Social Class, Ethnicity and STEM Participation

Heather_MendickLouise Archerpost by LOUISE ARCHER and HEATHER MENDICK
King’s College London and Brunel University

Background – the issue

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are widely recognised as crucial for the UK’s economic prosperity[i]. It is broadly accepted that there is a need to increase the number of people studying and working in (STEM) at all levels[ii]. Although debates remain over how many future scientists the economy needs[iii], there is substantial concern, particularly from government and employers, about a growing STEM skills gap.

Despite decades of inventions, post-16 STEM participation rates remain stubbornly lower than projected requirements, particularly in key areas, such as the physical sciences and engineering. Women, working class and those from particular minority ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Black Caribbean and Pakistani/ Bangladeshi) are persistently underrepresented[iv]. Not only can STEM qualifications offer a wage premium[v], but there is a value and need for citizens to understand and shape scientific developments in society. Diversifying STEM participation is therefore an urgent economic and social justice imperative.

While most attention has focused on encouraging more girls/ women into STEM[vi], social class and ethnicity remain important concerns.

Evidence – what factors does research show to be important?

  • Attainment: differential attainment contributes to uneven patterns of participation, particularly in relation to social class[vii] – but does not fully explain participation inequalities. As research by Heather Mendick (2005) shows, students who are traditionally under-represented in post-16 physical sciences and mathematics are less likely to identify themselves as being ‘good’ at these subjects, irrespective of their actual attainment.
  • Teacher perceptions/ practices: Strand’s (2012) research found that minority ethnic (particularly Black Caribbean) students are less likely to be entered into higher tier examinations than White students, even after controlling for prior attainment. Research also shows how the characteristics popularly associated with the ‘ideal student’, and particularly the ‘ideal Physics student’, tend to be aligned with white, middle-class masculinity, against which female/ working-class/ minority ethnic learners tend to be judged negatively, even if they are achieving well[viii].
  • Perceptions of science/ scientists as white, male and middle class: Evidence[ix] from ASPIRES and other projects suggests that young people regard STEM as white, male and middle-class, which contributes to the perception that STEM is ‘not for me’.
  • Science capital: Science capital[x] refers to science-related qualifications, interest, understanding (‘scientific literacy’) and social contacts (e.g. knowing someone who works in a STEM-related job). ASPIRES[xi] found that the more science capital a family has, the more likely a child is to aspire to a science career and/or to study science post-16. The UPMAP project[xii] also found that students are more likely to study post-16 maths and/or physics if they were encouraged over time by a key adult. ASPIRES found that science capital is much less prevalent among working class families and that most young people and parents have little idea of the transferability of science qualifications, assuming that it is only worth studying science further if you aspire to be a scientist or doctor.
  • The ‘brainy’ image of science: ASPIRES found that young (particularly working-class/Black) people overwhelmingly associate science with being ‘clever’ or ‘brainy’, which contributes to a view of post-16 science as only for the ‘exceptional few’. The English education system’s culture of early specialisation and restricted access to Science A levels (compared to other subjects) appears to exacerbate these issues.

Recommendations for improving STEM participation

  • Focus on building science capital, not just increasing young people’s interest in STEM.
  • Target interventions at families, not just students
  • Design longer term (rather than ‘one off’) interventions, building resources and relationships with working class and minority ethnic families/ communities
  • Radically re-think the current ‘triage’ model of Science at GCSE level and the, internationally anomalous, early specialisation at A level. A baccalaureate-style system would encourage students to study a wider range of options (including STEM) for longer
  • Reduce the emphasis given to the STEM ‘pipeline’ – ensure equal emphasis and value is given to technical (non-degree) STEM routes and public scientific literacy
  • Promote careers ‘from’ science, not just careers ‘in’ science. Widely promote the message that ‘science keeps your options open’.
  • ‘Bust’ the brainy image of science
  • Support partnership work between STEM educators, industry/employers and academia to improve popular images and representations of ‘scientists’ and achieve real improvements in the social profile of science workers across all sectors.

[i]BIS 2009; CBI 2010, 2012; House of Lords 2012

[ii] CBI 2012; House of Lords 2012, UKCES 2012

[iii] Lowell et al., 2009; Osborne 2011; Xie & Killewald 2012

[iv] Smith 2010a/b

[v] Greenwood, Harrison & Vignoles 2011

[vi] See Mendick and Archer BERA blog on gender and STEM participation

[vii] Gorard and See 2009

[viii] Archer 2008; Archer & Francis 2007; Carlone 2004

[ix] e.g. Mendick 2005; Wong 2012a; Archer et al 2013)

[x] Archer et al 2014

[xi] Archer et al 2012; 2013a/b).

[xii] e.g. Mujtaba and Reiss (forthcoming)