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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.

https://northumbria.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/attributes-of-stem-professionals

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

 

References:

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

 

Theory of Change paper published

You might have noticed common threads appearing through our work over the last few years. Behind the scenes, we’ve been working towards the development of an overall theory of change to guide our projects and delivery. Increasingly – as you’ll know if you work with us directly – we’ve been talking about it too. You might even have seen diagrams, which we’ve waved around or shown on too-small-to-read slides.

Finally – at last! — our Theory of Change has been published, as a proper peer-reviewed paper. Hurray!

You can access the paper from this page – it’s free to download, via the link in the upper-right corner of that page.

Nuffield Research Placements

Kate in Antarctica!

Kate’s made it to the Princess Elisabeth Research Station, which (if you ask us) looks more like the villain’s lair in the next Bond film than anything so straightforward as a research base. Wait… are we sure Kate isn’t plotting world domination?

Here’s Kate’s update:

Merry Christmas from the Princess Elisabeth Research Station in East Antarctica!           

Did you have a white Christmas in the UK? At 71 degrees south, you always get a bright, white Christmas. The sun circles the sky during the Antarctic summer so it is always bright and sunny – which is strange when you wake up on Christmas morning! Today, we have really good weather, it is -8°C and the wind is blowing at 10 knots so it is not too cold. You can see the kind of weather that I am experiencing at this weather report site. 

As the weather is so good, and our time here is short, everyone on the base went to work today. The research station is expanding, so there are lots of people building new walls, putting in new electrics, maintaining the plumbing system and checking that the wind turbines (which produce most of the station’s electricity) are working. There are four scientists on the base at the moment – me, my field assistant James Linighan and two geologists from Turkey. One geologist wants to date the rocks on the mountains (using a technique called cosmogenic nuclide dating – you can google it if you want to know more!) to see if the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was thicker in the past, and the other geologist is searching for meterorites. Antarctica is a great place to find meteorites because their dark, shiny form stands out on the blue ice and white snow. There are more scientists working close to the coast, where they will camp on the ice for over a month. They are drilling through the ice, to collect ice cores to learn about the past climate.

James and I have been scanning the mountains that stick up above the ice (called nunataks) with a drone. When we come back next year, we will do the same tests, to see if the rocks on the mountain have moved over the space of a year. We expect the rocks to move downhill a little. Over many years, these rocks will roll and fall onto the ice, where glaciers (like big, frozen rivers) will transport them to the sea. We have already collected some rock samples from nearby mountains and from the ice sheet, so that we can see what’s inside the rocks (like minerals) when we get back to the laboratory at Northumbria University. That will tell us if these rocks can help to feed plankton in the Southern Ocean.

 

Kate in Cape Town

Our intrepid geologist Kate has made it about as far South as is remotely reasonable to go, to Cape Town in South Africa. Of course, that’s not nearly remote enough for her, and is merely a staging point on her epic journey to Antarctica. Here’s her update:

My field assistant James Linighan (a Master of Science student at Newcastle University) and I checked in 6 bags at Newcastle Airport on Friday the 14th of December for our flight to Cape Town in South Africa. We arrived (thankfully with all our bags intact) and stepped out into the 25°C heat of the South African summer. It’s quite a shock after the cold we’ve been experiencing in Newcastle, but it will be even more of a shock when we arrive in Antarctica on the 18th of December.

While we wait for our flight we have time to sort out our equipment, listen to safety briefings and even lie by the pool at our hotel. Today, we took a cable car up Table Mountain. It’s very famous and the views were spectacular! Cape Town is a very large city with a population of 433,000. You can see most of the city in this photograph. We also collected some of our more extreme polar clothing at The International Polar Foundation’s clothing store. It’s a fabulous warehouse, where you can borrow anything and everything you need to keep you comfortable and warm in Antarctica. I picked up some winter boots, a down jacket, salopettes, goggles, mittens and some mid-layers to keep me all wrapped up and cosy.

Our Antarctic flight leaves tomorrow so as we are all packed and ready to go. I think I will just sit and relax by the hotel pool for a few more hours…

By now Kate should have made it from Cape Town all the way to her destination, but we know she’s going to struggle for an internet connection. With luck she’ll be able to sneak out further updates and maybe even the odd picture or two. We’ll post updates whenever we can, and you can catch up on all things Kate at her page here.

Meanwhile: a very Merry Christmas from us all at NUSTEM. We’ll be back in the new year, rested and ready for another term of shenanigans.

Kate’s heading to Antarctica!

Long-term NUSTEM partners will recognise Dr. Kate Winter’s name as our sometime admin assistant, and might even have wondered where she’s disappeared to in recent months. Well, we have news: we found her.

In Antarctica.

It’s a bit more planned than that. Kate’s returned to geology research, won herself a big support grant, and is heading out to Antarctica for two successive summers – which means, upside-down world and all, that she flies out any day now.

We’ve started a page of information about Kate’s trip and her research. Fingers crossed she’ll manage to get some updates to us while she’s living out on the ice, and maybe even a picture or two: we’ll post updates!

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

Study with us! PhD Studentship available

Think Physics’ host institution Northumbria University has a PhD studentship available. Here’s the title:

Impact of Academic Research through Northumbria’s STEM outreach activities on the uptake of STEM disciplines by young people

I know, right? Snappy.

Importantly: there’s a full stipend available for this PhD, for three years at RCUK rates and fees.

There’s a full description of the project on offer at Find a PhD.com, and you can apply through that site too. At the time of writing this post the application deadline appears to be rather soon; that will be extended to later in July, so you’ve time to think it through.

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