Educational administrators in the United Kingdom are searching for more sources of science capital with which to inspire the next generation of students to pursue careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This issue has been an on-going struggle, but was once again brought back to public attention when Greg Clark was recently announced to be the newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science.
In discussing the future generation of STEM professionals, most experts will at one point or another make a reference to “the pipeline.” “The pipeline” refers to the long development process that is necessary to turn today’s students into tomorrow’s STEM leaders. The pipeline begins in school and depending on an individual’s ambition and chosen discipline, can extend well past the post-doctorate level and into the professional environment. In the both the UK and the USA the pipeline has been described as “leaky” because of how few scholars stick with STEM fields as they move through the higher ranks of education. One example of this leakage problem in the UK can be seen in how the percent of full-time undergraduate students in the STEM fields has marginally decreased, despite rigorous efforts to make STEM fields more appealing.
Raising the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists begins in childhood and relies on the presence of “science capital.” “Science capital” describes a young person’s regular exposure and engagement with science throughout their young, formative years. Such exposure is generally mediated by family members, friends, or the educational system, and involves open discussions about science and connecting STEM-related topics to day-to-day life. Survey results from over 19,000 students revealed that students who had been raised with medium to high science capital were much more likely to plan on studying science topics past age 16 and to aspire to careers in STEM-related fields. By contrast, students from low science capital backgrounds who were not interested in STEM topics by age 10 were unlikely to develop such an interest by age 14.
One of the challenges in building the next generation of STEM leaders is that science capital is seemingly a privilege of a middle-class lifestyle. Like other educational privileges such as private music lessons and extracurricular sports, students from the middle class are also more likely to be encouraged to pursue interests in science and thereby build scientific capital. Of course not all middle class students have high science capital, and students from lower income families are also capable of becoming engaged in STEM fields. Nevertheless, decreased class mobility and insecurity of the middle class have been cited as potential contributing factors for the lack of science capital.
According to a report published by the King’s College of London’s ASPIRES research team, a key step in coaxing more students to pursue careers in the STEM fields will be building science capital instead of interest in the sciences. According to the extensive survey results and longitudinal observations, a respectable share of students are interested in the STEM fields, but for various reasons are disinclined to pursue this interest. For some students this is because they do not feel “brainy” enough to pursue STEM fields in their more senior years of education. Others find science topics intriguing, but are not interested in becoming doctors or scientists. Overcoming the image of STEM fields as the exclusive realm of brainy doctors and scientists will be a major step towards increasing the number of students entering the STEM pipeline.
By Sarah Takushi