The socially just physics classroom

Professor Louise Archer and Emma Watson from the Aspires 3 project write about the latest findings

In recent years, you may have heard the term science capital being used and you may even have a vague idea of what it means. But what can you do to support and build the science capital of your students?

Our team of researchers are investigating the science and career aspirations of 10 to 23 year-olds in the ASPIRES longitudinal research study. This work led to us coining the term ‘science capital’ and we are working through a range of projects to translate the findings of our research into day-to-day teaching practices that can support inclusive, socially-just science teaching to engage all students. 

Science capital can be thought of as a conceptual holdall that encompasses all of a person’s science-related knowledge, attitudes, interests, participation (outside of school), and their science-related social contacts and networks. Together, they produce an individual’s sense of science being ‘for me’ - or not. Evidence shows that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to, and continue with, science post-16 and the greater the likelihood that they will identify as a ‘science person’.

Earlier this year, we published the report from the second phase of the ASPIRES study. In it we discuss our findings including how the factors shaping a young person’s science identity, aspirations and progression are complex and multiple.

The infographic shows three key areas:

  • Capital-related inequalities include the impact that science capital has on the extent to which a young person experiences science as being ‘for me’, or not. Associations of science, but particularly physics, with ‘cleverness’ and masculinity have also been found to restrict and narrow the likelihood of a young person identifying and continuing with science post-16. These impact especially on girls and other students from communities that are traditionally under-represented in physics.
  • Educational factors and practices, such as schools, teachers, careers education and gatekeeping (e.g. restrictive entry to the most prestigious science routes) also have a big impact on young people’s science identity and trajectories. Our research shows that these practices are particularly prevalent in physics. 
  • Dominant educational and social representations of science - some barriers are much harder to reduce or remove than others. Eliminating the association of physics with “cleverness” and masculinity will require a societal overhaul, but teachers can start to change young people’s preconceptions. Actively challenge stereotypical ideas such as, you need a “physics brain” or to be “naturally clever” to do well in physics, and that physics is more difficult than other subjects.

Creating a ‘socially-just classroom’ where all students feel they want to engage with science lessons can reduce some barriers. Our wider work, conducted in primary and secondary schools in partnership with teachers, has developed the Science Capital Teaching Approach. 

After just one year of implementing the approach, we saw growth in student science capital, improved attitudes to science, and increased aspirations to study science at A level, when compared to control groups. Students and teachers also reported wider participation and engagement in classes. One teacher said, “I think there’s more student engagement … especially by students who don’t normally contribute in lessons.”

Our work is ongoing, but we already have a wide range of articles and resources to share. If you’d like to download the ASPIRES reports,
teaching approach or find out more about our research, please get in touch with us!

Follow the project on Twitter @ASPIRESscience or email aspires@ucl.ac.uk to find out more.

ASPIRES is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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