approach for more information). Work urgently needs to be done to break down popular notions of science as being only for the ‘clever’, and steps could usefully be taken to address the current stratification of GCSE science, as the current system of Triple Science in England leaves many feeling that they are not clever enough to pursue science (see our research and policy briefing). Closer monitoring, evaluation, and targeting of careers education and work experience, would also help, as our research found that it is currently not reaching those (eg working-class, minority ethnic) young people who would arguably benefit most from it.


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