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Students are more interested in science when lessons highlight its career benefits

15 September 2017

Science teaching should convey the applications of science and the careers that it can lead to in order to increase pupils’ engagement, according to new research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Models of the anatomy of the heart

The study, led by Dr Richard Sheldrake, analysed nationally-representative samples of students in Year 11 in England, surveyed through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006 and in 2015.

It considered students’ experiences of a range of teaching approaches, including the time spent in laboratories doing practical work and allowing students to design their own experiments. It found that when the teaching clearly outlined the relevance of science to students’ lives, students were more interested, more confident, and found science more worthwhile.

Commenting on the study, Dr Sheldrake said: “To meet the demand for more science-related professionals and to address under-representation and promote equity, we need more students studying science-related subjects. While you can’t realistically force someone to study science or become a scientist, you can help to highlight the benefits of science careers and the range of careers that are possible.”

The researchers also warn against placing too much emphasis on practical work. The study found that despite the importance often placed on practical work during science lessons, this only had a small association with students’ interest in science and did not have a consistent association with students’ valuing the benefits of science to their careers.

Dr Sheldrake explained: “Scientists work in many different areas and in many different ways, not just in a laboratory. It’s important not to inadvertently perpetuate a discouraging image of who scientists are and what they do.

“Research from Professor Louise Archer and other colleagues here at the IOE has found that girls who strongly aspired towards physics often preferred the theoretical elements and ‘big ideas’ of physics, rather than the practical work. Questioning our underlying assumptions about what motivates students might help us to address differences in the numbers of students aspiring towards science.”

Unlike previous research using PISA data, which has concentrated on the relative rankings of different countries, this study used extensive analysis to consider students’ achievement, attitudes towards science, and also their aspirations towards science careers.

The researchers found that students’ science aspirations were most strongly associated with their ability to recognise how science could complement their skills and benefit their future careers. This ‘utility’ value of science was most strongly associated with the pupils’ home and extra-curricular engagement with the subject, and with teaching that conveyed the applications and relevance of science to their lives.

These new findings both extend and reinforce the researchers’ earlier studies into understanding students’ science choices. Dr Tamjid Mujtaba and Professor Michael Reiss have previously highlighted the importance of support, encouragement and teaching in influencing pupils’ perception of science. Dr Sheldrake’s previous research has emphasised the importance of pupils’ ‘utility’ value of science, their confidence, and the value that science brings to their identities.

Media contact

Rowan Walker
Tel: 0203 108 8515
Email: james.russell@ucl.ac.uk

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