Tamjid Mujtaba shares findings from an ongoing five-year study into barriers and enablers to chemistry for disadvantaged students

A survey of 4780 11–14-year-olds found many have a general interest in science and are aware of its value. Few, however, aspire to continue to post-16 study and a career in science. What discourages them, and can teachers play a role in converting interest into aspiration?

The key issue

The relatively small number of students who pursue science subjects at university is causing concern within education, industry and government. The problem is particularly acute among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who historically have tended not to continue studying sciences once they are no longer compulsory. This leads to a shortage of citizens with the scientific skills and knowledge for a competitive global economy.

Earlier research on physics and mathematics revealed that awareness of the material benefits of post-16 qualifications in those disciplines influences students’ aspirations. Knowledge of careers and salaries the qualifications open up is a strong motivation for study choices. Encouragement and advice from significant adults, particularly teachers and families, are also important influences.

Is the same true for chemistry?

Chemistry for All

Chemistry for All is a long-term project attempting to address this question. The project is examining the barriers and enablers to science and chemistry progression for 11–16-year-olds. The project focuses on disadvantaged students, and a number of initiatives are underway in largely low-attaining schools across England. Ultimately, the project aims to increase the number of students who go on to study chemistry at university.

Understanding students’ attitudes

While it is too early to talk about effects from specific interventions, the first year of data has found that students have low aspirations for A-levels, university degrees and future careers in science. Even students positive about science’s personal and societal benefits felt this way.

Why are students more positive about science than they are about continuing with it themselves?

The surveys gathered information about students’ backgrounds as well as their future aspirations to continue studying science and chemistry, their motivations and their attitudes and beliefs about science in general and at school.

A significant number of the students surveyed have a favourable view of science. They find it interesting and think it would be useful to them. However, even those overwhelmingly positive about science’s value to society, and to their own future career, were less positive about their own suitability for continued study and employment in science.

This raises the question: why are students more positive about science than they are about continuing with it themselves?

From positive attitude to aspiration

The data suggests a number of factors can increase students’ aspirations to study chemistry, and science generally. These factors include: recognising the value of science to their future careers; encouragement and advice to continue by teachers or family members; personal interest in science; self-confidence in science abilities; teaching approaches; and participating in extracurricular science activities.

Interestingly, very few students surveyed reported involvement in extracurricular activities. Only a small number reported encouragement to continue with the sciences from their teachers or family.

The patterns of results suggests students’ gender and socio-economic status play some part in their aspirations. For example, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less motivated by the personal material benefits of studying science, which lowers their aspirations. But socio-economic background does not have any significant associations with future science aspirations or attitudes to science when accounting for a range of factors.

What can teachers do?

While low socio-economic status is associated with lower aspirations and attitudes to science, the impact of socio-economic disadvantage is small in comparison to encouragement from teachers and other significant people. Advice and support to continue with science post-16 was strongly associated with future science aspirations and attitudes to science. Support and encouragement given at school, or outside school, to continue with science can mitigate the influence of socio-economic disadvantage.

The findings highlight the importance of showing students the range of future careers that further qualifications in science will open up to them, in addition to the wider value and worth of science. Teachers who explain the relevance and practical applications of science during teaching may play a big part in stimulating students’ interest and aspirations.

Want to know more?

More findings will emerge from this five-year project. If you would like to be kept informed, contact Tamjid Mujtaba or visit the Chemistry for All website.

Tamjid Mujtaba is a senior research officer at the University College London Institute of Education, UK