What the science capital teaching approach can do for you

‘Science – it’s pretty useless, innit?’ is a sentiment heard all too often from students who find the subject boring and irrelevant to their daily lives. Considerable resources have been poured into engaging more students from a wider range of backgrounds with science, and these have often been directed at making science more fun and interesting.

However, these efforts do not address the root causes of an important issue. Indeed, evidence from the ASPIRES and ASPIRES2 projects highlight that many students do find science interesting and consider it to be valuable, yet only a few aspire to science-related careers.

What is science capital?

Child wearing helmet and astronaut costume

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‘Science capital’ can help explain why some students feel science is not for them, while others develop and maintain aspirations in science. Science capital refers to an individual’s science-related resources and dispositions. It includes what you know about science, your attitude to it, who you know and what you do connected to science.

The more science capital a student has, the more likely they are to feel science is for them and to participate in it – in and outside of the classroom, as well as after it is no longer compulsory.

Using science capital in the classroom

The Enterprising Science project has developed a working approach for teachers to increase students’ engagement by broadening what counts as doing science in the classroom. This approach builds on good science teaching practice and involves three key aspects, or ‘pillars’.

The first pillar, personalising and localising, involves going beyond contextualising science content, in order to make science more relevant and personally meaningful to individual students’ lives and local communities.

The second pillar involves eliciting students’ ideas and experiences (from home, their communities, their individual interests), explicitly valuing them as legitimate resources in the classroom and linking these back to science topics.

The third pillar focuses on building science capital dimensions. For instance, rather than just pointing out how science is useful for a range of science-related jobs, highlight the connections between science and a diversity of jobs (both in and beyond science), notably those your students aspire to. Also, seek to foster student engagement with science outside of school in a range of ways.

Five ideas to help build science capital in the classroom

  • Find out about your students’ interests. Get your student who loves the guitar to demonstrate how they play in a lesson about sound waves.
  • Set homework for an energy saving lesson for your students to find out from their family about their window glazing or whether they have draught-proofing.
  • Ask students to think about the skills they have learnt so far in science and how they might help in their future career.
  • Talk about jobs that involve knowledge of materials or other transferable skills from science, not just scientists. For example, a student might want to be a sports coach and a scientific approach to nutrition could help.

For more details and resources, including videos, animations and publications, visit the science capital research website.

Does it work?

For the past four years we have collaborated with teachers in four cities to develop the science capital teaching approach, and collect a range of data. The approach involves a change in mindset, tweaking existing lesson plans and schemes of work: teachers didn’t find this too onerous.

But does it make a difference? So far, the results look promising. Teachers report more of their students – particularly those who started out as disengaged – are engaged and participating more in the classroom. Teachers also report feeling happier and more satisfied in their teaching.

Students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have noticed the change in their teachers’ practice and find the approach more inclusive. As one student put it: ‘It brings everyone together. Everyone has something to say, instead of it just being like one or two people that know the answer.’

Students were also far more likely to feel their science teachers know them well and the science they learn in lessons is related to their everyday lives. Moreover, data suggests that for some students – particularly those in lower sets – the approach may significantly help improve attainment.

Want to know more?

The ASPIRES team are holding a one-day conference in York, UK, on 13 October to launch the approach. Bursaries are available to cover the costs of attending.

Jennifer DeWitt is a research fellow in the department of education, practice and society at UCL Institute of Education