Do young people like science?
Do young people think they’ll use science in their future careers?
NUSTEM works to change that.
The need for NUSTEM
There is a big discrepancy between liking science and wanting a career which involves science. There have been many attempts to ‘fix’ this. Much government and industry funding over the past 40 years has been spent to encourage young people to choose a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM), and particularly to increase diversity in the type of people who choose STEM careers. But on the whole, science and engineering are done by white, middle-class males.
Some STEM subjects, at least up to undergraduate level, do buck the trend: biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry all have 40% or more females taking the subject at university. However, the percentage of the undergraduate population who are female or from a lower socio-economic background in physics, computing and engineering hasn’t changed very much in the past 30 years.
Why is this?
The TISME (Targetted Initiative on Science and Maths Education) research projects at King’s College London were set up, in part, to look into this question. One of the projects, ASPIRES, looked particularly at the factors which influence young people’s likes and career choices between the ages of 10 and 14. ASPIRES found that liking science is not enough, and that students didn’t know where science could lead them. As a result, they didn’t choose science.
Unfortunately, the findings from ASPIRES suggest that many past and current interventions are unlikely to work. One-off activities aiming to ‘inspire’ may be enjoyable, but with no link to the self-concept of their audiences they’re probably not going to be effective. The ASPIRES team helpfully produced a summary of their recommendations ’10 Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers’ which is well worth a read.
What NUSTEM Does
Vision & Objectives
NUSTEM’s vision is for a vibrant and sustainable STEM sector which meets the needs of learners and employers, reflecting the diversity of wider society.
We believe that by supporting children, families and teachers to identify how their personal characteristics align with the characteristics of people that work in STEM, children (and their influencers) will feel more confident that a career in STEM is for ‘people like them’. Alongside this, NUSTEM shows the breadth and application of STEM in the world around us. Together these should lead to an increase in the number and diversity of young people choosing a career in STEM once they leave compulsory education.
We know that the earlier intervention starts, the better. NUSTEM therefore works with children from pre-school, right through to post-16 education.
We also work with children’s key influencers. Teachers, parents, carers and other family members, and friends: these groups all help shape young people’s ideas about themselves, and what they should do with their lives.
In order to realise our vision NUSTEM will:
- Develop, deliver and enable high-quality STEM interventions for key stakeholders.
- Support and influence STEM outreach and widening participation work within Northumbria University
- Influence STEM careers and engagement policy at local, national and international levels.
- Work in partnership with organisations (in the North East) to develop, disseminate and embed effective practice in STEM engagement.
- Produce high quality research on topics related to young people’s STEM learning and career choices.
- Produce evidence of impact of the work of NUSTEM
Working with children & young people
We try to interact with young people repeatedly over a period of years, to provide a ‘drip-feed’ of our ethos and ideas. These interactions might be direct – through workshops and events – or indirect, through NUSTEM materials or via teachers. Some of our activities, particularly in secondary school, are aimed specifically at girls. Where we ask schools to nominate a smaller number of students to take part in activities, we aim for gender equity.
Much of our work is delivered through a number of partner schools (currently around 33 primary and 10 secondary schools). We offer a menu of activities and opportunities to help children and young people recognise the pathways that can follow from studying science. The majority of our partner schools have a percentage of pupils receiving free school meals which is higher than the national average.
Additionally, we work with ‘linked’ schools. Some of our student activities are open to both partner and linked schools:
- Sixth Form Lectures (talks for post-16 students, open to all)
- Year 12 Work Experience Week
- Website resources
- Half-term Pop-up shops
Working with key influencers
Children and Young people do not make decisions in isolation. Those around them, particularly key adults such as parents and carers and teachers, have a strong influence on the choices they make, including about what would be a suitable future job for them.
That’s why, at NUSTEM, we also work with these key influencers.
To support teachers, particularly in primary schools, we develop and delivery professional development on a regular basis. This might be about different ways to teach parts of the science curriculum, examples of different STEM careers, or about the effects of unconscious bias and stereotypes. We also develop easy to use resources that help teachers to include careers-related ideas in their everyday teaching.
To support parents and families, we have developed and run a number of after-school family workshops which introduce STEM ideas and activities in a relaxed and enjoyable way. We’ve also helped teachers to run these workshops in their own schools. We’ve also explored how we can support pre-school children and their families in more informal venues. One example of this was through Family Space Explorers which took place in libraries and museums.
Science is about exploring the world, and we think those explorations can be delightful, surprising and satisfying. STEM careers provide opportunities for young people to influence and shape the world around them for the better.
We believe that STEM should be accessible to everyone, for study and for pleasure, from early years, through school, to employment, and beyond.
What success looks like
We measure the impact of our work in a range of different ways.
If NUSTEM’s approach is effective, then we should see an increased number of children and young people from partner schools taking STEM A-levels, and subsequently STEM degrees. We can compare against children from similar schools with which we have not been extensively involved, and from previous cohorts in our partner schools.
However, because we start to work with children from the age of 3, it will take around 15 years before we start to see clear results! We’re in this for the long term, so we are using the National Pupil Database to track cohorts from our partner primary schools, and we plan to continue that work through their GCSE, A-level and degree choices.
Of course, we need to be able to measure interim impacts more rapidly. We continue to develop other research methods, often more qualitative in nature, to indicate changes in career aspirations and attitudes of the young people with whom we work.
History of NUSTEM
NUSTEM grew out of a project called Think Physics.
Established in 2014, Think Physics was part-funded for three years by a Higher Education Funding Council for England Catalyst grant. The aim of the project was to increase the number of young people from the North East studying physics and physics-related degrees. For around ten years there hadn’t been any physics degrees on offer in Newcastle. Northumbria University started offering degrees in Physics and Physics with Astrophysics from September 2013, and Think Physics was part of the plan to develop a strong and accessible physics base for students in the region.
The project was – and continues to be – a partnership of local authorities, visitor centres, industry and academia from across the North-East. The founding partners were: Northumbria University, Centre for Life, Institute of Physics, North Tyneside Learning Trust, Newcastle Local Authority, Gateshead Local Authority, Durham Local Authority, North Tyneside Local Authority, Kielder Observatory and Solar Capture Technology.
Northumbria University provided both office space and a newly-refurbished multi-use outreach space, Think Lab, situated within the Faculty of Engineering and Environment. Think Lab provides a dedicated space that can be used with local schools to offer a taste of university life. It’s co-located with an undergraduate study area and social area, used extensively by physics, maths and engineering students; visiting pupils work alongside university students.
As the HEFCE funding came to an end, Think Physics rebranded as the NUSTEM (pronounced N. U. STEM) group. The name change recognised both that we are no longer ‘just’ a project, and more importantly that our ongoing remit is much wider than supporting only Physics within the faculty and region.