Maria Rossini, head of education at the British Science Association, spoke at our recent STEM in Schools Conference about equal opportunities to inspire all students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

She said “Today, we’ll discuss identifying students who might not be engaging with STEM and the barriers they face. We’ll also look at the narratives around STEM and the stories our culture tells about it. We’ll consider how to put STEM in the context of the young person and their community, linking this to planning STEM projects with lasting impact, and provide ideas on where to get resources and support.

At the British Science Association, we aim to see more people, especially those from underrepresented groups, feel like science is relevant to their lives. To achieve this, we provide engagement activities that effectively reach and engage underserved audiences with science across all ages. We work with communities and families to enrich people’s experience of science, encouraging them to see science as relevant to their lives and to study or work in science. Schools are a community and central to their communities, making our work in schools crucial to helping young people feel like science is for them.

The STEM workforce is not representative of the nation as a whole. Only 27% of the STEM workforce is female, compared to 52% of the wider workforce. STEM workers are less likely to be older, and there is a lack of representation among certain minority ethnic groups and individuals with disabilities, who make up only 11% of STEM workers, below the national average. The lack of diversity and STEM skills are linked because if people opt out, thinking STEM is not for them, we miss out on potential talent.

Statistics show that 65% of the STEM workforce are white men, perpetuating stereotypes. To challenge and move forward from these stereotypes, we must create a more inclusive environment in our general teaching and learning, especially in enrichment programs.

Underrepresented groups in STEM include women, minority ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged people, and individuals with disabilities. These groups often have less access to feeling like science is for them. In schools, this includes girls, EAL students, those on pupil premium or free school meals, and students with specific needs.

We aim to reach these students and provide them with a better experience of STEM. For example, Student X, who grew up in a deprived area with a disabled parent and her own disability, dropped out during her first year of A-levels due to low confidence and lack of connection with STEM. This example illustrates multiple issues, including economic disadvantage and the perception that STEM is not for people like her.

Researchers found that many capable girls lack confidence in their maths and physics abilities. There is a narrative that physics comes naturally and doesn’t require effort, which can discourage girls. Additionally, there is a lack of representation and role models for girls in physical sciences. For example, in double science GCSE specifications, only two female scientists are mentioned compared to 40 male scientists.

The British Science Association draws heavily on the work of the ASPIRES team at UCL, led by Professor Louis Archer, focusing on science capital, which includes what you know, how you think, what you do, and who you know. For our purposes, we’ve categorized it into science knowledge and learning opportunities, heavily influenced by teacher confidence and resources, and science experiences, such as genuine STEM learning projects and cultural visits.

Cultural messages and stereotypes also play a role. It’s important to provide positive role models and challenge stereotypes. Resources available to students also affect their access to STEM opportunities. Economic disadvantages, additional educational needs, and language barriers can make everything harder.

STEM aspirations are an identity issue. Many young people enjoy science and think it’s important, but they don’t aspire to be scientists. Science and technology need to be relatable, not just fun. Young people need to see STEM as something they can do and relate to.

To overcome barriers, we can focus on messaging and stereotypes. An activity involves drawing a scientist and listing the skills they use daily, highlighting that STEM skills are transferable and relevant to many fields. The NUSTEM group identified 16 attributes found in people who work in STEM. Using these attributes to describe scientists can help students see themselves in these roles.

The science capital teaching approach values and builds on children’s experiences, making science personal and relevant. It broadens what counts as science and values students’ contributions. Providing more exposure to cultural experiences, like visits and interactions with scientists, helps broaden their horizons.

The Youth Equity and STEM Group developed the Equity Compass, a tool to evaluate whether initiatives meet the needs of underserved groups and avoid reinforcing stereotypes. It considers factors like participation, intervention length, and knowledge sharing.

Projects are a powerful way to build knowledge, skills, confidence, and identity. They allow students to be scientists or engineers, doing projects relevant to their interests. This approach helps close the inequality gap in education by providing all students with opportunities to participate in STEM.

The CREST Award scheme run by the British Science Association encourages students to think and behave like scientists and engineers through open-ended, student-led inquiry-based learning. The projects are free, and there is grant support for schools in challenging circumstances. Over 50% of CREST Award participants are girls, and most projects are now done during curriculum time, enhancing inclusiveness.

For further resources and support, the British Science Association runs grant schemes and has a network of over 1,500 teachers. Student X, whose story I shared earlier, engaged with the CREST Awards scheme, returned to education, and achieved top grades, eventually studying science at Newcastle University. Her CREST Project was a turning point in her life, demonstrating that inclusive initiatives can make a significant difference. And Student X was me.”

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Maria Rossini, head of education at the British Science Association, spoke at our recent STEM in Schools Conference about equal opportunities to inspire all students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

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