Why too much STEM education is not effective – and how to fix it

6 March 2020

There are well over 600 organisations involved in STEM education, covering all age ranges but with the greatest focus on 11-14 year olds.  Yet the STEM skills gap is growing with a reported need of over 170,000 extra skilled workers increasing year-by-year at a cost of over £1.5bn per year to the UK economy.  And the need for such roles is likely to double over the next decade.

With so much effort from businesses, enrichment organisations or charities and government, why are we not improving the situation?  Why is the ethnic and gender split of those choosing STEM subjects still so similar to what it was 20 years ago?

There are many reasons – take your pick from:

  • STEM education support being too focussed on classroom resources
  • A lack of links between subject teaching and real-life context
  • Inconsistent careers advice and support
  • A lack of consistent impact evaluation
  • … and more

The most common type of activity is talks or presentations then curricula-related resources, competitions and activities.  Of course, all of this helps.  Much is very good, and some is excellent.

So, the problem is not quantity – it is effectiveness.  How do we get a bigger bang for the many, many millions of £££ bucks spent on STEM education?

The problem comes from the narrow focus of too much of these efforts.  A young person is only partly influenced by what they experience in the classroom.  Yes, brilliant teaching can inspire, just as poor teaching can turn a child off a STEM future.  But we need to take greater account of the wider influences on a young student.

The best way to look at this is through the window of Science Capital, developed under the leadership of Professor Louise Archer with University College London, King’s College London, the Science Museum and BP.

Science Capital is a concept that explains patterns in science participation – why some people engage with science and others do not.  It helps explain why particular social groups are underrepresented in science study and why they think they are ‘not science people’.

It looks not just at the science knowledge young people gain through lessons in schools, but at the bigger picture of influences, attitudes and experiences they acquire which shape their views.  It explains how an individual’s Science Capital is made up of:

  • What you know – your science knowledge
  • How you think – your attitudes and dispositions
  • What you do – science-related activities you visit or participate in
  • Who you know – being around people who are passionate about, or involved with, science

Everyone (including teachers) has differing amounts of Science Capital and that effects whether they think ‘science is for me’ or ‘no thanks’.

BP has taken this thinking onboard within their Educational Service, developing their strategy to not just educate about STEM, but to develop Science Capital more widely amongst young people and educators.  For example:

  • Through trialling ways to build Science Capital amongst non-science specialist primary school teachers in a partnership with the Primary Science Quality Mark.
  • And, through widening appeal for their annual Ultimate STEM Challenge competition with themes more relevant to young people’s lives today, they have increased participation from 202 team entries in 2019 to 3,989 this year. At that same time, they have increased the proportion of non-selective schools taking part – widening the social mix and engagement of the activity.

We have been proud to support a wide variety of organisations to move forward effectively in STEM education.  Not only leading the BP Educational Service into a Science Capital future but also working with Pfizer, Motorola Solutions, Tomorrow’s Engineers, the IET, Rolls Royce and many more aiming to make a difference.

So, what can you do with your own STEM interventions?  From our experience, we would suggest 3 areas of focus:

  • Equip influencers to support – particularly parents who have a massive influence on the ‘science is for me / not for me’ mindset
  • Empower educators – teachers also need to build their own Science Capital, to understand how the curriculum and classroom relate to real-life context and careers
  • Make it real – to see how science impacts young people’s daily lives, futures and passionsChange your mindset, which changes your approach, which increases your impact and makes your STEM education activity more effective.

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