Tag Archive for: careers

Attributes and Aspirations: Round-up of our recent research

In September last year Carol and I had the pleasure of visiting lovely Uppsala in Sweden to attend the Frontiers in Education 2022 Conference and present the findings of our latest research. We presented papers on our two favourite topics attributes and aspirations: Carol on the self-identified attributes of STEM professionals, and me on the career aspirations and career motivations of very young children.

I thought it might be useful to share the key findings from our research.

‘People Like Me’: Identifying personal attributes of STEM Professionals

In this paper we asked STEM professionals to identify what attributes they have that make them successful in their role. We shared an online survey with STEM employees and asked them to name up to six personal attributes that they felt were essential to their being successful in their role, as well as rate how well the list of NUSTEM’s 16 STEM attributes described them.

Our key findings were that:

  • STEM professionals identified many soft skills that made them successful in their role: open-minded, communicator, curious, creative, good colleague, resilient, collaborative, tenacious, hard-working, self-motivated, patient and passionate.
  • STEM professionals identified a number of hard-skills that made them successful in their work: being logical, having domain specific knowledge (knowing about their subject or industry), having attention to detail, being observant and organised. There were also themes we called professionalism and imaginative which linked to both soft and hard skills.
  • There was good overall agreement between the attributes identified by the STEM professionals and the 16 STEM Attributes used by NUSTEM in project delivery, meaning they are a realistic representation of the attributes employees working in STEM use about themselves.

We feel because 68% of the attributes used by STEM employees can be described as soft-skills this provides a clear indication that soft skills are valued by employees in their work. We argue that, within the framing of STEM education and engagement activities, there is merit in moving beyond subject knowledge and including attributes and soft-skills. Using attributes can help children and young people identify the skills they already have or could develop, and support students to think about their employability skills.

Elimination before imagination: How children’s early understanding of scientists may limit aspirations for broader STEM careers

In this paper we examined the early understanding of science careers among very young children (aged 5-7), as well as the factors that influenced their understanding. We held 20 focus groups, interviewing children about their understanding of science and science careers. When we analysed the data we identified four categories to describe the patterns of children’s understanding of science careers. We called these categories: undeveloped, introductory, stereotypical, and diversifying.

Our key findings were that:

  • Most young children have limited understanding of scientists and what they do, and those with some knowledge rely heavily on stereotypes.
  • Young children have different factors of influence on their understanding of scientists compared with the factors identified with older children. For young children siblings and cousins, games and play activities and YouTube were identified as big influences on perceptions of scientists.
  • Young children did not commonly relate the science that they learned about in school to scientists or science-related jobs.
  • Children with more advanced understanding tended to draw on personal experiences with science or STEM professionals.

Building on this research and our other aspirations papers, we are now starting to map how children’s aspirations develop and change over their early lifecourse with focus on STEM careers.

If you would like to chat about either of these research studies, drop us a line at nustem@northumbria.ac.uk.

Lessons from the National Pupil Database

Many years ago, when NUSTEM was still Think Physics, we developed an evaluation plan to look at the impact of the first three years.

It was a lovely plan, which would use information from the National Pupil Database (NPD) and follow groups of young people as they took their A-levels and then their degrees.

Sadly, as with all lovely stories, it didn’t quite work out as we planned.

However, along the way, we learnt a number of useful lessons about evaluation and using the NPD, and thought that they might be helpful for other organisations interested in tracking the impact of STEM Engagement activities.

We’ve just published our report, and an infographic which summarises our findings as well.

You can download the report from here

NPD Infographic


How do people who work in STEM describe themselves?

Does your work involve science, technology, engineering or maths?


If so, NUSTEM would like YOUR help!


NUSTEM has developed a list of 16 attributes that are often shown by people who work in STEM. You could also call them employability skills. This list was developed in collaboration with teachers, STEM colleagues and other projects.

We use this list in our activities with children, teachers and families. Showing children and young people how they already have, or can develop, these skills can help the children to see themselves as a ‘STEM-person’.

However, there is a gap in the research literature about how people who work in STEM sectors think about themselves and these employability skills. NUSTEM is therefore carrying out a short research project to find out more about this.

If you work in a STEM sector in the UK, at any level, then we would like you to take part in our research. You’ll be asked to answer some questions about the characteristics and attributes you think you have. It should take about 5 minutes to complete.  The survey is anonymous, and the project has obtained ethical approval from Northumbria University.


Please feel free to forward and share with your STEM colleagues – including apprentices and technicians.


Children’s early career choices

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Hamish Johnston from the Physics World podcast about how we can encourage children to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). During the interview, Hamish asked me whether there was research evidence to show that children were making career choices as young as eight. Those of you that know about NUSTEM will know that this is one of the areas that we have been researching for the past few years. I thought it would be helpful to outline the two different ways that we’ve used to look at the career choices of children in primary school.

Zone of Acceptable Alternatives

The first method we have used is designed to explore what is the range of careers that children would consider doing in the future. This work is built on a theory proposed by Linda Gottfredson
called ‘Circumscription and compromise’ which describes how from a very young age children will limit their possible career choices based on the societal norms and expectations that they see
around them. The diagram below (from Gutman and Akerman (2008) and building on Gottfredson’s work) shows how children’s developmental progress gradually circumscribes the careers that they will consider from even before they start school, and then, once they are in the school system and start to understand some of the requirements of different jobs, they compromise their choices based on attainment and expectations. This leaves the children and young people with a Zone of Acceptable Alternatives: careers that they would be interested in doing, or at least, willing to do.

Description of development of career choices for children

Children’s development of career ideas from Gutman and Akerman, 2008.


To measure young children’s Zone of Acceptable Alternatives, we developed a research game called STEMKAT (STEM Knowledge and Aspirations Tool).  We gave children 30 different job cards and asked them to short the jobs into two piles: those they knew about, and those they didn’t know about.  This gave us a simple measure of how many different jobs each child knew about.  The jobs were chosen to be a broad range with some that children should definitely know about (e.g. teacher, doctor) and some that they might not have come across (e.g. entrepreneur, engineer).  They were also chosen to have a range of qualification requirements and status.

Once each child had their collection of jobs that they knew about, we asked them to re-sort the cards.  This time we asked them to put them into piles of ‘jobs I’d like to do’, ‘jobs I wouldn’t like to do’, and ‘not sure’.  By looking at the ‘jobs I’d like to do’ and ‘not sure’ cards we have a measure of the children’s zone of acceptable alternatives.

What we found:

  • Children in year 3 (age 8) knew about fewer jobs than children in year 5 (age 11)
  • Children in year 5 had smaller zones of acceptable alternatives i.e. they said that they wanted to do fewer of the jobs.
  • Job choices were strongly gendered, even in year 3. Of the STEM jobs on the list, boys tended to prefer jobs in the physical sciences, and girls tended to prefer jobs in the biological sciences.

You can read more about the detailed findings in our open access paper, including the positive effect that the work of NUSTEM in their schools has on children’s zone of acceptable alternatives.

Possible Selves

The second method that we have used to explore children’s career ideas uses a more straightforward method. This time we simply asked children to write down three jobs they would like to do when they are older, and why. This allows us to explore in more detail the range of specific jobs children are considering and how they see their future ‘possible selves’. This method draws on a theory developed by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (1986) who say that “possible selves represent individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming, and thus provide a conceptual link between cognition and motivation.”

Many studies that look at what children would like to do tend to ask about only one possible self or future job (e.g. Drawing the Future, OECD The Future at Five). However, at NUSTEM we felt that it was important to look at the range of possible selves that children could envisage for themselves which is why we asked them to name three jobs they would like to do.

What we found:

  • Career aspirations were generally limited to a small range of options: although there were 81 different types of role mentioned, the top 20 jobs named account for 75% of those roles.
  • Career aspirations are strongly gendered, although there are some shared aspirations: teacher, you-tuber, police officer, and sport person.
  • We can also classify girls aspirations as being more realistic or achievable than boys. The job-market for professional footballers and you-tubers is after all, extremely small, and so the likelihood that a child will achieve success in those fields in also small.
  • Overall boys named a broader range of STEM aspirations than girls (28 vs 17), but that was still a small percentage of the jobs named.

Table showing the top 10 career choices for children

You can read more about this research in our paper presented at an IEEE conference in 2020.

Using these research methods in schools

Our second method is a very simple way of looking at the range of jobs individuals, and classes, are considering. If you are thinking about how to broaden the range of aspirations of your classes, then this would provide a quick way to track changes in aspirations over time. At the beginning of the year (or planned activity) ask the children to write down what they want to do (and why), and then at the end of the year you can ask them to repeat this. Looking at the range of jobs in the class will give a simple measure of the zone of acceptable alternatives, and looking at changes in individual children’s choices will see if there has been a broadening of an individual’s possible selves.

A note of caution: children will have developed their career ideas over a long time, and so short-term interventions may not cause an observable change in their choices. However, NUSTEM work with primary schools has shown that over the long term, sustained career activity can broaden the range of acceptable alternatives that children have.

If you’d like to talk to a member of NUSTEM about using the research methods in your school or college, then please email us nustem@northumbria.ac.uk



Linda Gottfredson (1981) “Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations”. Journal of Counselling psychology, 28(6) 545

Leslie Morrison Gutman, Rodie Akerman (2008) “Determinants of Aspirations”,  Research Report 27, Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning (IoE)

Hazel Markus, Paula Nurius (1986) “Possible Selves” American Psychologist, September 1986, pp 954-969


Teaching Careers in Primary School

Our research at NUSTEM has shown that children have very gendered ideas about what jobs they want to do even before they leave primary school.  We’ve been supporting primary school teachers to include careers-related learning into their teaching.

Last year NUSTEM in collaboration with the NELEP (and funded by the Careers and Enterprise Company) developed online CPD to help more teachers to bring careers into their lessons.

We’ll be running the CPD between October and January.  There are three sessions and after each session teachers will be given an activity to do which helps to embed the learning from the session.

Ideally, we’d like teachers to sign up for all three sessions, although they do stand alone.

The first session is on Wednesday 21st October between 4 – 5.30pm and you can book using the eventbrite link here.

The next sessions are on

Wednesday 25th November, 4 – 5.30pm, Career aspirations in primary school

Wednesday 13th January, 4 – 5.30pm, Employability characteristics and role models.

Each session covers a different aspect of careers-related learning in primary school.

Session 1: Careers Education and Unconscious bias
This session provides an introduction to the gendered nature of subject and career choices that children and young people make, and how unconscious bias can contribute to this. We’ll also explore how to reduce these effects.

Gap task 1: Exploring unconscious bias in primary schools.
Use one, or more, of three analysis and reflection tools that look at different aspects of the school environment: Classroom Interactions Analysis Tool, Literature Analysis Tool, Display Content Analysis Tool

Session 2: Career aspirations in primary school
This session explores NUSTEM research on the career aspirations of children aged between 8 and 11. We’ll talk about the NUSTEM Primary Careers Tool – an online resource to support the inclusion of careers related learning into curriculum planning. The Tool is a database of over 100 different jobs which can be sorted by National Curriculum topic in Science and Maths. We’ll also show you a simple way of adding the job into lessons.

Gap task 2: Planning and teaching using the Primary Careers Tool

Session 3: Employability characteristics and role models
This session considers some of the characteristics that help to make people successful in their chosen careers. We’ll introduce the STEM Person of the Week resource and present findings from research on the use of role models and STEM Person of the Week.

Gap Task 3: Planning and teaching using STEM Person of the Week.

We hope to see you there!

Shortlisted – UK Career Development Awards

Friends of NUSTEM will know that we have been supporting primary teachers with careers in the classroom for many years. It can sometimes feel challenging for teachers to know what careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) might link to the topics that they are teaching.

To help out, NUSTEM developed our Primary Careers Tool. We gathered a database of over 100 jobs in STEM, and then sorted them by National Curriculum Topic. Using the Primary Careers Tool, it takes only a few minutes to add a career into a science lesson and get the children talking about the skills needed for different jobs.

We’re very pleased to announce that the Primary Careers Tool has been shortlisted in the category “Career-Related Learning in Primary Schools” at the UK Career Development Awards, from the Career Development Institute.

The award ceremony is on 11th March, and we’re really excited to meet the other shortlisted organisations and chat about primary schools and careers.

(update 31st Jan: an earlier version of this post noted that the same project was also shortlisted in the category “Use of Technology in Career Development”. This turns out to have been an error on the part of the award organisers, and we have corrected the post accordingly.)

Can parents help ‘nudge’ students into choosing STEM A-levels?

When young people are asked who has provided them with careers advice and guidance, the most common answer is ‘parents and family’, followed by ‘teachers’.

The Behavioural Insights Team (sometimes known as the Nudge Unit) apply behavioural economics and psychology to understand the choices that people make, and help people make sensible choices.  They often run research trials which test out different interventions to see which is the most effective. They have worked with the Department for Education, National Health Service, with HMRC, with local councils, police forces, and many other organisations.

Now the team are looking to see if parents and teachers can help encourage their girls to choose STEM A-levels, and need secondary schools to sign up to be part of the trial.

The two interventions include:

  • Sharing a website with parents that provides information about the usefulness of STEM and guidance on how to talk to their child about A-level subject choices
  • Short classroom based activities targeted at students to overcome the perception that STEM is not ‘for them’

Both of these interventions link closely to what NUSTEM is doing in the North East, so we’re really interested to see the results of the trial.

If your school would like to get involved, there are more details in this pdf, and you can contact Kathryn or Jessica at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Kathryn.Atherton@bi.team  or Jessica.Hunt@bi.team

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Back for its sixth year, the themed week is led by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and involving basically everyone else who’s big in engineering in the country. At NUSTEM we have a packed week of engineering-themed support with our partner schools, including:

  • Team newcomer Mel is out delivering her Systems Engineering workshop with several of our partner primary school. Expect mechanical puzzle-solving and plenty of chasing after marbles.
  • Secondary specialist Antonio is delivering an engineering-themed assembly in several of our partner secondary schools.
  • Our resident digital maker Jonathan is running a Maker Club, and will be at Virgin Money’s STEMtastic day on Thursday – both themed around digital networks, Internet of Things, and … musical robots. Because that’s the way we (rock and) roll.
  • Our sixth-form lecture this Thursday is on the mathematics of fractal geometry: book your place at that link!

If we can’t get to you this week (hey, even we have limits… like, ‘being in two places at once’, we’ve not worked out how to crack that one yet), or the evening lecture doesn’t suit, there are still opportunities to get involved. On Wednesday the central organisation is hosting a live-streamed Big Assembly, with features from a ‘Dynamic Dozen’ of young professional engineers. Or – parents and teachers – explore research published this week which indicates the parents’ guidance to their children tends to emphasise careers which they think will make a positive difference to the world, and that ‘engineering’ is high on that list. Or explore the range of careers ideas and information available at the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week forms part of the Year of Engineering, where you’ll find even more engineering-themed inspiration, background materials, can careers information.

Plan B

As part of the ESH Building my Skills programme each year, NUSTEM staff take part in a mock interview day with students from North East secondary schools. During the day, students have the opportunity to be interviewed once or twice by representatives from local businesses and other organisations.  At NUSTEM we see the interviews as part-practice and part ‘behind the scenes’ to gives students an insight into what they might be asked and why in an interview.

I ask the students to tell me about themselves, and what career they might thinking about.  As part of Building my Skills they will have already done some research into possible sectors of interest to them, so they all have something to say.  There’s always an wide range of detail in their answers; with some young people knowing very clearly what they want to do and why, and others who have only a vague idea.

Regardless of their answer, my follow-on question is:

‘What is your plan B?’

This often throws the students as I suspect they’re not often asked what happens if they’re not successful.

What is most interesting to me is that, in their answers, students will often change the whole direction of what they would like to do for their plan B.  For example, I’ve had students who had been interested in midwifery suggest that their plan B would be ‘something to do with drama’, or who wanted to be a tennis player, but their plan B would be ‘I dunno, maybe history?’.  Very few give suggestions that are in a similar sector to the one they are planning for.

At this point in the interview, I’ll talk about other possibilities that the students could do that is not their first choice, but that is linked to it.  Often I’ll suggest websites or resources that they might like to investigate.  For example, if a student wants to study medicine, but their predicted grades make that look unlikely we’ll talk about what is it about medicine that interests them.  They could study radiography, occupational therapy, Information management and so on.  (Although I do have to admit that if it’s the salary that they find attractive, then the other options aren’t so well paid!)

I would encourage all students (and teachers and parents/carers) to think about their Plan B.  Just in case.

Some useful websites:

Health careers from the NHS – an invaluable website for students that want to work in healthcare, and for their teachers and families to find out the huge range of careers.

This is Engineering from Engineering UK – looking at the opportunities in engineering from a range of different viewpoints e.g. design, space, fashion, sport

National Careers Service website – a government backed website which includes an A-Z description of over 800 different careers.

Leaky pipeline or drip irrigation system

The leaky pipeline is a recurring metaphor in discussions about the gender balance in Science (especially physical sciences), Technology, Engineering and Maths (collectively, ‘STEM’).  Whether the field under discussion is academic or industrial, there is widespread concern about the fact that many of those who start in the field do not stay in the field in the longer term.

Images of a pipeline, with leaks, are regularly produced which show the percentage of women at different stages, and in different disciplines.  Alongside the images are headlines about ‘Plugging the leaks’, ‘Why women leave…’ and ‘Where have all the women gone?’

This is a very negative narrative.  Somehow, the lack of diversity in a range of fields is the fault of the people leaving, and not the fields themselves. If only the women (or people of colour, or low socioeconomic status) realised that they were part of a leaking pipeline, maybe they’d stay and everything would be alright.

The leaky pipeline metaphor implies that leaving the pipeline is wasteful, and a poor choice (on the part of the people in question).  However, is that really the case?

Is the problem with the people or the subject?

In 2006 the Institute of Physics published ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom: a review of the research on girls’ participation in physics‘ and ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom: a teachers guide for action.’  In many ways, this work was focussed on how to make the physics classroom more appealing to girls, and to identify how to teach girls so that they liked physics.

Over time IOP has used analysis of the National Pupil Database to show that there are whole school effects around the take-up of physics by girls and boys.  The report ‘It’s different for girls‘ looked at the differences in Physics uptake as a function of type of school, and ‘Closing doors‘ looked at the gender balance for a range of subjects.

It would seem that uptake of A-level physics (and by extension other STEM subjects) is not a problem for 13-16 year old girls to solve, but rather is mediated by whole school, and even societal, issues.

On a wider scale, I would argue that rather than trying to change girls and make them choose STEM subjects, the onus is on the different STEM industries to change so that girls (and others) want to work there.

Are the people leaving ‘going to waste’?

The implication from many of the articles around the leaky STEM pipeline is that those people that leave the pipeline are wasting their training and their talents. Perhaps, from the point of view of an engineering company, an engineering graduate who becomes a physics or maths teacher is a waste. They have dripped out of the pipeline, and represent a net loss. Maybe, from the point of view of a university, the chemistry graduate who becomes a science communicator, or an MP, is a waste. Every A-level physics student who goes on to study law or music is another physicist lost from the pipeline.

But are they wasted?  Or do they take the ways of thinking and understanding of the world gained from studying STEM (to whatever level), and use them in other fields of knowledge?

Changing the metaphor

What if, instead of thinking in terms of leaking pipelines, we thought about drip irrigation systems?

A drip irrigation system is a series of pipes which direct water and nutrients to plants where they are needed, and then release the water.  In ‘leaking,’ the irrigation system makes its environment better.

Society needs people at all levels and in a range of different disciplines who are comfortable with STEM and see its value, not necessarily working in STEM.  Maybe we should think of the drip irrigation STEM system – improving society as those with STEM training permeate throughout it.

At a recent STEM in Schools conference, Yvonne Baker (STEM Learning) talked about the need to consider a longer game.  Maybe students don’t go into STEM, or maybe they leave STEM to follow another career path.  But, perhaps when their children, or friends’ children talk about wanting to become engineers, physicists or computer programmers, they would encourage those career choices.

Rather than making people feel like they’ve failed if they don’t make it to the bucket at the end of the pipeline, let’s encourage them to irrigate and improve wherever they go to.

Let’s change the metaphor.

Tag Archive for: careers

Bug hotel

Use this simple activity to create a bug hotel which will attract bugs to your garden using materials from your local environment.

The Computer Programmer

Find out what Year 2 children have been doing in the computer programmer workshop in our partner schools.

The Solar Physicist

Wind Turbine Engineering

Recap and extension materials for our wind turbine workshop.

National Careers Week: An inspirational STEM Role Model

National Careers Week is upon us, 7th-11th March 2016! A celebration of careers guidance and a focus for activity across the UK. Be sure to explore the official website for resources, including the free-download 2016 digital magazine.

If you’re looking for a quick case study to inspire your students, here’s a role model who’s current, pushes boundaries, and is positively dripping in STEMness:

Elon Musk. Picked by business magazine Forbes as the 38th most powerful person in the world, Musk is a self-made billionaire. South-African born, Canadian-American, and a physics graduate, he’s made his name as an entrepreneur, building businesses like PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Elon’s back story is just as fascinating as what he is doing now, and as a leading visionary of the tech world, his work is likely to affect the lives of us all.

Messages to take away and reiterate:

Whether your students see themselves as the next Elon Musk or would like to work for someone like him, this presentation should encourage discussion about STEM careers as well as the characteristics and attitude to learning and life that Musk displays. His company SpaceX has a terrific careers page with a load of cool jobs like: commercial director, internship opportunities, propulsion development engineer (making rockets go fast), or software development. Yes, these job opportunities are in America, but if this is the type of company in which you’re interested, why let the Atlantic Ocean stop you in your pursuit of job happiness?

What’s happening in North East England?

Here’s a tiny handful of the most exciting and dynamic companies in our region. Have a look on their careers pages to gain an understanding of the types of jobs they offer, and the people they are looking for…

  • Nomad Digital: A Newcastle based company providing wireless networking for trains, right around the globe.
  • Hitachi Rail Europe: Based in Newton Aycliffe, Hitachi are fitting out trains to be used all over the world.
  • Kromek: Based at Netpark Sedgfield. Kromek develop a range of radiation detection equipment used in the nuclear industry, medical imaging and for security screening.
  • Sanofi – Aventis: a multinational company with a site in Newcastle who manufacture a range of pharmaceutical products for the healthcare industry. (Careers Page)
  • Tharsus: helping other companies develop their products through a team of developers with skills in manufacturing, prototyping and managing


ASE 2016: Slides and Notes

Notes, slides, and additional links for Think Physics’ sessions at the ASE Annual Conference, 2016.

Careers in Space

In the UK, the space sector is growing at an impressive rate.  There are far more jobs than just ‘astronaut’ – but that’s often the only thing that people can think of when we ask them to name some careers involving space.

In 2014, according to the UK Space Agency, there were 34,000 people in the UK who were working in the UK Space Industry – and they’re not all living on the International Space Station!  As well as that, the UK Space Industry supports 72,000 jobs in other sectors.

Here at NUSTEM we have found examples space-related careers.

This Space Careers STEM Session can be used as part of an assembly or lesson about future careers.

We’ve also produced a Space Careers Home Learning worksheet to follow the assembly / lesson.

Teachers notes can be found Teacher Notes and Guidance.


We hope these resources are of value to you. Please do let us know how you have made use of them.


Tag Archive for: careers

Electronics Engineering Technician

Electronics engineering technicians design, build and maintain electrical components. They are very hands-on and enjoy trying out different circuit set ups, and are very good at spotting problems and fixing them so that the components work correctly. Electronics engineering technicians enjoy doing practical work, being organised and helping electronic engineers test their designs.

Attributes: logical, creative, observant

Tag Archive for: careers