What kinds of activities will encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to keep studying science?

Tamjid Mujtaba

I have worked on a range of projects as a mixed-methods researcher over the years although none as quite exciting as  Chemistry for All,  a longitudinal project funded in 2014 by the The Royal Society of Chemistry. Why is it exciting? Because I am confident that both the research design along with the sentiment of  The Royal Society of Chemistry to tackle inequality in post-16 Chemistry participation will produce well-grounded evidence based policy recommendations.

The Royal Society of Chemistry have funded a £1 million five-year project with the main purpose of finding ways to widen participation in chemistry. Colleagues at the IOE and I are collaborating with partner universities to determine the effectiveness of a number of long-term innovative activities developed for schools with low university participation.

Science policy and science education in England, and in other countries, remains concerned over the numbers of students who do not continue to study science subjects once they become non-compulsory. Inequity also remains persistent: fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds choose to study non-compulsory science subjects, especially chemistry and physics. But it remains relatively unclear what people can actually do to help, especially within schools. My work on the quantitative data-sets has gone to some way to uncover what could be helpful and useful.

The project uses mixed methods research to explore what relates to future aspirations in chemistry (and science) and how the interventions relate to aspirations. I (along with colleagues) are also involved in qualitative interviews following 36 students spanning five years whilst the survey data are following around 5000 students. The evaluation of the intervention is still underway, but initial insights from the research are already emerging. Whilst the qualitative findings are in alignment with some aspects of the quantitative research and point to the value of providing opportunities of extra-curricular activities via the school, I focus here on the quantitative element of the research.

The research tools built on earlier research in science education again where I used large survey datasets to explore issues related to participation, aspirations and motivation. The initial analysis for the Chemistry for All project has examined the survey responses of 4780 students in Year 7 (age 11-12 years) and in Year 8 (age 12-13) from schools in England with high proportions of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A summary of some of the findings are available here and a copy of the full article is free to download here.

Overall, students’ aspirations to study non-compulsory chemistry and science in the future were strongly associated with students’ engagement in extra-curricular science/chemistry activities accessed through their schools. Additionally, certain teaching approaches (teaching the applications of science and hands-on science teaching) had an association with future aspirations.

Teaching approaches were also closely connected to the students’ extrinsic motivation towards science (how useful they think science is for their future) and their intrinsic motivation towards science (their interest and enjoyment of science); extrinsic and intrinsic motivation then strongly associated with the students’ future science/chemistry aspirations. Additionally, students’ confidence in their own abilities in science, encouragement from teachers and family to study science/chemistry post-16, and family science capital (family encouragement towards, and shared family participation in, extra-curricular science activities) had smaller but significant associations.

The socio-economic profile of students appeared to have little to no independent association with aspirations, when accounting for the students’ engagement with extra-curricular science activities (i.e. science clubs) and their beliefs about the perceived usefulness of science to the future lives and their intrinsic interest in science. Such associations suggest that socio-economic disadvantage may constraint students’ aspirations through limiting their perceptions of the usefulness of science to the future lives.

Overall, in order to foster science and/or chemistry aspirations amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students would benefit from support and encouragement to continue with science/chemistry post-16 and having access through their schools to science/chemistry extra-curricular activities. Teaching approaches that engage learners and raise their awareness of the benefits of having non-compulsory chemistry/science qualifications may be beneficial, as these appear to foster the students’ extrinsic and/or intrinsic motivations towards science. Additionally, these results are similar to those observed through wider analysis of nationally-representative samples of students across England (using PISA data) and within the analysis I conducted in mathematics and physics education.

What about changes in attitudes over time?

Currently I am examining changes over time and what is important for future aspirations. The findings indicate that an increase in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in science over the years is associated with future aspirations later on in secondary school. In addition the findings suggest that teaching approaches early on in secondary school have an impact on aspirations several years later. Finally whilst an increase in motivation year on year is associated with future aspirations, this is not the case for participation in extra-curricular science activities, simply having some exposure / opportunity to engage with this early on in secondary school has an impact on later aspirations.

These are exciting findings which suggest that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be encouraged to think about having a future career in science or chemistry if they are exposed to opportunities at school that foster their interests in these subjects and highlight the range of careers and opportunities available to them. Whilst schools cannot change students’ lack of family science capital or social disadvantage, teachers can provide extra-curricular science activities through science clubs or links with external agencies and highlight the relevance and benefits of studying science.

Links to related recent research

Girls with high physics and mathematics aspirations receive less encouragement to study these subjects from teachers and families than boys with high aspirations

Girls continue with mathematics because of the support and encouragement they receive

PISA 2006 and 2015: Science teaching and students’ attitudes and aspirations

Barriers and enablers to chemistry for disadvantaged students

Culture, economy and empowerment in influencing the social mobility of girls on STEM courses

Photo: University of Michigan via creative commons

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Posted in Research matters, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment, Uncategorized

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