Science Capital and the Future Physics Leaders programme

I was recently sat in a Y11 Physics lesson when a student turned to me and asked me what was the point of learning this? I thought this was a good question and I gave the student a few useful answers, but you could see that the student wasn’t convinced. This student was in one of our Future Physics Leaders partner schools, schools in areas of high social-economic deprivation and low social mobility. In these areas employment opportunities are limited and schools face a plethora of challenges, above simply giving students rewarding access to the curriculum. These students are savvy, they need real reasons to engage in something that to them occupies only a small part of their lives, and we need to go beyond answers such as “you have to do this for your GCSEs”, “it’s what employers look for” and “it will help you get a good job”.

Throughout my career I have been asked the same question posed above, and I have refined my answers to be as honest as possible, whilst also being as optimistic as possible. Simply saying that physics is useful is a little disingenuous; I first learned about I-V characteristics over 30 years ago and I can’t say that I have found a use for them in my life! So how can we make physics, and more broadly science, more appealing to all students, but especially those in areas where students face multiple levels of disadvantage? I am sure that many teachers have developed their own suite of techniques but recently I came across a synthesis of ideas and approaches that I believe have the potential to be a game-changer, this is the idea of Science Capital.

This concept has been developed by Professor Louise Archer and her colleagues at University College London. It is akin to the idea of social capital but science related. Importantly it goes beyond the idea of scientific literacy, and extends the concept to see science capital as a pot of skills, attitudes and behaviours which reflects an individual’s exposure to and engagement with scientific ideas and activities. Archer’s model of Science Capital consists of eight dimensions:

  1. Scientific literacy
  2. Science-related attitudes, values and dispositions
  3. Knowledge about the transferability of science
  4. Science media consumption
  5. Participation in out-of-school science learning contexts
  6. Family science skills, knowledge and qualifications
  7. Knowing people in science-related roles
  8. Talking about science in everyday life

As you can see scientific literacy is just one of the dimensions, there is much more to Science Capital. Rather than seeing these additional facets as burdens, I see them as opportunities; these are opportunities to engage students, their families and communities, in science in a way for them to see where science pervades their lives and provides opportunities for their futures.

Whilst it is never too later to introduce this approach into a classroom, the earlier it is done (and maintained) the better. The eight dimensions rely on a set of “pillars” for developing science capital. We should look at beginning by establishing links in the lives of our students that are science-relevant, looking at students’ interests, their life experiences, occupations and interests of those around them, their career ambitions, and also the presence of science and technology in their communities. We then must explicitly value their input and link the curriculum to this, before we can build their science capital across the eight dimensions through practices, activities and opportunities.

A quick example would be using local science resources in the community. I work with schools in the Telford area, and they are close to the museum at RAF Cosford. This provides a wealth of opportunities to engage learners through their schools’ support programmes, the fantastic exhibits and resources; but it also provides ways of engaging families, provoking science talk at home, showing how science can lead to STEM careers, and sign-posting ways to science elsewhere in the community.

Why not think about ways in which you can engage students and their families in science (possibly beyond the curriculum)? Take home projects and fun experiments, directing students to science content on Youtube and elsewhere in the media, looking at STEM careers and embedding science in everyday life (check out “Storm in a Tea Cup” by Helen Czerski for ideas).

This is not asking teachers to do more; it is just suggesting ways of doing things slightly differently. An investment now, in terms of time, thought and effort, could well pay great dividends in the future in terms of engagement, enjoyment and attainment. What’s to lose?

Read more about Science Capital Teaching Approach and download resources (make sure you download the document “The Science Capital Teaching Approach”) here.


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