Science capital – an introduction

How many and which students are progressing to science A-levels and science careers has been a concern for many years. STEM employment offers good salaries and opportunities, however some groups seem to be persistently missing from the world of STEM professionals. The lack of women in Science and Engineering has received much attention, but social class and ethnicity also appears to prevent some people from taking science beyond GCSE, or indeed seeing science as a career for them. This despite all groups liking doing science. Some people are just unable to see themselves as scientists in the future.


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Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL and her research studies point to several factors influencing these patterns as well as gender, social class and ethnicity considerations. These include structure of science teaching, careers education provision, and science capital. The latter, science capital, is starting to be referenced widely in education circles, as it points towards some practical ways teachers, and others, might improve the accessibility of science careers for all.  There is even a fabulous free teachers toolkit to help “tweak” your teaching to build science capital (available from UCL Institute of Education)

But what is “science capital”?

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There are a number of analogies to help think about science capital. In a previous post I referred to it as the conditions needed to keep a spark of science interest burning. Professor Archer’s projects tend to talk instead about the “science capital holdall” – a bag containing:

  • What you know (scientific literacy and related knowledge)
  • How you think (your attitudes to science and ways of thinking)
  • What you do – science related activities and behaviours
  • Who you know – science related social contacts and networks.

The greater the science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to continue with science post-16 and the more likely they are to recognise being a scientist as part of their identity.

Stop for a moment and consider your own science capital.

What about those of any young people you know? How much does it vary across groups that you have contact with?

My science capital was high, even as a child, mainly to do with “Who you know” (my father was a research scientist) and “What you do” (trips to science museums, a LOT of science related library books and watching science documentaries and programmes). My sons’ science capital is considerable in the same pockets of their bag. But teaching in Professor Ellie’s Lab has shown me just how much variation in science capital there can be. And made me think about what small part I can play in raising science capital.

So what does Professor Ellie’s Lab do to aid science capital?

Most directly, I add to the “Who they know” – indeed when I asked my year 6 group at the start of the session what came into their heads when I said “scientist”, several of them wrote down “Dylan’s Mum” – aka me – Professor Ellie. Obviously I hope I am adding to “What you know” but also I am trying to add to “How you think” by talking about how scientists work, what it means to experiment, and how eyes are one of the most important scientific instruments we can have.

In a subsequent blog I’ll give some specific examples of localising and contextualising in my science sessions but for now I’ll leave you thinking about “what one simple thing could I do to raise someone’s science capital?”

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