Tag Archive for: aspires

Future Career Capital

When you were young, did you want to be a vet, a doctor, a teacher? A sports person, nurse, actor, singer, gamer, astronaut, zoo keeper, police officer?

That list doesn’t change much over the years. Jobs like ‘professional gamer’ are new, but the list of jobs most ten year-olds today are aware of is mostly similar to the list you could have made ten years ago, or even twenty.

Not many children would proclaim that they want to be a thermodynamics engineer, a solar physicist, or an earth observation programmer. Those are all exciting career routes, but most of us have no idea they even exist, and even if we do we’re maybe not entirely sure what all the words mean. So it’s no surprise that young people are more aware of and more comfortable talking about the list of familiar jobs we started with. We know what firefighters do, we don’t have to look it up before we can start trying on that role in the playground.

Research suggests that we start thinking about future careers from a very young age. That’s no great surprise, but perhaps unexpectedly, research also suggests that we start making decisions early too. Not “I’m going to be a quantum-computational geneticist” decisions, but more fluid decisions about the types of careers we feel we can and can’t have. Understandably, children in families where a parent or close relative is a scientist or engineer tend to have a greater awareness of jobs within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector. That awareness can help them have a broader view of what’s possible for them, in turn helping them avoid making early choices which limit possibilities later.

The term used to describe this is ‘science capital’. The ASPIRES research project [2013] discusses this at length – see our primer on science capital for more background, and we’ve a page about the ASPIRES project.

But, if you are from a family of non-scientists, where do you get your science career, advice and information from? Over the past couple of weeks I have led CPD events with a focus on STEM, and on how we can develop career links within primary school lessons. A quote I like you to use is:

“You only know what you know!”

It’s not about telling children what they are going to do, and it’s not about them making decisions. Rather, it’s about equipping them with information so they are aware of the many opportunities available to them and the skills and qualifications they’d need to get there.

By providing examples of careers when studying topics like the human body, plants, space or electricity, we can show children that there are careers linked to those topics. That may ignite and inspire further interest, and a potential idea about a new, future career they wish to explore. You could then team curriculum links with employer encounters so children meet people working in STEM; showcase local employers and places they could work; explore and visit further and higher education establishments to raise aspirations; or encourage family involvement by offering ideas on ways to extend learning at home.

Ideas like these very quickly develop into a primary careers programme. They allows us to reinforce positive messages like “Girls and Boys can both have careers in STEM, and it’s not just for the super bright children.” Careers in science and engineering can be for everyone – the curious, the creative, the makers, triers and doers. They can be for anyone who wishes to make an impact on the world around us, and to help solve some of the biggest problems we face.

These are the positive and influential messages which underpin all of the above and contextualise and make meaning of the curriculum.

It’s easy to think of ‘careers’ as meaning ‘jobs,’ but that’s too narrow a concept, particularly at primary. Perhaps we should coin a new term: ‘future career capital’. We could use that to consider how we can, through an early years/primary careers programme, support children and families to aspire, achieve and succeed, rather than waiting to start these discussions in year 8.

Embedding Careers Advice in Schools

On Monday 2nd March the BBC published an article called  All schools need trained careers teachers, says charity. The article reported on calls from Teach First that more needs to be done in schools relating to careers advice.

All schools in England should have a teacher trained to give high-quality careers advice, particularly to poorer pupils… Without a fresh effort, careers advice in schools will remain ‘fragmented and ineffective’.”
Teach First.

Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan responded to the report saying that there were many schools and colleges doing “fantastic work” but there was also too much provision that was “patchy and in places inadequate.” She also mentioned that in many cases teachers did not have the time to dedicate to careers nor the training to deliver good careers advice. Ms Morgan then commented that the government’s new Careers and Enterprise company, announced late last year, would help schools to develop links with employers and improve pupils employability.

This reference to the new Careers and Enterprise company is interesting – it’s being sold as if it will make careers advice in schools magically better.

The new enterprise company sounds like a good idea, but as yet we don’t know much about it. With the best intentions in the world, employers still won’t be able to link to every child and young person. They do not really have the time to… they have businesses to run! Similarly, I don’t believe that a visit from one employer is going to create a school full of young people wanting to do whatever it is the company are encouraging pupils to consider. The Careers and Enterprise company may be part of a solution, but interventions and engagements need to be sustained and meaningful: there is not a quick fix.

Another part of the answer may lie in better training for schools and teachers, and a careers strategy from primary school age through to post-16 which lies at the heart of the national curriculum. I think careers advice needs to be central, embedded and expected in most lessons. It should become second nature to teachers, providing meaning and context for what is being learnt.

You have a maths lesson, with no idea why you are learning certain topics; would it not be better to show how maths, and the skills you are developing, apply and will support you in the future? Engineering, accountancy, hairdressing, plumbing or sport, all require a mathematical understanding. Would this not help pupils better understand why they are learning something and how they can apply it, as well as introducing the many different careers out there?

For me, this is one of the problems with careers education, that we do not make enough use of careers examples within our lessons. Yes some teachers do, but not consistently and there is no guidance or expectation that teachers should make careers links consistently.

My personal opinion is that careers advice should be incorporated in the majority of lessons, not bolted on or exclusively discussed in citizenship and similar lessons. Teachers should be able to go to a website for example for this information, carry out regular personal CPD, and easily find role models/employers they can use to clearly highlight careers links from their lesson topics. These should be included in lessons, and examples and challenges set around them.

Currently career guidance is compulsory from Year 8. This is too late. Some young people are fully aware of what they want to study, and have a career in mind by 13 years of age, but the majority don’t have a clue! Also, how can you have high aspirations if you are not aware of the careers available to you?

We should be introducing pupils to careers earlier to inform the choices they need to make from year 9. Whole schools need to take some ownership of their role within careers advice, rather than leaving one person to deal with careers and progression (a problem shared, is a problem halved as they say)! If not, we may keep witnessing the year 11 head or teacher with careers responsibilities firefighting a situation which could be much more easily and effectively dealt with earlier on.

This whole school approach is backed by the research carried out by ASPIRES (2013) which suggested that STEM careers advice should be embedded within science lessons, as well as much earlier interventions relating to STEM careers information in primary school. Otherwise, we risk secondary careers information, advice and guidance being ‘too little, too late’.


Tag Archive for: aspires

NUSTEM Reading List

Although we’ll be adding blog posts about key reports and research relating to NUSTEM to our resources section, I thought that it would be useful to gather together an introductory reading list. This will include books and articles which have informed the direction of the project, or the way in which we put together our activities.

Firstly, I would recommend ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine, which looks at the biological basis for gender differences. [ Spoiler: There isn’t any really.]

Research reports relating to gender equality in STEM:
1.IOP Girls in Physics research (fondly known as the red books). The 2006 review of Girls in the Physics Classroom looked at existing research and made recommendations around encouraging girls in the physics classroom. This was accompanied by A Teachers’ Guide for Action which highlighted actions that teachers (and others) could take to make their classrooms more gender equal.
2.The ASPIRES (pdf) research carried out by King’s College London, was a key influence in the development of the NUSTEM project. Their finding that young people had already decided that science wasn’t for ‘people like me’ by the age of 10 provided evidence that our project should start introducing young people to a more realistic view of careers in STEM from a much earlier age.
3.Not for People Like Me. This research report (pdf) was written by Prof. Averil Macdonald for WISE. It looks at why previous engagement projects with young people over the past thirty years appear to have had little, or no impact, on the uptake of physics and engineering by women. Prof. Macdonald recommends that rather than focussing on the jobs that people in STEM do, interventions should instead present ideas about the attributes that people need.
4.Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education. The IMechE report (pdf) also casts doubt on the effectiveness of engagement projects that ask young people to ‘be like me’, where the ‘me’ in question is an engineer. The findings from a large scale study of young people between 11 and 19 found that that young people divide themselves broadly into five categories, determined by their values as well as their reactions to engineering as a subject and as a potential career. The IMechE suggests that interactions with young people need to be personalised to take account of these five divisions. We’re still working out exactly how to do this here at NUSTEM, but the report is thought provoking.
5.10 types of scientist. This list of different types of scientist looks at where people with science qualifications may work, and identifies different types of scientists. A useful list when talking about careers with young people who still see scientists as only working in a lab.

Curriculum information
1. The National Curriculum

All maintained schools in England are required to follow the National Curriculum. Other types of schools (academy, free school, UTC etc) don’t have to follow the National Curriculum (though many do), but must still provide a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils. NUSTEM recognises that in order to add value to the work that schools do, it is helpful for us to provide curriculum-informed activities and so an awareness of the national curriculum is essential to what we do.
Key stage 1: Years 1 and 2 (ages 5-7) and Key stage 2: Years 3 to 6 (ages 7-11). Primary Science NC (pdf)
Key stage 3: Years 7-9 (ages 11-14). A number of schools are shortening their KS3 to two years and starting working towards GCSEs in year 9 in some subjects. KS3 Science NC (pdf)
Key stage 4: Years 10 and 11 (ages 14-16). Although there is a national curriculum at KS4, in practice schools pay far more attention to the GCSE specifications that they follow. KS4 Science NC (pdf)
Subject content for GCSEs: All specifications must follow the subject content in science (which encompasses the national curriculum). New specifications are currently in development, ready for first teaching in Sept 2016. The subject content is split into single science (pdf) (which confusingly covers Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) and combined science (which will be used for double science GCSEs)

2. A-levels
New Science A-levels will be taught for the first time from September 2015. One key change is that AS no longer contributes to the marks a student obtains for their A-level, but will be a standalone qualification in its own right. As well as this, although the content is similar to previous specifications, students will have to carry out 12 (6 for AS) core practicals (or competencies) with examination questions relating to practical work in the written exams as well. There will be no controlled assessment.
The subject content for A-level was specified by the Department for Education, and used to develop the new specifications. A comparison of the different specifications can be found here.

3.Practical work
Most science teachers will say that you can’t teach science without using practical work. The discussion about the removal of practical examinations from Science A-level and GCSE has focused on the importance of students being ‘hands-on’ in science. However, research evidence suggests that although teachers are keen on practical work, the effectiveness of that practical work is not always clear. The Getting Practical project built on this research and aimed to encourage teachers to make practical work ‘hands-on, minds-on’. This article outlines the rationale and research. It is important whenever we plan activities that we ask ‘What is the purpose of this, and what are we asking students to think about?’.
Resources and ideas for practical work: Practical Physics, National STEM centre eLibrary

4.Teaching about energy
Energy is a difficult concept to teach, and one which is generally poorly understood by both teachers and students. There is a strong tradition of education research looking at the best way to approach teaching of energy. Some of this has made its way into the KS3 and KS4 national curriculum, where energy stores, energy pathways and differences driving change are described.
The Institute of Physics ‘Supporting Physics Teaching’ materials contain further information about an approach to teaching energy. It also covers other ideas in physics including Electricity and Magnetism, and Earth and Space.

Teaching and Learning
This is a huge area, and not everything is relevant to NUSTEM. The ResearchEd movement has highlighted the use of research in education, and that it is important not to base teaching practices (which to an extent include science outreach here at NUSTEM) on how we were taught, but to look at the evidence about how people learn, and what might be effective in education.
‘Why students don’t like school’ Daniel Willingham. A cognitive scientist looks at how students learn and how educators can support learning. (excerpt from the book here).
‘Strengthening the student toolbox’ John Dunlosky. What are the best study methods for students? A useful article summarising different methods to encourage learning.
‘Teacher proof’ Tom Bennett. There are many ‘Zombie theories’ which linger in education, and which have a limited research base. This book identifies a number of these theories and looks at the (lack of) evidence behind them.
It’s also worth watching this video by Dan Willingham about Learning Styles (and why they don’t exist). More information about the ideas in the video can be found here.

STEM Quest club

One of the aims of the Think Physics project is to show young people that studying science, especially physics, leads to careers that they would want to do.  At Think Physics we’re piloting a programme we’re calling STEM Quest club, which we hope will support this aim.

The research from the ASPIRES project identified that many young people between the ages of 10 and 14 like science, but don’t see it as something that they would want to do as a career.

As an ex-teacher, my experience of secondary school students is that they generally enjoy working with younger children.  When my son was looking for work experience in year 10, he thought that it might be nice to go into a primary school to work – only to find that all the available places had been snapped up weeks before, mostly by girls!

We’re going to put these two ideas together in STEM Quest club.

Working with a partner secondary school, a group of year 9 students will be trained and supported to run an after-school club in a local primary school. We think this will have a number of benefits:

  • will give the year 9 students experience of successfully explaining science and some leadership experience,
  • the opportunity to work towards a CREST silver award,
  • strengthening links between the secondary and primary school,
  • supporting the experience of science in the primary school
  • appeal to girls (whereas a STEM club might not).

During the training, students will try out the different activities they’ll use in the primary school, discuss presentation techniques and think about how best to explain the activities to younger children.

As well as this, we’ll also be doing some ‘consciousness raising’ activities to look at issues of gender equality in STEM subjects and possible career options.

Typical activities we’ll do will be:

  • use the Science Museum Mystery boxes to think about how we can approach problem solving, and also to talk about science not knowing all the answers.
  • To look at how different disciplines are seen in the media by looking at image searches for ‘physicist’, ‘chemist’, ‘biologist’, ‘engineer’ and ‘mathematician’ **.
  • Look at images of real people who work in STEM, and think about what skills and attributes they might need.
  • Identify how STEM careers make a difference to our lives.
  • try and give clear instructions on how to build origami structures, and how to deal with the frustration of not understanding the instructions.

Through the club, we hope that the leaders will gain experience of doing science which will encourage them to continue to study science, hopefully to A-level and beyond.

You can see what we’ve been up to at our first STEM Quest Club here.


**It’s worth having a go at this – the results are quite disappointing. When we tried it out, the year 9s came to the conclusion that, if search engines are to be believed, then you have to like wearing ties or scuba gear (for biologists!) to work in science.

Search engine result for images of 'scientist'

Search engine result for images of ‘scientist’

Key report: ASPIRES

One of the key reports upon which NUSTEM aims to build is ASPIRES, a five-year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Conducted by King’s College, London, the project:

…sought to shed new light on our understanding of how young people’s aspirations develop over this 10-14 age period, exploring in particular what influences the likelihood of a young person aspiring to a science-related career.

The final report spans a few dozen pages and is highly readable, and it challenges several assumptions. The headline findings are:
•Most young people have high aspirations – just not for science.
•Negative views of school science and scientists are NOT the problem.
•Family ‘science capital’ is key.
•Most students and families are not aware of where science can lead.
•The brainy image of scientists and science careers puts many young people off.
•The (white) male, middle-class image of science careers remains a problem.

As you’d expect, there’s considerable detail and nuance behind each of those findings, and for the implications and recommendations the ASPIRES team articulate. NUSTEM’s emphasis on interaction from early years and primary onwards, our enthusiasm for embedding careers messages throughout our work, and our inclusion of family interactions in our plans are all informed by ASPIRES.

The ASPIRES team are continuing their study, exploring the older 14-19 age group, with ASPIRES2.