Making GCSE Science relevant

Oxford Smart AQA GCSE Sciences cover detail

A quick search to find and compare the figures for young people taking STEM subjects at further and higher education paints a somewhat ambiguous picture. On the one hand, the DfE suggests record numbers of young people are being accepted onto STEM undergraduate courses1; significantly up from similar figures a decade ago. On the other hand, other sources suggest a more troubling narrative. Disaggregating the headline statistics, it seems as though progress is minimal in STEM uptake for people from historically underrepresented groups2.

The complexities of engagement with science 

There is good news. Recent large-scale studies3 suggest a majority of students find science interesting. Indeed, much has been done in science education to promote the fun and ‘wow-factor’ of science. However, researchers warn of what they call the ‘being/doing divide’, where students appear to be doing science – and even enjoying it – but this is not translating to aspirations to be a scientist.

Part of this may be down to the fact that most secondary students don’t see how science relates to them4; their everyday experiences.  

Why isn’t GCSE science connecting with young people?

Recent studies5 underline some important insights:  

  • Students often tend to regard science as a difficult subject and – compared with other compulsory subjects – they are less likely to rate themselves as good at science and more likely to feel anxious about it.
  • STEM engagement and aspirations are affected by economic disadvantage, and gender disparities in experience and engagement persist across all year groups.
  • There is a sharp fall in interest in school science over the first three years of secondary school; especially between Years 8 and 9.
  • Interest in a STEM career declines between Year 7 and Years 12 to 13.
  • Practical experience is recognised as a key factor to student motivation and engagement in science, especially among disadvantaged students. However, young people are reporting that practical work becomes less common as they progress through school.

The issues related to how and why students disengage with science are broad and complex. As science educators, we should aim to familiarise ourselves with these issues and mitigate their impacts as far as possible. We should be conscious of the complex interplay between factors such as gender, economic disadvantage, ethnicity, neurodiversity and disability, in order to ensure that young people are supported in the most effective and appropriate ways6.

The science capital framework 

The ‘science capital’ concept7 is an approach that can help science educators identify and address some of these interconnected issues, and frame interventions to support engagement. The idea is based on theories of social capital. It proposes that the more science capital you have, the more likely you are to engage and persist with STEM. The science capital framework is a collection of broad themes and ideas – covering knowledge, experiences, practices, behaviours and attitudes – including the extent to which an individual sees science as applicable (i.e., relevant) to their everyday life.  

The science capital teaching approach has resulted in substantial benefits for both students and teachers. Evidence8 shows: 

  • It deepens students’ appreciation of science 
  • It increases the proportion of students seeing themselves as ‘sciencey’ 
  • It increases the likelihood of studying post-16 science
  • It helps students find science more personally ‘relevant’.

Here, ‘relevant’ means how science is perceived as applicable to everyday life. However, are there alternative, valid takes on what it means for science to be relevant? And why might broadening perceptions of science relevance be beneficial? 

Broadening perceptions of science relevance 

Relevance by applicablity 

Typically, we take science relevance to mean how science applies to our personal experiences. This is valid; students value their learning when it has demonstrable applications to their everyday life. However, though this is a motivational factor, studies suggest that this isn’t a strong driver in student engagement9.

It can be argued that a narrow understanding of relevance (i.e., solely relating to how scientific concepts are used or applied) can tempt educators to make forced or inauthentic attempts at finding everyday uses for abstract scientific concepts or principles. These may have the opposite effect on students’ engagement than intended. Most secondary students, for example, appreciate the big ideas and themes of physics10 such as the evolution of the universe and atomic theory, even though these are without immediate relation to most everyday experience! Perhaps such evidence challenges our assumptions about the ‘appeals for applicability’. We should instead rebalance our intentions when identifying aspects of the science curriculum that connect with experiences in everyday life and industry. 

Relevance by context

In addition to its applicability, science is relevant because it shapes and is shaped by wider contexts; e.g., societal, cultural, economic, political and religious influence. Efforts should be made by educators to connect science content – wherever possible – to the real-world issues, understandings and attitudes of individuals and groups within and outside of the classroom: i.e. ‘personalising and localising’ science11. Contextualising learning in this way can help students appreciate science’s place in the wider world. The use of social context humanises the sciences and scientists that make science happen12, and connects science to social, political and ethical areas of human concern.

Recommendations on making science contextually relevant include:

  • Showcasing the (diverse) people behind the science. Who were they? Why did they care? What challenges did they overcome on their journeys to being great?
  • Connect science topics – wherever possible – to what’s going on now, or to future-shaping issues like climate change, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, advances in medicine, etc.

Relevance by interest

Science is also relevant because it’s interesting! If students are interested in their learning, then they are likely to be engaged, and academically successful13. We have learned that students do find science interesting, and this interest turns into long-term engagement if pedagogy is varied, challenging, controversial, and storied.

Recommendations to promote students’ interest in science include:

  • Encouraging scientific debate. Introduce conflicting information, data or ideas on big science-related issues, e.g., the consensus on human-influenced climate change vs. conflicting political and social attitudes. Students should be equipped with skills that enable them to fact-find, weigh up evidence, form opinions, and express arguments.
  • Use storytelling. Stories and narratives bridge the gap between theory and applicability. Good stories have the power to create memories and can provide opportunities for individual learners to identify with the science they are learning14.

Summary

The factors that influence how and why students engage with science are complex, multifaceted and interlinked. Educators should – wherever possible – seek to mitigate these factors. Any strategies to do so requires an intersectional lens, especially across gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity, disability and socioeconomic background.

One way to frame interventions to support engagement is the ‘science capital teaching’ approach. This is a proven enabler to improving student engagement and participation with science post-16. It has re-emphasised the importance and value of making science relevant to student experiences and everyday life, though we should not restrict our and our students’ perceptions about what makes science ‘relevant’ to how it can be applied. How science fits into wider societal contexts and histories, alongside the inherent wonder and interest of scientific ideas and themes, are valid aspects of science relevance.

Further reading:

‘Curriculum Narratives in Science: What’s the story?’ by Andy Chandler-Grevatt

‘Reducing cognitive load in Oxford Smart Activate’ by Jo Locke

References

  1. https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2021/02/09/more-young-people-are-taking-stem-subjects-than-ever-before/
  2. The State of the Sector: Diversity and representation in STEM industries in the UK, (British Science Association, 2020)
  3. ASPIRES 2, UCL IOE, 2020
  4. Young people’s views on science education, Wellcome, 2019
  5. Ibid.
  6. Disadvantage, gender & ethnicity in STEM – and how we’re rising to the challenge (Ben Dunn, STEM Learning, 2022)
  7. Improving Science Capital, UCL, 2019
  8. The Science Capital Teaching Approach; Engaging students with science, promoting social justice, IOE UCL, 2011
  9. Young people’s views on science education, Wellcome, 2019
  10. Ibid
  11.  Science as Story, Weider 2006
  12.  Ibid
  13.  Harackkiewicz et al. 2016
  14.  Curriculum Narratives in Science: What’s the story? Andy Chandler-Grevatt, 2022

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